State Off Target On Willington Firearms Facility

September 3, 2015

Courant Op-Ed
Robert M. Thorson

Firearms have invaded Connecticut’s schools, streets and workplaces, triggering murder and mayhem. The societal response should not be to let them invade Willington, where police want to build a massive firearms training facility. Otherwise the state’s quiet corner will hear the bang, pop and rattle of gunfire both day and night for up to six days per week.

The answer to escalating gunfire in our cities should not be more gunfire in the woods. Instead, we must deglorify guns in our entertainment industry and get serious about poverty, the root cause of urban violence. Poverty gnaws local culture until it bleeds young lives.

This proposed facility in Willington will further militarize our police force. We’re talking about not one, but four separate gun ranges, ammunition dumps, weapons stockpiles, a control tower and rumors of a helicopter airport. We’re talking secrecy too, for the state police to invite whomever they like, from whatever country, to blast away with no local accountability.

Demilitarization of public police forces is now part of national policy. If so, why is Connecticut proposing a paramilitary weapons complex that’s an order of magnitude larger than its current facility in Simsbury?

Why not give peace a chance? “You may say I’m a dreamer,” wrote John Lennon, a victim of urban gun violence, continuing with, “But I’m not the only one.” I’m certainly with him on this one.

Unwillington.com is the website run by those coordinating opposition to the firearms training facility proposal. They’re not “unwillington” because of the NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) syndrome. They are “unwillington” for reasons that apply to us all.

First, this is an egregious case of overreach by the state into the affairs of a tiny New England town. Anyone concerned about national overreach into state affairs— for example in education vis-a-vis the Common Core State Standards — may want to think twice about what the state plans to do to this nearly helpless town.

During the decades I’ve lived in the town next door, Mansfield, I’ve watched Willington residents work hard to improve their community using the peaceful tools of voting, zoning, planning, education, fundraising, philanthropy and volunteering. My children took piano lessons in a house on the town green. My colleagues and my tax man live there. I’ve visited town schools and spoken at the town library. I’ve hiked its trails with my students, especially near Ruby Road, the proposed site of the firearms facility. All of these places lie within 2 miles of the potential problem.

Second, we’re talking economics. The state wants to purchase 327 acres of private woodland with money it doesn’t have to locate a facility far from state police headquarters in Middletown. This is a permanent commitment to mileage costs for the state. Individual residents are very concerned with devaluation of property values for every home within earshot. The town is concerned about lost tax revenues from these hundreds of properties.

Third, there are environmental issues. Some of the proposed complex occupies the headwaters of the Fenton River, a public water supply. There the lead from bullets will be sprayed who knows where? Existing noise pollution regulations were not created with mock gun battles in mind. Habitats will be compromised, especially with respect to animal anxiety.

Neither Willington residents nor I are opposed to public policing and the need for live-fire training. I live by the rule of law, and recognize the need to enforce it with force. I understand that police put their lives at risk to protect my freedoms. I’m grateful for their presence. I want them to be as well trained as they can be, especially in ways to reduce the shooting of citizens, whether criminals or innocents.

What I do not understand is why the state police can’t upgrade the 30-acre training facility they now operate in Simsbury. Why increase the size of the facility by an order of magnitude?

I’ve read enough to know that the Simsbury facility has a few issues. But could it also be that Simsbury has more political muscle than Willington?

Robert M. Thorson is a professor at the University of Connecticut’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be reached at [email protected]