Dean Price thought about keeping the shooting range he operates outside Newtown, Connecticut, closed the day after 20 children and six adults were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“We considered it,” said Price, the 58-year-old head of the Danbury Shooting Sports Association, who has run the range in the Wooster Mountain State Park for 19 years. “I wasn’t so sure people wanted to hear gunfire today.”
Yet on Dec. 15 the gates on the dirt road to the Wooster Mountain Shooting Range were open and almost 40 men and women were at the edge of an open field firing handguns and rifles, aiming at targets hung from frames, as well as bowling pins scattered in the dirt at the bottom of an imposing hillside.
While Connecticut has one of the lowest rates of U.S. gun ownership at less than 20 percent of the population, demand has been on the upswing since 2007, when burglars invaded a doctor’s home in Cheshire, sexually assaulting and killing his wife and two daughters, according to Robert Crook, executive director of Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen. The lobbying group, based in Hartford, estimates that pistol permits have increased to 170,000 from 145,000 in five years.
The state has been central to the firearms industry for more than 200 years, with companies such as West Hartford’s Colt Defense LLC, whose founder, Samuel Colt, invented the revolver in 1836. The National Shooting Sports Federation, a manufacturers group, is even based in Newtown. The federation, formed in 1961 and representing more than 3,000 U.S. companies and organizations, had two guards in its parking lot Dec. 15 asking people to leave.
Jake McGuigan, its director of government relations, told state lawmakers last year that the firearms industry has a $1.3 billion impact on Connecticut, including 5,400 jobs and $81 million in tax revenue.
Sturm, Ruger & Co. of Southport was founded in 1949, according to its website. Today, it produces “hundreds of thousands of firearms each year for hunting, target shooting, collecting, self-defense, law enforcement, and government agencies,” the website says.
Mossberg & Sons Inc. in North Haven manufactures shotguns and rifles. “The shooting sports have been an American tradition for generations,” the company says on its website.
Yet the state that makes so many guns also has some of the most restrictive laws in the U.S., including an assault-weapons ban. Connecticut ranks fifth among states with the strictest gun laws, according to a 2011 scorecard from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a Washington group that claims to be the country’s largest gun-control lobby.
More than 35 automatic and semi-automatic weapons are prohibited. The Bushmaster .223 semi-automatic rifle, which is modeled after the military’s M-16 and was what authorities say 20-year-old Adam Lanza used at Sandy Hook, isn’t among the proscribed guns listed on the state’s website.
Connecticut residents who aren’t in a police force or the military need a hunting license or pistol permit to buy a weapon, Crook said in a telephone interview. They need to be 21 to get a pistol permit, he said.
The state’s industry has beaten back attempts to add regulations in the past three years.
“I think the gun owners of Connecticut are more than satisfied with the gun laws as they are now,” Crook said.
Crook said he expects lawmakers to revive legislation to limit the capacity of ammunition magazines to 10 bullets.
Similar proposals set off protests by gun enthusiasts last year after Jared Lee Loughner killed six people in Tuscon, Arizona, as he attempted to assassinate former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. In 2009, the industry helped kill a bill to force the state’s manufacturers to engrave a microscopic marking in their weapons to improve traceability.
Authorities are tracing guns found at Lanza’s mother’s home and the school, said Ginger Colbrun, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Bureau agents pored through records at the Wooster Mountain Shooting Range after reports that the Lanzas practiced shooting near Newtown, according to Price. He said there are no records showing they ever went there.
“We have more than enough gun laws,” Price said as shots echoed against the mountain outside Newtown. “Their resources would be better spent on education, on how to prevent someone like that from doing something like that again.”