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Mourners pay their respects to the victims of the Sandy Hook School shooting outside an interfaith vigil in Newtown, Connecticut Sunday, December 16, 2012. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Mourners pay their respects to the victims of the Sandy Hook School shooting outside an interfaith vigil in Newtown, Connecticut Sunday, December 16, 2012. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Local official laments Newtown’s love affair with guns Add to ...

Lieutenant Jim Perez hates to say it, but he thought his region’s troubling relationship with guns might come to this.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m a cop, I’m a shooter, I love guns,” said the veteran officer from Fairfield, Conn., outside the funeral for yet another young life erased during Friday’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. “But I am astounded at the proliferation of guns around here.”

Lt. Perez doesn’t have any numbers or stats, but nationwide figures support his assertions. More than 16.8 million applications for new gun purchases have been made so far this year in the United States, a new record. The lieutenant would rather go by what he has seen and what’s been heard at town-council meetings, where any push to stiffen gun ordinances attracts packed committee rooms of second-amendment defenders.

He now firmly believes that a household arms build-up in this largely rural region of Connecticut is partly responsible for the second-worst school massacre in U.S. history.

“It’s rare these days that we go into a house for domestic assault or something and we don’t find three or four guns,” he said. “Not too long ago we entered a house and found eighteen long guns. Who needs eighteen long guns? And that’s not to mention all the handguns.”

Many students in this grief-shattered town returned to school Tuesday, as the investigation into Friday’s school shooting continued and more of the victims were buried. Sandy Hook Elementary, the scene of the killings, may never reopen.

Hearse after hearse wove through crowded streets, often crossing paths with massive moving trucks transplanting the contents of Sandy Hook to a vacant school building in nearby Monroe. The St. Rose of Lima Church held back-to-back funerals for six-year-olds James Mattioli and Jessica Rekos on Tuesday. At least four more will follow at this church in the days to come.

Lt. Perez’s local observations put him squarely in the middle of a national debate over the availability of guns, as rifle-toting congressmen and national retailers alike rethink their unquestioning embrace of firearms.

“I may not have said this a few years ago, but this incident in Newtown was a game-changer: We need gun control in this country,” Lt. Perez said. “To see all these small caskets, how can you say that military-grade weapons belong in civilian hands?”

And yet not everyone is convinced that the region – or the country – needs to change its approach toward firearms.

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” said Richard Dravis, a prominent National Rifle Association trainer in the Newtown area.

Mr. Dravis has taught hundreds of locals how to shoot safely, but can’t remember ever seeing the shooter, Adam Lanza, or his gun-enthusiast mother at any of the local ranges. She owned at least five guns, including the military-grade Bushmaster AR-15 that Mr. Lanza used to kill his victims.

Mr. Dravis’s resistance to firearm restrictions reflects a local enthusiasm for weaponry that has caused repeated problems in the past.

In 2010, Newtown Police helped admit a man with advanced dementia to a local hospital where he shot a nurse three times using a concealed handgun. The nurse, Andrew Hull, sued the police force this year for inadequately searching the man before releasing him to health-workers, according to a March story in the Newtown Bee.

For much of the year, second-amendment defenders have been packing town-council committee rooms to fight a proposed ordinance that would restrict backyard target shooting, a round-the-clock hobby that has become the subject of persistent noise complaints. The ordinance would restrict recreational target practice to police-approved ranges.

The police chief, who endorsed the measure, complained during debates that one resident had been using military-grade weapons to detonate propane tanks in his backyard.

Despite the chief’s concerns, 60 residents packed one meeting, according to the Newtown Bee, with just one of them speaking in favour of the ordinance, which has yet to pass.

“There was certainly considerable opposition to it,” said Newtown Police Commission Chairman Paul Mangiafico. “This has nothing to do with what happened on Friday. It’s very premature to be having this conversation. We haven’t even buried these children yet.”

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