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Connecticut Left To Reconcile Tragedy With Its Proud Gun History

The Coltsville factory's blue dome has long been a landmark in Hartford, Conn. The Colt Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company began building factories in the area in 1855.
Bob Child
The Coltsville factory's blue dome has long been a landmark in Hartford, Conn. The Colt Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company began building factories in the area in 1855.

Connecticut has suddenly become the epicenter of the nation's gun control debate in a way no one there could have foreseen. The Newtown school shootings have brought calls for restrictions on firearms, in the state that once led the world in creating modern weaponry.

If you drive past Hartford on the interstate, you'll see the blue onion dome high atop the factory that once was the Colt Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company. The gunmaker has long since left its Hartford factory, but it still makes guns nearby.

Today, the historic complex is a redevelopment project that local leaders hope will become a national historic park. A century and a half ago, the factory was where Samuel and Elizabeth Colt made the revolver.

"It was called the Peacemaker. The Equalizer. The gun that won the West," is how one public television documentary recalled it.

And that's how Gov. Dannel Malloy recalled the gun and the complex that produced it. Speaking before the Newtown tragedy, he said it is part of America's history lesson.

"Not just about Hartford or Connecticut, but about the United States," Malloy said at a news conference announcing a new commercial tenant for the complex known as Coltsville. "Listen, the West was won here. In Hartford."

During his visit, the governor joined the chorus of state boosters who favor turning the gun factory and its surrounding 260-acre neighborhood into a national historic park that could attract investment and tourism.

That event was held one day before the shootings at a Newtown elementary school an hour from the Colt factory. Soon, Malloy would be consoling grieving families and renewing his calls for tougher gun laws.

"I'm a big believer in hunting rights, a big believer in supporting the second amendment," he said. "But there is a reality that this stuff has gone too far and is too easy to own."

Some state lawmakers want to limit the number of rounds a gun magazine can hold. But as they begin that debate, it's worth remembering that the Colt revolver was one of the guns that started the discussion.

Before the revolver, most rifles required 40 seconds or so to reload after being fired. The revolver changed that.

As Colt scholar Bill Hosley says, "Now you've got six shots in six seconds — boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And it changed profoundly the mathematics of self defense."

Hosley points out that what began with Colt's six-shooter for personal use has evolved to guns that can carry 30 rounds at a time.

"There aren't too many places bluer than Connecticut," he says. "And so, how ironic that the state that is pretty left-leaning in its politics has this iconically right-leaning industry."

And today, Hartford, the state's capital city, is hoping that the history of this industry might be part of its economic rebirth.

Congressman John Larson is a big supporter of making the factory a national historic park, because of all of the innovations in manufacturing, business, and community development that Colt and his invention once brought.

Not far from the factory, Larson recently hosted a forum on violence and guns. I asked him whether, after Newtown, it's hard to celebrate this part of Connecticut's history.

"It's not a celebration. It's a historic fact," he says. "When you look at the totality of what was launched by Samuel and Elizabeth Colt, it's pretty remarkable. And whether you agree with the production of guns or not, it is a historic fact."

Although this Congress did not act to make Coltsville a national historic park, Larson says that he hopes the next Congress will.

Copyright 2012 Connecticut Public

Jeff Cohen started in newspapers in 2001 and joined Connecticut Public in 2010, where he worked as a reporter and fill-in host. In 2017, he was named news director.