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Competing aims in gun-control debate

Cars pass a sign directing them to parking for the West Springfield Gun and Knife Show earlier this month.

Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

Cars pass a sign directing them to parking for the West Springfield Gun and Knife Show earlier this month.

Jim Wallace taught his daughter how to hunt when she was 11. John Rosenthal owns two shotguns that he uses for skeet shooting. Jesse Cohen collects historical weapons.

The three men have very different ideas on how firearms should be regulated, and all three are making their voices heard in the gun-control debate roiling Massachusetts and the country.

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Wallace, executive director of the Northborough-based Gun Owners’ Action League, and Rosenthal, the founder and president of a Newton-based group, Stop Handgun Violence, have been ideological foes for years.

While Rosenthal campaigns for stricter limits, using a massive billboard along the Massachusetts Turnpike in Boston to help spread his message, Wallace lobbies for gun owners’ rights at the State House and enlists supporters at local gun shows.

Cohen, a Framingham lawyer, is trying for a middle ground. After specializing in firearms law for 13 years, he started the Firearms Education Association last month with Bruce Blessington, a retired businessman who lives in Boston.

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“There’s millions of dollars going into these two sides lobbing missiles toward each other,” said Cohen. “Everything’s being drowned out by the polar opposites in the debate.”

Too often, according to Cohen, the debate over guns is dominated by the extremes while a “vast silent majority” favors reasonable, common-sense regulations.

Jesse Cohen and Bruce Blessington say gun owners and their advocates have to be willing to agree to new restrictions — both to make the country safer, and to convince supporters of tighter controls that they have good intentions.

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Their viewpoints will be put to the test as the state and federal legislators consider new gun restrictions.

The US Senate’s Judiciary Committee last week approved a measure expanding background checks for gun purchases, but delayed action on a bill that would ban assault-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, legislators are discussing several new proposals, including ones that would require gun owners to carry liability insurance, place an additional sales tax on guns and ammunition, and give the state more access to mental health records for background checks.

* * *

Barely a week after December’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., 20 colorful children’s handprints appeared on the 252-foot-long Stop Handgun Violence billboard on the Mass. Pike near Fenway Park. Each one represents a Sandy Hook first-grader who was killed.

John Rosenthal, 56, erected the billboard in 1995 on a parking garage he owns on Lansdowne Street.

“When I became aware that 15 kids died every day among the 106 Americans that died every day from guns, I was flabbergasted. I had no idea,” said Rosenthal, president of a real estate development and management business. “I said, ‘That’s the message. I’m going to build a billboard that says that.’ ”

Rosenthal said he favors universal background checks on gun purchases, as well as the return of a federal ban on so-called assault weapons that are designed to resemble military firearms. Massachusetts already bans such weapons, and requires universal background checks.

He accuses the firearms industry of supporting policies that increase gun violence as a way to scare people into buying more guns.

“I believe the gun industry intentionally wants to increase gun violence to increase gun sales, and they have bought off Congress to go along with their deadly scheme,” Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal said he has no desire to outlaw firearms entirely, and noted that he owns two shotguns that he uses for skeet shooting, a hobby he picked up in his early 30s. He bought his first gun when he and his wife lived at the end of a long road in Vermont.

“I felt it was good for protection,” he said. “I support gun rights strongly, but not for criminals.”

* * *

Jim Wallace became interested in firearms after taking a hunter safety course in high school. But it was his Army experience in Germany near the end of the Cold War that helped shape his political views, he said, including “that every ounce of freedom we have, we need to maintain.”

As executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League, the Massachusetts arm of the National Rifle Association, the 47-year-old Newburyport resident lobbies state legislators on behalf of his organization’s approximately 16,000 members.

“Everything that I own for firearms, other than for collection or hunting, is for defensive capabilities,” he said. “And I’m the good guy. Why would the government want to restrict how I can defend myself?”

Wallace is opposed to any new restrictions on gun ownership, saying “there’s no evidence” that such laws reduce crime.

He calls Rosenthal’s language “incendiary,” and says allegations that the gun industry wants to maximize violence are absurd.

“When you get into debates where people are calling names and trying to get the public angry at you, it doesn’t serve any purpose,” Wallace said.

For his part, he still enjoys hunting with his daughter, now in college.

“She’s been around firearms since she was able to stand,” Wallace said. “Every Thanksgiving she comes up to Maine with us for a couple of days until she gets a grouse, and then she goes back to college.

“It’s kind of getting away from everything,” Wallace said of hunting. “We have become so detached as a people from our food source and from nature, it’s kind of refreshing to get in the woods or out on the marsh.”

* * *

At the age of 6, Jesse Cohen started learning how to shoot rifles and handguns from his father, a weapons instructor in the Marines. For the last 13 years, he has specialized in firearms law.

But after the Sandy Hook shootings, he decided to forge a middle road in the bitter debate over gun control.

“This is a give and take. We’ve got to compromise,” the Firearms Education Association’s cofounder said. “We can’t just say, ‘no, no, no,’ like the NRA is.”

Cohen and Blessington say gun owners and their advocates have to be willing to agree to new restrictions — both to make the country safer, and to convince supporters of tighter controls that they have good intentions.

In addition to supporting the extension of universal background checks to all states, Cohen said, he is in favor of safe storage laws in all states. But he calls a ban on assault-style weapons “nonsense.”

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Certified firearms instructor Bruce Blessington talks about the inner workings of various types of guns and ammunition at his home in Charlestown.

Cohen and Blessington have put together presentations for journalists and lawmakers to dispel what they say are common myths about firearms. For example, Cohen said, many people think that so-called assault weapons are fully automatic — like machine guns — when in reality they fire one shot per trigger pull, just like most handguns.

Cohen also said he would not necessarily oppose limits on the number of guns people can purchase each month, or a federal ban on magazines that hold more than 10 bullets, although he is skeptical that such measures would markedly reduce gun deaths.

Cohen said he is less worried about federal laws than the stricter state laws that carry stiff penalties for such infractions as carrying ammunition without a license.

* * *

The opposing sides in the gun-control debate appear to be far apart even when interpreting basic data.

Rosenthal points to state numbers that show gun deaths, including suicides, have dropped considerably in Massachusetts since 1994. Meanwhile, Wallace points to records showing homicides involving guns have risen in Massachusetts since the state passed a number of firearms regulations in 1998.

“Ever since the laws were passed . . . gun crimes have gone up,” Wallace said.

Rosenthal has the opposite take.

“We have proven the gun lobby’s worst nightmare,” he said. “Gun laws work.”

Cohen said he remains hopeful that a middle ground can be found.

“My whole reason for getting involved in what we’re doing is because I have a 6-year-old daughter,” he said. “When I heard about Newtown, I was absolutely horrified. I thought to myself that I want to make sure she’s safe at school and that something like this could never happen to her or her classmates. My dog in this race is the safety of my child.”

Calvin Hennick can be reached at calvinhennick@yahoo.com.
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