Arizona and Connecticut: Where established gun cultures and gun restrictions collide

Four months after the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, lawmakers banned at least 115 types of semi-automatic firearms.

Four months after the shooting of a congresswoman and a federal judge in Tucson, lawmakers in Arizona declared the Colt Army Single Action Revolver the official state gun.

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The similarities in the attacks were striking: Both were carried out by heavily armed young men with histories of mental illness. But in the aftermath of the tragedies, the states took radically different approaches to gun violence.

The differences reflect the wide divide separating Americans from one end of the country to the other, in which long-established gun cultures collide with efforts to restrict gun ownership. While Connecticut took extreme measures to muscle through one of the most comprehensive packages of gun laws in the country, Arizona failed to pass any significant legislation concerning gun purchases, use or ownership.

In the weeks after both shootings, background checks and weapons bans consumed political debates in every corner of the country. Families of victims pleaded for stronger regulation, while gun-rights advocates stocked up on ammunition, fearing impending restrictions.

“Everybody’s lives changed. Not just the people that were shot and their loved ones, but everybody,” said Seth Wilson, whose grandfather Dorwan Stoddard was killed in the Arizona shooting, in the parking lot of a Safeway.

Mary Ann Jacob, a Sandy Hook Elementary School library aide and Newtown Board of Education member, poses for a portrait at her home in Newtown, Conn., on June 27, 2014. Jacob helped save children during the 2012 shooting that killed 26. “I think we’re at a tipping point. There’s enough people getting involved. There’s enough people saying ‘enough is enough,’ that things are going to change,” she said. Photo by Morgan Spiehs/News21.

Mary Ann Jacob, a library aide at Sandy Hook Elementary School who locked herself and 18 children in a storage closet during the Newtown shooting, said it’s like she and the other survivors are now living “in a different world.”

“I think we all thought it would go and we’d stop hearing about it. Now 18 months later, I realize, and now everybody’s realizing, that’s never going to happen,” Jacob said.

Nearly two years after 26 students and educators were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary, the quiet Connecticut suburb of about 27,000 people has been changed.

‘A painstaking process’

Pressure for stronger gun laws after Newtown poured in from thousands of first-time gun control activists nationwide, led by the newly formed Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan traveled to Connecticut to stand beside Gov. Dannel Malloy, who had grieved with Sandy Hook families on the day they lost their children.

Almost immediately after the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting, Connecticut’s six highest-ranked lawmakers decided to write the law themselves instead of allowing committees to take control.

Then-House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, a Democrat who was trained with an M16 in the Army, said he took a month to “brush up” on everything related to gun policy. One day, Aresimowicz took a tour of the nearby Colt factory, and on another his staff members went to a local firearms dealer to run through a background check in person.

“It was a painstaking process, but I think our reaction was indicative of the types of things that Connecticut needed to do after the tragedy,” he said.

The six men — four Democrats, two Republicans — almost exclusively discussed gun policy for weeks. They sat in the House speaker’s conference room late into the night, debating whether features such as thumbholes and pistol grips would qualify a gun as an assault weapon. They made calls to state police officers and held up photographs of different types of guns and asked each other, “Would this be one? Would that be one?”

In addition to the millions of dollars spent on mental health and school security, the final bill banned 115 types of semi-automatic weapons and all magazines larger than 10 rounds.

Connecticut’s legislation received more bipartisan support than came in the three other Democratic-controlled states that overhauled their gun laws that year: New York, Colorado and Maryland. Still, the four dozen Republicans who opposed the bill in Connecticut said they largely were ignored.

State Rep. Craig Miner, who earned an A grade from the National Rifle Association, said most of his Democratic colleagues had already made up their minds when he was appointed the Republican leader of a statewide committee on safer gun policy.

When he read the final bill — which was packed with new restrictions that he opposed — he said he never felt more out of place in his 23 years as an elected official.

“There wasn’t one piece of that bill that I couldn’t find something to point to and think, ‘Boy, oh boy, I must be on Mars,’” Miner said.

‘More protection’

Lawmakers in Arizona — the No. 1 state for gun owners according to Guns & Ammo magazine — introduced more than 100 firearms-related bills since 2011.

Most of the legislation had a similar aim: Self-defense and security.

One bill would have required armed guards and metal detectors to be stationed at the entrance of those public buildings that ban guns. The bill cleared the legislature three times, but was vetoed by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer on each occasion as an unfunded mandate for cities and towns.

“If I go lock up my gun in the lock box, the next thing you know the Tucson murderer or Connecticut murderer or Colorado murderer comes along here and looks at that sign and says, ‘Oh, fresh meat,’ because he just watched an honest guy lock up his self-defense,” said Charles Heller, co-founder of the state’s largest grassroots gun rights group, the Arizona Citizens Defense League.

Arizona State Rep. John Kavanagh, a champion of pro-gun legislation and a life member of the gun rights group, said criminals will ignore gun-free zones.

Three years after the mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that left six dead and 13 injured, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, citizens continue to address mental health and guns in the community.

“More guns in the hands of law-abiding responsible people, especially people who have taken concealed weapons courses and are qualified, means more safety,” Kavanagh said. “And certainly more protection against the criminals and lunatics.”

Arizona’s House Minority Leader Chad Campbell said these bills won’t enhance public safety. He has introduced multiple bills to expand background checks. All have failed, along with almost every other gun control bill proposed since the Tucson shooting on Jan. 8, 2011.

“I think there’s just a profound sense of disappointment that nothing ever came out of that tragedy,” Campbell said.

With six pro-gun Republicans crowding the GOP gubernatorial primary this fall, little is likely to change in the Arizona gun debate. However, gun bills that were vetoed by outgoing Gov. Brewer, including the public places bill, may find approval in the coming session.

A delayed call to action

Daniel Hernandez Jr. crossed paths with gunman Jared Loughner as he ran through the havoc toward his boss, Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was choking on her own blood.

Hernandez, who had been an intern for Giffords for five days, administered aid to the congresswoman until first responders arrived. He is credited with saving her life.

Moments before the shooting at the “Congress on Your Corner” event Hernandez was working at a Tucson Safeway, advised 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green on what question to ask the congresswoman. Christina decided on a question about NASA after learning that Giffords’ husband was an astronaut.

Daniel Hernandez has been credited with saving Rep. Gabrielle Gifford's life while working as her intern in 2011. Photo by Morgan Spiehs/News21.

“Unfortunately, Christina was never able to to have that opportunity to talk to the congresswoman, or to ask that question,” Hernandez said. The young girl and federal District Court Judge John Roll were among the six shot dead.

For two years after the shooting, Hernandez did not talk about guns. As a native Arizonan who grew up hunting, he didn’t want to politicize one of the state’s most contentious issues.

But things changed when he entered the political sphere. As a recently elected board member of the Sunnyside Unified School District, he said the Sandy Hook shooting forced him into the gun control movement.

“It wasn’t until after I was elected to the school board that I had a new responsibility,” Hernandez said. “I wasn’t just Daniel the individual, I was responsible for 17,000 students and 2,000 staff members.”

Hernandez immediately teamed up with Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which has now folded into Everytown for Gun Safety. He helped develop an informal coalition in Arizona of about 40 groups working toward gun violence prevention.

This year, they met with the governor’s office, becoming the first gun control group to do so in 14 years, he said.

“For whatever reason, we have put guns on this very different level,” Hernandez said. “It is no longer a part of public debate. Instead it is held up as a golden cow that we do not touch. It’s a sacred thing to many people, which forbids us from having reasonable conversations.”

He believes change is coming. This session, Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly passed a bill that increases the mental health records that Arizona submits to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

But one of the state’s Democratic leaders said it was just one part of a larger solution.

“It’s somewhat of a change; it’s an incremental step,” Campbell said. “But it’s not anything that I think is a game changer.”

Hernandez is working toward other gun control measures, most notably universal background checks. Last session, he made the two-hour drive to the State Capitol 39 times, and he plans to continue establishing a presence.

“We are working every day to remind everybody that we are not going away,” Hernandez said. “This is not a flash in the pan and unfortunately our network of survivors is growing every single day.”

A new normal

When classes resumed after the Sandy Hook shooting, Mary Ann Jacob began carrying keys to the library around her neck and locking the doors, always.

Sandy Hook parents Charles and Alenda Calderbank say they are grateful everyday that their daughter survived the shooting, which took the lives of 20 of her classmates. Many of the victims' families live in their neighborhood.

Eighteen months later, she still panics for a moment when the lights flicker or someone upstairs moves a desk. But she said Sandy Hook Elementary is working toward a new normal — one in which moms coordinate their children’s play dates around therapy sessions and no one likes sitting with their backs to the door.

As she continues to see shootings on the news, Jacob said she thinks about the hundreds of children at Sandy Hook School — and across Newtown — whose brains were “rewired” during the shooting.

“It’s going to get to the point where everyone we know in our generation is going to know someone who was affected by gun violence,” said Jacob, whose two boys also attended the school.

To change what she described as a “culture of violence,” Jacob and 30 of her colleagues launched the Sandy Hook Educators for Gun Sense this summer. Its focus is trifold: mental health, gun safety and family involvement.

Education is a key component in each area, said Yvonne Cech, the school’s library media specialist, who has also joined the effort. Her two children also attended Newtown schools.

Instead of drafting policy for Congress or state legislatures, the group wants to teach parents, grandparents and teachers how to create safer environments for their children. For Cech, that means discouraging violent video games and movies and encouraging parents to ask about guns in homes where their children play.

“We need to do it on a lot of fronts. It’s not just gun legislation and it’s not just mental health. None of these things are going to work on their own,” Cech said. “Change for me means a reduction of violence, however that happens.”

Two complicated, but separate, issues

Both shootings raised issues of gun violence and mental illness.

Loughner, who was 22 when he shot 19 people outside the Tucson Safeway, had recently been suspended from Pima Community College after multiple run-ins with campus police. Teachers and classmates noted his strange behavior, including tantrums during class over his grades. Following his arrest, he was ordered to a mental health facility in Missouri, where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old who killed 26 people at Sandy Hook school, had been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, extreme anxiety and sensory issues, but had refused to take medications.

He had been pulled out of classes in high school multiple times for erratic behavior, but he had not been violent, according to a yearlong investigation by the state’s attorney. At the time of the shooting, he and his mother were communicating only through email.

Many public health researchers argue that gun violence and mental health are two complicated — and mostly separate — issues. Most people with mental illnesses are not violent and most people who commit gun crimes do not have mental illnesses, said Jeff Swanson, a medical sociologist at Duke University.

“We’re all concerned about mass shootings, but it’s kind of a weird prism through which to view this problem because people like Jared Loughner and Adam Lanza are not only very atypical perpetrators of gun violence but they’re atypical of people with mental illness. But it’s why we’re having this conversation,” Swanson said.

Lanza shot and killed himself after the attack. Loughner is being held at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri.

Healing through action

Arizona Rep. Ron Barber, a Tucson Democrat who now holds Giffords’ congressional seat, was serving as Giffords’ district director when he was shot by Loughner in the face and thigh during the attack.

While in the intensive care unit, Barber decided to bring something positive out of the shooting. His idea blossomed into the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding. The group tries to reduce the mental health stigma and establish anti-bullying programs.

“We took the opportunity to see some of the underlying issues that were connected to this horrible event and we took the opportunity to shine a light on them and see if we could work on them as a community,” executive director Jennie Grabel said.

Their newest initiative, Mental Health Safe Space, is a training program that educates people about mental illness, points out the warning signs and provides resources and support. As reports about Loughner’s history of mental illness emerged, conversations about the issue permeated the city.

“It was really important to him (Barber) that the truth about mental illness is shared,” Grabel said. “That this is a terrible, tragic situation but that it not stigmatize those that live with mental illness any more than it already had.”

The Pima County Sheriff’s Department, the agency that first responded to the shooting, is one of the first law enforcement groups in the nation to train a team of detectives and mental-health specialists to work with people in crisis.

“Before, we didn’t have the tools to deal with these folks that are in a mental-health crisis,” said Sgt. Terry Staten, who supervises the program. “Basically, if we didn’t see a crime being committed, we didn’t care and we walked away.”

Since January, the Mental Health Investigative Support Team has investigated or enforced a mental health court order in more than 2,500 cases.

Chris Nanos, chief deputy of the Pima County Sheriff's Department, poses for a portrait in his office on July 11, 2014 in Tucson, Ariz. Nanos’ team responded to the shooting in the Safeway parking lot where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others were shot on Jan. 8, 2011. Photo by Morgan Spiehs/News21.

“We want to be able to prevent Jared Loughner,” said Chief Deputy Chris Nanos, who oversaw the team of officers on the day of the shooting. “We don’t want to respond to Jared Loughner.”

In the three years since his grandfather was killed, Seth Wilson supported programs like those in Tucson instead of fighting for gun-policy changes.

“The only thing that could have changed what happened in Tucson would have been a more open society that doesn’t shun the outcast just because they look different or talk different,” Wilson said.

When neuroscience and pharmacology researcher Jeremy Richman’s first-grade daughter was killed at Sandy Hook, he and his wife badly wanted to understand the cause of the violence, or rather, the chemical imbalance in the shooter’s brain that prompted him to spray bullets into two classrooms.

Seth Wilson stands outside his home in Oracle, Ariz.,, on July 11, 2014. Wilson's grandparents were shot during the Tucson shooting involving Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. His grandmother survived, but his grandfather was one of the six killed. Photo by Morgan Spiehs/News21.

“That’s what a scientist does, we ask why,” Richman said.

Since December 2012, he has posed the same types of questions to top officials at the White House and Congress, urging them to fund the field of brain health like they did with cancer or diabetes. Since starting those conversations, he said many leaders on Capitol Hill have started talking about brain health, too.

Richman has long had a personal link to his research. He began studying neuroscience after his grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Now, he said he’s found a new motivation. When he and his wife, Jennifer Hensel, launched their foundation last year, they named it after their daughter, Avielle.

Both Richman and Hensel have closely observed national reactions to mass shootings. They are graduates of the University of Arizona and Richman once lived down the street from that same Safeway in Tucson.

As the pair traveled around the country asking about the causes of violence and aggressive behavior last year, Richman said he was surprised to learn “we don’t know that much.” Without more information, he said it’s unclear what approach — if any — will help prevent future shootings.

The Avielle Foundation, which will give out about $350,000 in grants this year, is focused on the wider problem of violence in society, not just those crimes committed with guns. Instead, Richman wants to understand why a person picks up the gun.

Violence is also a less-combative issue than gun violence, he said.

“A large number of people, as soon as you start talking about reducing gun violence, they get this gut feeling of, ‘Oh god, here we go again, we’re talking about Second Amendment,” Richman said.

Brittany Elena Morris contributed reporting to this story. This story was informed by a source in the Public Insight Network.

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  • Jessica Boehm headshot

    Jessica Boehm

    Jessica Boehm is a News21 Hearst Fellow and pursuing her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism simultaneously at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

  • Sarah Ferris headshot

    Sarah Ferris

    Sarah Ferris graduated from the George Washington University with a degree in political science and journalism.

  • Brittany Elena Morris headshot

    Brittany Elena Morris

    Brittany Elena Morris is a News 21 Hearst Fellow and graduated from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University with dual bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

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