Flyers for the National Rifle Association are stacked neatly by the entrance. Above, a sign on the industrial-gray wall reads, “Here is my Gun Permit: United States of America, The Second Amendment, issued 12/15/1791, NEVER EXPIRES.”
I’m disoriented. I’ve never been to a gun range before, nor have I held a gun. The woman at the counter knows my type already: first-timer, curious what it feels like to have a finger on the trigger. I approach her.
What kind of targets? Which gun? I haven’t the slightest idea how to answer. Whatever is recommended.
I decided to go to the gun range because I knew that I could only begin to understand the pro-gun community by first shooting a gun myself. Why do so many in Connecticut passionately defend their right to open-carry? Is shooting a gun inherently a political experience?
I pay for the rental and the service charge and sign a few papers. And just five minutes after I open the front door, I am holding a .22 caliber semi-automatic rifle.
December marks four years since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the horrific day when twenty children and six teachers were murdered in five minutes.
Connecticut lawmakers reacted swiftly. In April 2013, Governor Dannel Malloy signed one of the toughest gun control laws in the country, banning the sale of high capacity magazines, several types of assault rifles, and armor piercing bullets. The law also required universal background checks. Gun control advocates heralded Connecticut as a success story.
Since then, Connecticut’s representatives – most notably Senator Chris Murphy – have led a national push for gun control measures. Murphy, a former representative of the district that includes Newtown, caught the nation’s attention with his fifteen-hour filibuster on the Senate floor after the Orlando nightclub shooting. Murphy ended his filibuster by showing a picture of Dylan Hockley, one of the children slain at Sandy Hook.
Connecticut’s well-known gun control measures, however, do not fully represent the diverse views on guns within the state. To separate the national view of Connecticut’s gun culture from the local truth, I spoke with three people involved in the state’s 2013 gun law.
“It’s an impulse card really, but the legislature wanted to take advantage of that moment, which was a horrible occasion, but since it was before us, some people wanted to go much further. That’s a legitimate argument to me,” said State Rep. Patricia Dillon (D-92), assistant majority whip of the Connecticut House of Representatives.
Dillon and the rest of her caucus were working against not only resistance from state Republicans, but also against time: Sales of assault rifles surged as a potential ban loomed. Passing the bill quickly would keep high-powered weapons out of people’s hands. Despite the best efforts of her colleagues, Dillon feels that sections of the bill were insufficient, especially on budgeting for mental health reform.
“There’s another argument that the law shouldn’t get too far ahead of the public sentiment, or you end up driving it back. That certainly played out,” she said.
In this case, keeping pace with public sentiment meant avoiding conflict with Connecticut’s pro-gun voters. The often conciliatory relationship that the legislature maintains with this vocal constituency has left a major loophole according to most gun control advocates: open carry.
“People are shocked to learn that this is allowed in Connecticut,” said Ron Pinciaro.
Pinciaro is the Executive Director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence (CAGV), the most powerful gun control group in the state. His organization successfully lobbied to fast-track the 2013 bill through a special task force run by the Speaker’s office. Since its passage, Pinciaro has redirected CAGV’s focus towards reforming open carry laws, including its most dangerous loophole.
“Although the permit holder is required to have the permit on their person at all times, the police are not authorized to require the person to show their permit,” Pinciaro said.
The only time police can demand to see a permit is if the individual is under direct suspicion of a crime. As it stands, anyone can openly carry a firearm in public without fear of questioning, whether or not they have a permit for it.
Open carry is certain to appear in the 2017 legislative session. Pinciaro and CAGV will likely work in constant opposition to their greatest opponent from the 2013 fight, the Connecticut Citizens Defense League (CCDL).
The CCDL, boasting over twenty thousand members across the state, has fiercely contested every move toward gun control, fearing what they call “creeping incrementalism.” After the passage of the 2013 law, the CCDL immediately filed a lawsuit that almost appeared before Supreme Court. Two days after they submitted their petition, Justice Antonin Scalia passed away, effectively ending their chance at a hearing.
Scott Wilson, president of the CCDL, said that gun control has never prevented an act of crime from happening. If anything motivates a member of the CCDL, it is distrust of government.
“Generally I think that people like to know that they have the ability to protect themselves – they instinctively know that the police aren’t going to be everywhere to protect you. Evil will always find a way to kill people,” he said.
Gun control for Wilson isn’t just about making access to guns more difficult – it is a threat to security. His suggestion to reduce gun violence?
“Roll back restrictions in large venues where many people gather – they’re essentially disarmed and like a big bowl of victims waiting to be slaughtered.”
Back at the range, I am told instructions quickly. Put the gun on safety. Load the magazine— only around seven rounds, or it jams. Always point down-range. I’m wondering, while awkwardly putting the now loaded gun to my shoulder, how anyone could find this pleasurable. The noise, the cold metal, the residual grease of the bullets – none of it is particularly appealing. And then I fire.
A slight jerk, and a small rip appears in the white paper of my target. The sensation – a quick jolt of energy – clues me into what draws so many to this range. Firing a gun is an expression of power. With this gun in my hands, I have the ability to make a statement, to declare my autonomy with noise and lead. This power means the capacity to protect myself, even if no threat exists. I am starting to understand the people whose motivations I set out to uncover. Gun control is seen as a direct threat to this feeling of power. For many, it feels like disenfranchisement. I take out the magazine and reload.
The question still remains. Why, in Connecticut of all places, is there such a stark divide on this issue? Splitting the two sides of the gun control fight is the divide between urban and rural communities. The legislators most fiercely in opposition to gun control are typically Republican, representing voters from mostly rural towns. While this split is common to many states, Connecticut’s gun rights community is further emboldened by the state’s rich history of weapons manufacturing.
The history of the gun industry in the United States begins and ends with Connecticut. In 1798, Connecticut native Eli Whitney, better known for the invention of the cotton gin, established a weapons factory near New Haven to build muskets for the United States military. Whitney began a flood of arms manufacturing in the state by popularizing the concept of interchangeable parts. In 1855, Colt Manufacturing was established in West Hartford. By 1900, Smith and Wesson, Winchester Repeating Arms, and the Sharps Rifle Company all had factories in Connecticut.
Connecticut’s gun manufacturers have become deeply political and often act as leaders of the pro-gun movement. When the State Assembly was holding public hearings on the gun-control bill after Sandy Hook, Colt gave its employees time off to protest in Hartford and provided them with transportation. More than 500 Colt factory employees rallied outside the state capitol on March 14, 2013. They held signs that read, “Save Our Jobs.”
For them, guns are not just tools for recreation, hunting, and self-defense – they are their livelihood. But Colt, for example, has suffered a period of decline. In 2013, it lost its contract with the United States military. Two years later, after almost two centuries of business, Colt filed for bankruptcy. The people who have for generations built their careers around gun manufacturing have since aligned themselves with the gun rights movement. Even in a state so rife with contradictions, one principle still stands: the personal is political.
The gun clicks— I’m out of rounds. My rifle, which at first felt bulky and awkward in my hands, has since become familiar, almost an extension of my person. When I hand back the rifle to the woman at the counter, I feel relieved, but for the first time, my empty hands make me feel vulnerable.
As I leave the range, I can think only of the politics of power. The divide between both sides of the gun issue represents not only differing policy suggestions, but also disparate conceptions of what a gun is.
For one group, firearms conjure images of violence. For the other, guns represent freedom and power. With the passage of new gun control measures, the division will likely grow greater. The only thing seemingly uniting these two sides is fear— fear of violence, disempowerment, and that the other side may succeed.