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New England senators split on gun legislation

WASHINGTON — The massacre of 20 children and six adults in a Connecticut school united New Englanders in grief, but just a few months later the region’s US senators are cleanly divided along geographical lines over how to respond.

As the Senate prepares to begin voting on gun legislation as early as Thursday, no senators from New England’s northern tier of states — Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine — expressed support for a bill that would ban sales of assault weapons and limit magazine capacity, according to a Globe poll of their positions. They ranged from outright opposition to indecision to a refusal to respond to questions.

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Nearly all of the northern senators have declined to support a companion bill to improve background checks for gun buyers, although a proposed bipartisan amendment Wednesday to exempt gun transactions within families could remove some opposition.

By contrast, senators from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island are uniformly in favor of a ban on assault weapon sales and limits on magazine capacity, as well as stricter background checks.

The Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., sent a powerful shock wave through the communities of New England, where many towns share Newtown’s village character, stone walls, rural lanes, and exurban neighborhoods. But the divides within the region’s Senate delegation show that proximity and party affiliation matter less in the shooting’s aftermath than underlying cultural and political dynamics.

Even though national polls show considerable support for gun control, the northern states have deeper traditions of hunting and shooting, and powerful constituencies that seek to protect residents’ rights to own high-capacity, high-powered weapons. New Hampshire license plates still sport the motto “Live Free or Die,’’ and the ability to carry a high-powered assault rifle with dozens of bullets is still viewed in many quarters as a cherished right.

“These are small, thinly populated states where there’s a long tradition of hunting and gun ownership,” said Linda Fowler, a political science professor at Dartmouth College. “I think this is a case where geography trumps party.”

“There is not a connection between [northern New England] and Newtown,’’ added Andrew Smith, a political scientist and pollster at the University of New Hampshire. “I don’t think people here even consider Connecticut part of New England.”

Lawmakers in the southern New England states are facing a different set of priorities, with larger urban centers and routine gun violence.

The response of individual state legislatures also has been dramatically different. This month, Connecticut adopted the toughest gun laws in the country, blocking the sale of high-capacity magazines like those used by Newtown shooter Adam Lanza and requiring background checks.

In Vermont, among the most liberal states on many issues, the state Legislature refused to take up proposals for strengthening enforcement of federal laws that prohibit felons from buying guns. Vermont is among states that still do not require guns to be concealed when carried.

Still, 66 percent of Vermonters support banning the sale of high-capacity magazines, and 61 percent support banning further sale of assault weapons, according to a February survey by Castleton State College.

“It is very disappointing,” Ann Braden, lead organizer of Gun Sense Vermont, said of her state’s refusal to adopt the strict gun laws Connecticut took up after the Newtown shooting. “When it’s your town and it’s your state, you realize how real this is and what a huge safety issue this is for everyone. When its somewhere else, politicians can say I don’t want to deal with that.”

It is opposition from Democrats in rural states that leads most observers to predict the bill containing the assault weapons ban and magazine limits will not pass the Senate.

Senator Pat Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and shepherded all four bills to the full Senate, voted for the assault weapons ban in the Senate Judiciary Committee. But he has since declined to say how he will vote on any of the four measures once they come before the full Senate.

When families of Newtown victims visited the Capitol on Tuesday, Leahy told reporters that he would need to see details of an assault weapons ban amendment before he could voice his support or opposition

“I already voted — I voted in committee,” Leahy said, visibly frustrated while being questioned about his position in a Senate hallway.

Nine of New England’s 12 senators favor less controversial aspects of the gun-control package expected to be taken up the Senate, including curbs on illegal gun trafficking and enhanced school safety, according to the Globe’s poll.

The office of one New England senator, independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont, did not respond to repeated questions. New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte was opposed to an assault weapons ban, and undecided on the less controversial measures and the background checks bill.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said that from his conversations with New England senators, there is “plenty of room for common ground.” He noted that Newtown is in a rural region of Connecticut, so support for gun control should stretch beyond more urbanized states.

“In the face of that horrific slaughter, in the wake of that terrible tragedy, Newtown is a call to action,” Blumenthal said. “I am strongly reassured that the majority of Americans support common-sense measures, and my hope is that my colleagues will hear and heed the country.”

Senator Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said he supports limits on magazine size but not a ban on assault weapons sales, so he opposes the assault weapons bill.

“An assault weapon is defined by its appearance rather than what it does,” King said of the current assault weapons ban legislation. “And I’m more interested in the functionality of the weapon.’’

King called universal background checks for gun owners “the most effective thing we can do,” but said he would not support the background check legislation without “common-sense exceptions for family transactions.”

King reported that he had received roughly 8,000 letters from his constituents on gun legislation, and that they are split 50-50.

He met Wednesday with the families of Newtown victims and has been pressured from the other side by the National Rifle Association.

His fellow Maine senator, moderate Republican Susan Collins, has been the target of a public pressure campaign by the National Association for Gun Rights. It made Collins one of its targets in a TV ad campaign this week that accuses Collins of “teaming up with liberal Democrats” in her effort to ban guns.

The ad morphs her face into that of Obama’s to emphasize the connection between the two — even though Collins is opposed to the background checks bill without a family exception and opposes banning assault weapons sales.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns and a pro-Obama group have also targeted Collins in ad campaigns, in hopes of convincing her to vote in favor of stronger gun control.

Although she has cosponsored a bill to stop illegal gun trafficking, she has also been wary of background checks, saying she fears a background checks bill would produce a “national registry” of gun owners.

“I believe that the bill should be focused on commercial sales, those that occur at gun shows, for example,” Collins said.

Most attention is now focused on the background checks. Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, and Senator Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, have been drafting a possible amendment to the background checks measure that could appease senators like Collins and King.

The amendment is expected to enforce background checks only during commercial transactions, including sales made at gun shows, but would leave transfers between family members or temporary borrowing unchecked.

“If you own a farm or live out in a rural area and you don’t have a licensed dealer near you, the background check provision is going to be a huge burden on you,” said Dan Holler, communications director for the lobbying arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, explaining the need for a family exemption. “If you live in an urban area, maybe that’s not going to be the case.”

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