AP National Writer
In the moment, Newtown's children became our own.
Staring at photographs of their freckled faces, hair tucked into barrettes and baseball caps, a country divided by politics, geography, race, class and belief was united in mourning. And as their deaths confronted Americans with vexing questions about guns and violence, there were calls to turn that shared grief into a collective search for answers.
"These tragedies must end," President Barack Obama said, two nights after the mass shooting left 20 first-graders and six educators dead. "And to end them, we must change."
Now, a year has passed. But the unity born of tragedy has given way to ambivalence and deepened division.
Today, half of Americans say the country needs stricter gun laws -- down since spiking last December but higher than two years ago. And the ranks of those who want easier access to guns -- though far fewer than those who support expanding gun control -- are now at their highest level since Gallup began asking the question in 1990. Even when the public found some common ground, widely supporting expanded background checks for gun purchases, lawmakers could not agree.
In our towns, in our neighborhoods, the discord is striking.
In Webster, N.Y. -- where two firefighters were shot and killed last Christmas Eve -- an advocate of gun control is discouraged by the hostile response to his effort to get people to rethink old attitudes. In Nelson, Ga., each of two men who took opposite sides in the debate over a local law requiring everyone to own a gun says the other side won't listen to reason. In Newtown, itself, a gun owner says the rush to bring the town together has left people like him marginalized.
People are digging in.
"I wish people could come to a table and say we all want the same thing. We want our kids to be safe. Now how are we going to do that?" says Carla Barzetti of Newtown, who backs her husband's support of firearms ownership, yet feels personally uncomfortable around guns. "I don't think the grown-ups are setting a very good example."
With 1,300 people in Nelson and so little crime that officials have debated whether it needs a full-time police officer, the north Georgia town was an unlikely flashpoint for the gun debate.
Then Bill McNiff, a retired accountant and local tea party activist, suggested to Councilman Duane Cronic that the town should have a law requiring everyone to own a gun. By the time council members unanimously approved, news cameras jockeyed for position in the chambers.
The spotlight didn't last. After the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence sued the town in support of Lamar Kellett, the law's most vocal critic, the council agreed in late August to revise the measure to make clear that gun ownership is a choice and that a requirement could not be enforced.
But the disagreements that breached the small-town quiet haven't gone away. Instead, they've added to tensions on a wooded bend in Laurel Lake Drive, where McNiff and Kellett live two doors apart. Coming and going, they're apt to pass Cronic, the councilman, who lives in the house between them. Edith Portillo, a councilwoman who also backed the ordinance, lives across the street.
"He's my neighbor and he knows my feelings," McNiff says of Kellett. "We go to City Council meetings regularly, and I see him there. I chat with him and we see our neighbors, there's conversation ... or as I'm prone to say, he's an idiot, so I just put up with him."
Asked about his neighbor, Kellett declines to use McNiff's name or give credence to his argument.
Most people in this old marble quarrying center -- itself named for a long-ago farmer and rifle maker -- believe in a right to own guns, McNiff and Kellett agree. But Nelson's gradual redevelopment as an outlying bedroom community for metro Atlanta has drawn families with different attitudes, they say. Each sees the outcome of Nelson's debate as a mix of victory and disappointment.
McNiff says the ordinance declares values ignored by gun control advocates in big cities.
"They don't go through and say I need a rifle, I need a gun because I have 55 acres and occasionally a coyote walks through," he says. Critics "looked at (Nelson's law) from their ideological point of view, which is that they're anti-gun. They didn't look at it from the point of view that we wanted to prevent the government" from taking away people's guns.