In the Shadow of Sandy Hook, a Powerful Pro-Gun Organization Keeps Silent

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Eric Thayer / Reuters

A woman places flowers at a memorial for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 15, 2012

In the wake of the devastating shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which left 20 children and seven adults dead, including the shooter, guns have become a focus in a state that’s usually far from the glare of the broader gun-control debate. When one thinks of Connecticut — a firmly liberal state — it’s a safe bet that firearms aren’t the first things that come to mind. While other states have bigger gun-toting reputations (remember when Texas Governor Rick Perry shot a coyote while jogging?), the Nutmeg State’s relationship with guns is more subdued — though no less profound.

As one of early America’s industrial centers, Connecticut was a hotbed of weapons manufacturing — so much so that it was referred to in the 19th century as the Arsenal of America. In 1851, Samuel Colt, inventor of the revolver, built a factory on a parcel of land on the banks of the Connecticut River near Hartford. The legendary saying attached to Colt was “Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam Colt made them equal.”

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Colt’s revolver allowed the shooter to fire multiple rounds without reloading, which played a major role in the Indian Wars of the late 19th century on the American frontier. At the Colt factory in Hartford, the company made the M-16s used in Vietnam and continues to manufacture the M-4 carbines carried by troops in today’s military.

While firearms manufacturing is a big business in Connecticut, until this week, the politics of guns did not appear to be a central state issue. Democratic Governor Dan Malloy earned the endorsement of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, largely due to his efforts to crack down on illegal weapons as mayor of Stamford. The Brady Campaign is an organization that has often been at odds with the National Rifle Association, one of the most powerful pro-gun organizations in the country.

A lesser-known, yet perhaps equally powerful pro-gun institution not only has its headquarters in Connecticut, but is located just a couple of miles from Sandy Hook Elementary. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) is a trade organization that consists of “more than 7,000 manufacturers, distributors, firearms retailers, shooting ranges, sportsmen’s organizations and publishers,” according to the organization’s website. The NSSF has not commented on the shooting literally just down the road from its headquarters, other than a small post on their website that reads:

“Our hearts go out to the families of the victims of this horrible tragedy in our community.

“Out of respect for the families, the community and the ongoing police investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment or participate in media requests at this time.”

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The NSSF helps write firearms-safety-and-instruction standards and promotes shooting sports, such as hunting, skeet and trap, and target shooting. But the organization is also a powerful lobby that advocates for specific positions on gun-control issues. They have faced off against New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempts to crack down on guns in New York City, have made the case that banning high-capacity magazines is an ineffective policy and have published fact sheets arguing that the term assault weapon is an erroneous term for a semiautomatic modern sporting rifle.

“The term assault weapon was conjured up by anti-gun legislators to scare voters into thinking these firearms are something out of a horror movie,” the NSSF wrote in its fact sheet. “In fact, the Colt AR-15 and Springfield M1A, both labeled ‘assault weapons,’ are the rifles most often used for marksmanship competitions in the United States. And their cartridges are standard hunting calibers, useful for game up to and including deer.”

According to the medical examiner’s report, the main gun used by Adam Lanza, the suspected shooter, was a .223 caliber Bushmaster, a carbine similar to Colt’s AR-15 and M-4. The .223 caliber (5.56 mm) round is the same size as that used by troops in combat, and according to Bushmaster’s fact sheet, the muzzle velocity for the rifle is 2,200 ft. per sec. — that’s 700 ft. per sec. slower than the 2,900-ft.-per-sec. muzzle velocity of the military version, which is based on Colt figures from 2003.

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Judging by the initial reports, the bullets that tore through the tiny bodies of Sandy Hook’s victims were the same size as those used by troops in Afghanistan to battle insurgents, traveling at a slower, but still powerful speed.

Neither the NSSF’s proximity to this horrific tragedy nor their advocacy for safe shooting sports means that the organization should be blamed for the violence in Sandy Hook. But each and every tragedy is also an opportunity to begin a dialogue about the role of guns in American society. After last summer’s shooting in Aurora, Colo., the NSSF wrote: “Instead of focusing on the main problem, the actions of a mentally disturbed person, the focus has once again shifted to legislating law-abiding citizens who use firearms for legitimate purposes. The tragedy in Colorado is not about firearms, ammunition or magazines. It’s about the act of a mad man and gaining access to firearms. We abhor the criminal misuse of firearms.” Following a tragedy in their own community, once an appropriate time has passed, perhaps the NSSF will lead a discussion of how to prevent mad men from gaining access to firearms in the future.

MORE: A Town of Broken Hearts: How Newtown Residents Cope with Grief

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