NEWTOWN, Conn. -- Before Friday, Newtown, Conn., was known as the headquarters of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Now it is known as the site of an unthinkable massacre of 20 young schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the adults who tried heroically to protect them. It is also the latest, and perhaps the most significant, flash point in the nation's long-running debate over fiercely defended gun rights and the need for limits to curb the wanton violence their misuse can wreak.
Unlike shootings at Columbine or Virginia Tech or the theater in Aurora, Colo., what happened in Newtown may well represent a turning point for action because most of the victims were so young: 6 and 7 years old.
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"Can we honestly say we are doing enough to keep our children safe?'' President Obama said to mourners in Newtown on Sunday night. "We can't accept events like this as routine. ... Are we prepared to say such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?"
Even before Obama spoke, a consensus appeared to be growing that a new look at gun controls, even in the face of political and social opposition, was forming in a nation shocked by senseless violence.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said on CBS' Face the Nation that the shooting is a "tipping point ... where we might actually get something done" because the victims were innocent children. He favors reinstating the assault weapons ban, limiting the size of ammunition clips and restricting those with mental illness from getting guns.
It created "such a sense of sadness and loss, shock and horror," said Sanjay Nath, director of the Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology at Widener University.
The actions being talked about are not new:
*Fresh attempts to ban assault weapons.
*Changes to the mental health system to help identify and prevent those with violent inclinations from acting.
*Further attempts to beef up school security.
Some draw parallels to the 1996 shooting in Dunblane, Scotland, in which a 43-year-old man killed 16 kindergartners and their teacher in an elementary school, then killed himself. That shooting led to an official government inquiry and eventually to laws that effectively banned private ownership of handguns in the United Kingdom.
Even so, moves to restrict guns further will face powerful opposition in a country where nearly half of Americans have guns in their homes. The National Rifle Association, largely silent over the weekend, is not likely to abide anything that gun control advocates such as Schumer prescribe.
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Gun rights defenders see a very different solution. "Every mass killing of more than three people in recent history has been in a place where guns were prohibited, except for one," said Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas. Allowing more people to carry weapons, such as the Sandy Hook school's principal, who was among the 26 killed in the school, would help, he said.
Gun rights advocates can point out that Connecticut has some of the nation's toughest gun laws. That did not deter Adam Lanza, 20, described as a troubled loner, from taking his mother's guns, killing her, then 20 children and six of their teachers before taking his own life.
Much is yet to be known about the shooter and his motive. Mental health organizations cautioned against drawing too many conclusions, too quickly. Connecticut state police said Sunday they had retrieved a lot of evidence, but they disclosed few details.
"There is no indication that mental illness was a factor in the tragedy," the National Alliance on Mental Illness said in a statement. "It is important to not make assumptions or speculate in such cases. The overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small."
Such cautionary notes did not prevent some from saying the shooting should be a wake-up call to shore up a weakening mental health system.
Easy access to guns, lack of services for the mentally ill and civil commitment laws that make it difficult to institutionalize dangerous patients have created a "perfect storm," said Liza Gold, a forensic psychiatrist at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington.
Echoing others in the mental health community, she said mental health services have been cut in communities across the country, and a shortage of psychiatric hospitals forces many patients to wait months for care. If patients refuse treatment, state laws often make it impossible to force them into care, even when patients with a violent history make direct threats, Gold said.
Because of closures of mental health facilities and other cutbacks, the public health system has 4,000 fewer beds for psychiatric patients than it did four to five years ago, says Ron Honberg of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
If the shooting "doesn't move the people who have the ability to make some changes in the mental health laws and gun laws," Gold said, "then it really will be just another tragedy."
Guns become more lethal
U.S. history began with muzzle-loading Minutemen shouldering arms against the British. Friday, defenseless children were shot multiple times by an assault weapon that could have wiped out entire units of the Revolutionary Army.
Despite the increased lethal power of firearms, Americans have been trending away from more gun laws, both in their attitudes and in lawmaking. Guns were overwhelmed by economic concerns in the 2012 presidential election.
Prescriptions were offered Sunday by governors, members of Congress, Democrats, Republicans, gun control advocates and gun rights defenders.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she would reintroduce the assault-weapons ban when Congress begins in January. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., pledged hearings. Retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., called for a national commission to look into gun laws, mental health and violence in entertainment.
Governors whose states have been targets of violence chimed in. Connecticut's Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy said he questioned "whether assault weapons should be allowed to be distributed the way they are."
Colorado's Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, whose state endured a mass killing at an Aurora theater last summer, endorsed limits on high-capacity magazines and expanded background checks for gun buyers.
Such proposals will find stiff resistance. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives is not likely to go along with any severe curtailment of gun ownership.
Even proponents of gun control don't expect quick action at the state or national level. They say they want a revitalized dialogue about the issue after nearly two decades of reduced interest, followed by a comprehensive approach to the problem. "We want to convene a national conversation and depoliticize this whole thing," says Brian Malte, director of network mobilization at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Among the group's top goals: requiring criminal background checks for the 40% of guns sold without checks at gun shows, flea markets, private sales or online, and getting all mental health records into the national instant-check database.
Safety is being re-evaluated by schools around the country. Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., said that after the Columbine massacre, many schools made their campuses safer, from restricting exit and entry points, to posting armed guards, to having crisis management and safety plans in place.
Police said Lanza forced his way into Sandy Hook, which had been locked. That illustrates, Stephens said, why it may be impossible to stop all threats. "We are in a country that embraces autonomy, embraces freedom, and with that freedom does come great responsibility. Trying to stop every potential bad thing that could ever happen to everyone, there is simply in my view not the resources or the capacity to manage and control all those things that go on in people's minds," he said.
A tearful President Obama, criticized by gun control advocates for doing too little, called for "meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."
Gun control groups pushed for online donations and coordinated e-mail campaigns over the weekend.
One e-mail sent from multiple accounts read, "This time is different. Children mowed down with automatic weapons. "
Obama spoke at a vigil in Connecticut Sunday night. In these moments, Obama becomes consoler in chief. But he also is at the epicenter of renewed political debate.
Obama has been given failing grades by both the NRA and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The NRA campaigned against him in the fall, contending that Obama was "coming for our guns."
The Brady group rated him an "F," citing his support for a law that lets people carry concealed weapons in national parks and in checked luggage on Amtrak trains, as well as his "lack of leadership for common-sense gun laws."
Pressure from the left increased over the weekend. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who favors bans on assault weapons, told NBC's Meet the Press Sunday that Obama's "job is not
to just be well meaning. His job is to perform and protect the American public."
Trend away from restriction
The trend in state and federal gun laws has been more lenient toward ownership and use in in recent years.
In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, Congress passed, then President George W. Bush signed a law that incorporated into the federal database the names of more than 2 million people, including the mentally ill and felons, who are ineligible to buy firearms. Its primary sponsor, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y, said Sunday that the courts do not have enough money to readily place offenders or people declared mentally ill in the database.
A day before the Connecticut shooting, Michigan lawmakers passed legislation that would allow gun owners with concealed pistol licenses to carry guns into schools and other previously forbidden places.
The month before, a new law in Oklahoma allowed anyone licensed to carry concealed weapons to carry them openly in a belt or shoulder holster.
In 2011, 18 states introduced legislation that would allow concealed-carry weapons on college campuses. Two passed, in Mississippi and Wisconsin, joining Colorado, Oregon and Utah as states that allow it. This year, 16 states introduced similar legislation.
Only three states introduced legislation this year that would prohibit concealed-carry weapons on campus; all of them failed.
The string of recent major federal legislation dates back to 1994, when Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed a ban on 19 types of assault weapons, including AK-47s and Uzis. Republicans allowed the law to expire in 2004.
In 2005, Congress blocked certain types of lawsuits against firearms makers and dealers for the crimes committed with their guns.
In 2008, the Supreme Court upheld a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that struck down the District of Columbia's handgun ban. The court ruled the ban was unconstitutional.
Saul Cornell, a history professor at Fordham University, and author of a book on the Second Amendment, said it may take a national civil rights-like movement that marries "moderate" gun owners with gun control advocates to more effectively keep weapons out of the hands of people who commit the kind of violence visited upon Newtown.
Americans have increased their support for gun ownership and opposition to new gun laws in recent years. Self-reported gun ownership (45%) is at the highest level since 1993, and for the first time in 20 years, a Gallup poll last year found more Americans wanted laws on gun sales left alone rather than made more strict. A new ban on semiautomatic weapons - supported in the 1990s and as recently as 2004 - was opposed 53%-43%.
At the beginning of this year, half of Americans said they were satisfied with the nation's gun laws in general, compared with 25% who said they should be more strict and 8% who said they should be less strict.
This was before the killings of 6- and 7-year-olds.
Denise Decker, who teaches a class on mass killings at New Hampshire's Franklin Pierce University, said students left their last class Friday with more questions about how to prevent gun violence than they had when the course began five weeks ago.
She said the Sandy Hook shooting was "so inhumane on so many levels" that she was hopeful it would provoke "an honest, non-defensive conversation about guns and assault rifles with clips that can take out so many children in so little time."