In region's rural towns, guns outnumber people

While citizens and lawmakers continue to grapple with questions raised by the state's new, stricter gun laws passed in April, gun owners from small towns say they are among the law-abiding residents most affected.

The smaller and more rural the town in eastern Connecticut, the greater the likelihood of finding a gun owner and a high concentration of guns.

Rural Voluntown, population 2,597, leads New London County when it comes to gun ownership, with 11 percent of its population having handgun permits and more than 133 guns registered for every 100 people, according to information provided by the state Emergency Services and Public Protection's Division of Special Licensing and Firearms.

In Voluntown, there are more guns than people, which is also the case in Lebanon, Franklin, Lyme, Salem and Bozrah, according to July 2011 population estimates prepared by the state Department of Public Health.

Voluntown First Selectman Ron Millovitsch said the reason is simple: his town is 75 percent state forest and a lot of people live there because they enjoy hunting and shooting.

"That's one of the reasons I bought my land," Millovitsch said. "A lot of people shoot on their own land. It's different than being in a city. People who grow up with guns are not afraid of them. I've been hunting for 50 years. I have more than my share of guns. My son has his fair share. Speaking as a citizen of the Town of Voluntown, I think the gun laws are crazy."

The more densely populated communities like Norwich and Groton tend to have greater numbers of guns and permit holders but lower percentages of both, based on population. New London, with a population of 27,569, came in with both the lowest percentage of residents with gun permits and the fewest guns per capita.

Norwich, with the largest population in the county at 40,408, led in number of registered guns - 16,282 - and permits - 1,535 - though its percentages were among the lowest.

Heralded as one of the country's most far-reaching laws, An Act Concerning Gun Violence, Gun Violence Prevention and Children's Safety adds more than 100 weapons to the state's list of banned assault weapons and outlaws large-capacity ammunition magazines. With some exceptions, it requires $35, five-year eligibility certificates, with mandated background checks when purchasing ammunition and long guns.

The law was passed in the wake of the Dec. 14 slaying of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. State police said Adam Lanza used a Bushmaster .223 caliber with a 30-round magazine to commit the murders and took his own life with a handgun. Police said he carried the .223, along with two handguns, a 10 mm Glock and 9 mm Sig Sauer, into the school. A .12-gauge shotgun was seized from his car.

The guns were registered to his mother, Nancy Lanza, according to The Associated Press.

The Bushmaster and high-capacity magazines no longer may be sold or transferred in the state under the new law.

Millovitsch said he has never carried a pistol, has never had a pistol permit and has never needed one. He doesn't expect the new law will affect him much but will be more of a hindrance than anything else. The same goes for the assault weapons ban, he said.

"To me, an assault weapon is something I don't have use for. I would never hunt with it," he said.

A more complete record

Mike Lawlor, undersecretary for the criminal justice division of the state Office of Policy and Management, said that as the new law is phased in over the coming months, it should create a better paper trail of gun ownership and provide tighter controls over who buys guns.

As of Feb. 25, the state had on record more than 1.64 million registered guns, but the real number is likely much higher, Lawlor said.

"How many others in the state own guns?" Lawlor asked. "We don't know the answer to that. Four or five years from now, we'll have a clearer sense of how many guns are out there. What we don't have is a record of those bought privately from your next-door neighbor or buddy, or brought in from out of state."

Lawlor said long guns and serial numbers not previously in the system but subsequently transferred now will be documented, adding more information to the state's database.

"Since 1994, we've had comprehensive rules regarding the sales of handguns," Lawlor said. "In essence, those rules have been expanded to all firearms."

He said the law will help provide missing information on private long-gun sales that in some cases has left law enforcement blind when an undocumented gun was used in a crime. With documentation, police would be able to determine the last person to register the gun. In theory, he said, law enforcement also would know whether a person has one or dozens of guns at home.

Under the new law, the seller in a private sale of a long gun must document the transaction and seek approval from the state. The buyer must have an eligibility certificate with a background check.

Lawlor said the law, with provisions pertaining to mental status and criminal history, aims to keep guns out of the hands of people "that probably should not have had guns."

"It's not intended to interfere with your right to purchase a gun," Lawlor said. "For people with a pistol permit, nothing has really changed. The difference now is you can't buy these assault weapons that legislators have decided are not appropriate for private ownership."

A gun tradition

State Sens. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, whose district includes Voluntown, and Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, were among the eastern Connecticut legislators to vote against the gun law.

Osten said despite its merits, the law puts undue hardship on some of the "law-abiding citizens who have been around guns all their lives."

She's not surprised to learn that some of the towns she represents have the highest concentrations of guns.

"Eastern Connecticut has a long tradition of hunting," she said. "It's sort of what people grew up with."

She says people are still confused about how many times they need to get a background check, considering the new mandates for the purchase of long guns and ammunition.

"I think it's going to be difficult for people in this area. I don't think the law is clear," Osten said. "A lot of the people this is going to impact are the folks that hunt, the sportsmen or those who shoot for competition … or find enjoyment in skeet or target shooting."

Osten said the question she heard over and over again was what impact the law would have on the ability to own or carry a weapon.

Second Amendment advocate Edward Peruta, director of Connecticut Carry and ctcarry.com, said lawmakers should focus on those breaking the law, not legal gun owners.

He said the new law inadvertently has served to unite two groups - the self-defense advocates who predominantly fight for handgun rights and the sportsmen who typically use long guns. Both groups view the new law as an erosion of Second Amendment rights, he said.

He said the hunters have not had problems in the past because "their thought is, 'I have a hunting license and I can go and buy my gun and ammo and don't have to worry.'"

Peruta said politicians should be ashamed of using the deaths of 20 children in Newtown as justification for the new gun law.

Robert Crook, executive director of the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, said his organization joined a federal lawsuit this month to challenge the constitutionality of the law.

"From our perspective, all these laws do nothing to solve a problem like Sandy Hook," Crook said.

"All these permits to buy ammunition, rifles and shotguns, the banning of the magazines does nothing to solve the problem of a mentally disturbed person and a mother who didn't take care of her firearms," he said.

Norwich Police Lt. Christopher Ferace started his career in rural Plainfield where, he said, it seemed that compared to Norwich, a lot of people owned firearms, especially long guns for protection or hunting.

"You don't see a whole lot of long guns in homes in downtown Norwich," he said.

The state maintains a database of guns purchased by licensed dealers, information useful to have when an officer is at the scene of crime involving violence, he said. With implementation of the new law, Ferace said, he expects there will be a better record of guns in the state - if people follow the law.

"Currently, there's no requirement to notify the state or authorities if a rifle or shotgun is being sold privately," he said.

He remains skeptical, however.

"Many of the crimes committed in Norwich are committed with illegally obtained guns. I don't foresee someone with an illegal gun stepping forward to abide by the new laws," he said.

g.smith@theday.com

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