Connecticut Lawmakers Back 'Coltsville' Park at Firearms Site Near Newtown

In a move that an antigun group calls "lousy timing" and "bizarre," Connecticut lawmakers are pushing to create a national park out of the historic former site of the Colt firearms plant in Hartford, just 50 miles from the site of the school shooting massacre in Newtown.

“If you want to glorify a gun maker, there’s other ways to do it, other than to create a new national park,” said Ladd Everitt, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a group made up of 47 organizations and associations.

Two Connecticut Democrats, Rep. John Larson and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, reintroduced the legislation this year to create the “Coltsville” National Historical Park on the site, which includes the Colt Armory and other buildings that were part of the 19th-century industrial enterprise founded by Samuel Colt. The entire congressional delegation supports the legislation.

But while some might say the effort is inappropriate in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting on Dec. 14--and perhaps out of step with gun-control efforts in Congress that both Larson and Blumenthal have supported--the lawmakers say they see nothing untoward.

“The senator does not see a connection” between his efforts to get the national historic park established and his efforts at gun control, said a Blumenthal spokeswoman.

Rather, both he and Larson argue that the Coltsville complex is a “historic treasure” that they say enshrines Colt’s role in advancing the industrial revolution and manufacturing in Connecticut and nationwide.

Indeed, there is no disputing the role that Colt played in the history of Connecticut and the United States. Samuel Colt founded his Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company in the mid-19th century. It wasn’t long before its Peacemaker six-shot revolver revolutionized personal firearms.

The company was an industrial-age innovator, replacing the practice of individually crafting each component of a product with the use of interchangeable parts. After Samuel Colt’s death, his wife, Elizabeth Colt, directed the complex for another 39 years, becoming a major entrepreneur in an age when women rarely occupied positions of importance in manufacturing. During both world wars, the company was one of the nation’s leading small-arms producers.

But while Blumenthal does not see any problems with the national park effort, the Hartford Courant, Connecticut’s largest newspaper, has at least entertained the idea that some people might. In an editorial earlier this month, the paper defended the timing of the national park effort as a “perhaps unfortunate coincidence--but nothing more than that.” The editorial said the fight over gun-control legislation should not make it more difficult for Connecticut’s Democratic lawmakers to win support for Coltsville. “Would we not want to tell this story because there is a national debate about gun safety?” the paper asked rhetorically. “Did the country close Monticello or Mount Vernon during the civil rights movement?”

But Everitt, the spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said that whatever the potential arguments in favor of using national park service status to boost the brand of a gun manufacturer, “this is lousy timing,” because it is too soon after the Newtown tragedy.

“It even sounds bizarre,” he said, adding that he believes many people hearing about this for the first time also would feel the same way.

While family members of victims of the Newtown shootings have remained quiet on the park issue, Ron Pinciaro, executive director of CT Against Gun Violence, said that it has crossed his mind that one motivation for elected officials to rally behind the national park effort could be to show that Connecticut values and wants to retain major companies in the firearms industry.

In fact, the modern Colt's Manufacturing Company LLC and other firearm companies have talked publicly of uprooting from Connecticut to other states that may be more welcoming. In the wake of the Newtown shootings, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy signed comprehensive state gun legislation that includes a ban on some weapons, as well as the sale or purchase of high-capacity magazines, and requires background checks.

Larson, in an interview, said his efforts on the park started a dozen years ago. He conceded it would be “bad timing if it were that Newtown happened and then I proposed this.”

Larson said the whole Coltsville neighborhood would benefit from the park, which would encompass existing privately-developed apartments, residential housing, and businesses. The plan is backed by state officials and the City of Hartford.

In testimony last week before the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks, Peggy O’Dell, deputy director for operations for the National Park Service, said the Obama administration will support the legislation to establish Hartford’s Coltsville Historic District as a national park, provided that several conditions are met to guarantee its financial viability.