People embrace on December 14, 2012 at the aftermath of a school shooting at a Connecticut elementary school (AFP Photo / Don Emmert)
AFP Photo / Don Emmert

By Robert MacPherson

A friend in Hong Kong asks what people in Newtown, Connecticut, say when I ask them about semi-automatic assault weapons like the Bushmaster rifle that Adam Lanza, 20, used to kill 26 pupils and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The short answer is, I don't. It's more effective to ask them: "Do you own a gun?" and let the conversation flow from there. That's how Pedro Segarra, the mayor of Hartford, the state capital, revealed to me how his support for stronger gun laws grew from the shooting death of his father, back when Segarra was just one year old. "I have no desire to own a gun," Segarra said. "They've only meant not-so-great things."

young child points at candles as people pay their respects at a makeshift shrine to the victims of a elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, December 16, 2012 (AFP Photo / Emmanuel Dunand)
AFP Photo / Emmanuel Dunand

In any case, for Newtown's inhabitants, it's not yet time to talk about gun control, even if Friday's mass shooting -- one of the worst in US history, and arguably the most shocking given how so many small children died -- has rekindled the debate elsewhere in the nation. Grief has yet to give way to anger, and Newton was only due to start burying its dead Monday.

Since Friday, Newtown has been overrun with news media. TV news satellite trucks line the usually quiet streets. Photographers snap away at mourners bowing their heads in sorrow at any of the many ad hoc shrines that have sprung up.

Newtown resident Molly Villodas, 12 years old, speaks to the media about the violence at the Sandy Hook School on December 15, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut (AFP Photo / Getty Images / Spencer Platt)
AFP Photo / Getty Images / Spencer Platt

Journalists never tire of asking, "How do you feel? How are you coping?" Most people respond patiently. Some seem relieved to be able to tell their stories.

I've not personally encountered any resentment. In fact, a hug at the end of an interview is much appreciated. But at dinner in a nearby town, I overheard folks at the next table over -- people who spent part of their weekend in Newtown -- complain how some journalists "have no morals, really." At no time did I hear them discuss the morality of easy civilian access to assault rifles, guaranteed by the Second Amendment of the US constitution.

As it happens, I had just such a gun in my cold, not-yet-dead hands a couple of weeks ago.

Holly Blevins holds an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle December 5, 2012 in Berryville, Virginia (AFP Photo / Brendan Smialowski)
AFP Photo / Brendan Smialowski

I was reporting a feature about "preppers" or Americans who stock up on food, first aid and, yes, guns, in anticipation of crisis and chaos. It was a matte black AR-15, the civilian version of the M-16 military rifle. (The Bushmaster is a top-selling AR-15 knockoff.) Experienced firearms instructor Patrick Troy showed me the correct way to hold it -- and there is only one correct way to hold a weapon that demands total respect.  (See any Hollywood action movie for how to hold it the wrong way). I found it intimidating, not at all like the .22-caliber target rifles we had as teenagers in rural Quebec or the Mauser my dad used to kill groundhogs before we discovered the dog did a better, tidier job.

Firearms kill about 30,000 people each year in the United States, with the majority of those deaths being suicides.

While visiting Newtown on Sunday night, President Barack Obama made an impassioned speech in which he said America needs to do more to protect its citizens from gun violence.

“We can't tolerate this anymore,” he said. “These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change."

Larry Poore unlocks guns in the CZ-USA display prior to the opening of the exhibit hall for the National Rifle Association of America's (NRA) annual meeting May 16, 2008 in Louisville, Kentucky (AFP Photo / Getty Images / Scott Olson)
AFP Photo / Getty Images / Scott Olson

Tighter gun laws are a divisive issue for Americans. Defenders of the Second Amendment, which enshrines the right “to keep and bear arms,” argue that small measures could snowball into broader restrictions, and some say that greater access to guns is the solution in the United States, where the number of privately held guns is already closing in on 300 million.

I wondered how I might get an AR-15 for myself. I do live in inner-city Washington, after all, where "Apple picking" (iPhone muggings) is the most common street crime and the murder rate is down to its lowest point in decades. So I dropped into a gun shop outside Newtown and enquired. Happy to help, the man behind the counter said. I had to convince him that, as a foreigner in the United States on a fixed-term visa, I cannot legally own a gun, no matter what the Second Amendment says.

I also asked him about the school shooting and assault guns. No comment, the gun dealer replied. Local gun shops had been "advised" -- he wouldn't say by whom – not to talk to the press.

Members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League gather for dinner on March 18, 2010 at a restaurant in Falls Church, Virginia. (AFP Photo / Virginie Montet)
AFP Photo / Virginie Montet