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In Newtown, an anguished debate over gun rights, controls

By Martinne Geller and Edith Honan

NEWTOWN, Connecticut (Reuters) - Two days after a gunman opened fire in a Connecticut elementary school, killing 26 people, several dozen parents and children gathered in a circle at Newtown's public library to draw something positive from the town's sudden, tragic notoriety.

After several hours of anguished discussion about gun control, and of the responsibilities of parents and community members to prevent more bloodshed, Newtown United was born.

A Facebook and Twitter presence is on the way, and the group is already talking about meetings with elected officials and forming alliances with neighboring towns to push for such action as local automatic weapon bans.

"We have the benefit and the misfortune of being on the national stage right now," said Craig Mittleman, a 49-year-old father of four and an emergency physician. "In a week, everybody's going to be gone and Newtown is going to be just like Columbine, just like Virginia Tech. We're going to be on a list of towns victimized by this insanity."

The group's initial discussion took place as the emotional wounds from the massacre were still raw in this community. After 20-year-old Adam Lanza's mother was killed at their home, he drove 5 miles to Sandy Hook Elementary School, shot his way in and opened fire on staff and students, leaving 20 first-graders and six adults dead before killing himself.

Still, the purpose of the group is not entirely clear. More direct names like Newtown Against Guns and Act Now Newtown were rejected, and the group is also talking about simpler gestures, like building a memorial for the victims.

In Newtown, where it seems like everyone is connected in some way to Friday's massacre, an anguished debate has broken out: how to protect the rights of responsible gun owners, including hunters, while working to prevent another massacre.

Indeed, in this state with a long history of gun manufacturing but some of the strictest gun laws in the country, some residents say they are not ready to lay down their arms. Newtown itself has an active gun culture, residents say.

There is even a vocal minority that argues that if a school official had been armed, Friday's outcome might have been different.

"The gun is not the issue. If someone else there had a gun, maybe they could have stopped this," Benjamin Torres, owner of Betor Roofing in Danbury, said over breakfast at a Newtown diner. "The bad guys are going to get guns illegally anyway."

In the shooting's wake, the complexity of the issue was underscored by geography. Just up the street from Newtown's Reed Intermediate School, where volunteers had set up a grief counseling center, sits the headquarters of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, considered one of the nation's leading gun lobbies after the National Rifle Association.

A PLACE FOR RESTRICTIONS

New England, and specifically Connecticut, was once a center of gun-making. Colt's Patent Manufacturing Co was founded in Hartford, and Remington, Sturm Ruger and Co, and Savage Arms all have Connecticut roots.

The subject of guns took center stage almost immediately after the shooting. A local hunting club suspended outings to avoid tormenting grieving families with the sound of gunfire.

"We thought it would be rather disrespectful considering what they're going through," said Frank Hufner, president of the Newtown Fish and Game Club, which has some 300 members who fish and hunt in the heavily forested hills surrounding Newtown's Sandy Hook neighborhood, where the eponymous school sits.

At Shooters Pistol Range, a firing range in nearby New Milford, the owner said gun owners are being given a bad name, but he largely declined to answer questions.

"I live in that town. My children went to that school. This is not a time to make news," said the range's white-bearded owner, who declined to give his name. "Holiday season is a tough time to lose someone, especially kids, and I'm not going to add to their misery."

He also said he did not trust the press to accurately portray gun enthusiasts. "Many of us are college-educated. I myself have a masters' degree."

On Saturday afternoon at a Dick's Sporting Goods store in Danbury, shoppers milled about the hunting section.

One shopper, 19-year-old Peter Griffin from nearby Redding, said the shooting only strengthened his enthusiasm for guns because killers are more likely to go where there are no guns.

"Personally, I feel safer where there's guns. I don't want to go to any gun-free zones any more," said Griffin, an apprentice cabinet maker who owns three guns.

Newtown-area gun businesses say sales have picked up since President Barack Obama's election, as gun owners fear a crack-down.

"It's absolutely booming right now - anything about guns. People are scared out of their wildest dreams that the FBI is going to come and knock down their doors," said Sean Eldridge, owner of Parker Gunsmithing in nearby Bethel, who specializes in repairing and restoring guns.

TAKING LEADERSHIP

Len Strocchia, 46, who lives 10 houses down from the Lanzas, is no stranger to gun violence. His alma mater, Virginia Tech, was the site of a mass shooting in 2007. He also lost a high school classmate in the 1993 shooting on the Long Island Railroad in New York, which left six people dead and 19 others wounded.

"I'm disgusted that this mass murder took place with legally purchased firearms," said Strocchia, who attended the Newtown meeting with his daughter.

On Sunday, Tim Northrop, a 49-year-old Newtown resident whose next-door neighbor, Anne Marie Murphy, a mother of four, was among the teachers killed, sent letters to Connecticut's U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal and Senator-elect Chris Murphy.

"The people of your state have been assaulted and murdered. We demand that you take leadership in pursuing new gun control legislation," the letter said. "Be the leader that this country is sorely lacking. Have the courage to stand up for those kids that were murdered."

(Editing by Dan Burns and Eric Walsh)

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