After school shooting, Newtown-based gun industry group considered leaving town

HARTFORD, Conn. – The gun industry’s national trade association and lobbying organization considered moving its offices from Newtown after last year’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the president and CEO of the National Shooting Sports Foundation said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press.

With a handful of the nearly 50 foundation employees confronted by angry neighbours and protesters appearing outside the foundation’s headquarters, Steve Sanetti said he had to look at the situation from “a strategic standpoint” and determine whether having the name of Newtown associated with the organization would affect its mission to promote hunting and shooting sports.

“We had to consider whether a move was appropriate,” Sanetti said Wednesday. “But I polled all the employees here and, to a person, it was like, ‘Don’t move. We like it here. We’re part of the community. We have nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed of. We didn’t do this. We’ve been fighting this sort of thing. Stay the course.'”

While the Northeast is not necessarily steeped in the hunting culture, like other parts of the country, Sanetti said the foundation is located in Connecticut because the manufacturing base of the firearms industry was historically located here. NSSF boasts a membership of 9,500 of mostly businesses, including manufacturers, distributors, firearms retailers, shooting ranges, sportsmen’s organizations and publishers. It owns the Shooting Hunting and Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show, the largest of its type that draws nearly 70,000 people involved in the industry.

Many Newtown residents were likely unaware of the foundation’s existence until Adam Lanza shot his way through the school Dec. 14, 2012, killing 20 first-graders and six educators before committing suicide. The organization has been based in Newtown for 20 years, located in a white colonial-style building along a main road into town, but only its initials and street address appear on a sign posted out front.

After the massacre, Sanetti said the group deliberately didn’t make any statements for about a month.

“Being here in the community, we just didn’t think it was appropriate, frankly. It was respectful silence,” Sanetti said. “It was horrible in town here. The funerals going by and everything.”

Sanetti said many of his employees knew families affected by the shooting, as well as the first responders and teachers. One of the slain teachers went to school with Sanetti’s daughter. He called the incident “a punch to the stomach.”

The Danbury state’s attorney’s office on Monday is scheduled to release its report on its investigation into the shooting.

Sanetti said the group became more outspoken as Connecticut and other states moved to tighten their gun laws.

“That’s when we began visibly stating our positions on things and that’s when the protesters started coming,” Sanetti said. Some have held signs protesting the National Rifle Association, which is a separate organization that represents mostly individuals.

Dave Ackert, chairman of the Newtown Action Alliance, a grassroots group formed after the massacre to advocate against gun violence, contends that NSSF holds many of the same positions as the NRA.

“There are plenty of people who would wish they would leave, not because they’re affiliated with the gun industry but because of their position on common-sense regulations like closing universal background check loopholes,” Ackert said.

Ackert said the positions that NSSF has taken “are not welcome here in Newtown, not the rank-and-file employees.”

Yet Sanetti contends gun safety is a major focus for his group.

“It has to be said, that had Mrs. Lanza in town here taken the appropriate steps to keep her guns secured from her son, who she knew to be at risk, this wouldn’t have happened,” Sanetti said of 20-year-old Adam Lanza’s mother, Nancy. Police said Adam Lanza shot and killed his mother before committing the school rampage.

Lanza lived with his mother in a house filled with guns and ammunition, according to warrants released by investigators. Authorities haven’t released details of Lanza’s mental health history, but Nancy Lanza told a divorce mediator in 2009 that she didn’t like to leave her son alone.

After the Newtown shooting, NSSF hired a public relations firm to promote and rebrand its Project ChildSafe effort, dedicated to gun safety and the distribution of gun locks. During President George W. Bush’s presidency, ChildSafe received $92 million in federal funds and distributed 34 million gun locks across the country. NSSF is now seeking $10 million in federal funding to supplement the $1 million the gun industry provides annually. Sanetti said he was optimistic in January after attending a meeting with Vice-President Joe Biden, whose senior policy adviser approached Sanetti and said the administration liked the program. But there was no follow-up, he said.

The foundation’s gun lock program is still being embraced by law enforcement and municipal leaders throughout the country who’ve made requests for more gun locks. And while it has gotten some public support in Connecticut since Sandy Hook, including at a news conference with Bridgeport’s Democratic Mayor Bill Finch, an active member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, some of NSSF’s friends in the state have steered clear of the initiative because it’s sponsored by the gun industry.

“It’s a raw nerve here,” Sanetti said. “I understand that.”