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As Clinton and Sanders spar over gun control, Newtown, Conn., is drawn into unwanted spotlight

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and gun control
Gun control is the rare issue that has allowed Hillary Clinton to position herself as more liberal than Bernie Sanders. Above, they appear at a debate in New York on April 14.
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

The school where the second-deadliest mass shooting in American history took place has been razed. The house where the killer lived with his mother has been torn down and left for open space.

Newtown seems intent on moving past the tragedy a disturbed young man left behind in 2012 when he killed 20 first-graders, six school employees and his mother before taking his own life.

What the town can’t escape is being politicized in the debate over gun control in this country.

Gun violence — notably the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School — has become a defining issue in the Democratic race for the presidential nomination. Of the handful of policy differences between front-runner Hillary Clinton and rival Bernie Sanders, gun control is the rare split that has allowed Clinton to position herself as more liberal than Sanders.

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The debate has grown tenser in the days leading up to the Connecticut primary on Tuesday.

Sanders voted for a 2005 law giving gun manufacturers wide legal immunity and has stood by his support of the bill despite the wrongful death lawsuit filed by Newtown families against the manufacturer of the Bushmaster AR-15 that was used at Sandy Hook. The families contend that the company is liable for marketing a military-grade killing machine that’s unfit for use by the general public.

Clinton voted against the immunity law and has castigated Sanders as siding with the National Rifle Assn. in his support of the bill. Her campaign believes the staunchly pro-gun-control message will resonate in states like Pennsylvania, which also is voting Tuesday, and Connecticut, which already has some of the nation’s strictest gun laws.

In recent days, Clinton launched ads in Connecticut and Rhode Island featuring the daughter of the principal who was killed at Sandy Hook. On Thursday, the former secretary of State appeared less than an hour from here in Hartford alongside people who lost family members in shootings to reiterate her criticism of Sanders’ support for the immunity bill.

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Clinton’s broader criticism of Sanders is that he’s weak overall on gun control, a high-priority issue for Democrats. Clinton also notes that Sanders repeatedly voted against the Brady bill, which called for mandatory background checks and waiting periods to purchase firearms.

“We also have to take on the gun lobby and take on the epidemic of gun violence,” Clinton said Sunday at a rally in Bridgeport, noting that 90 people die in the U.S. every day because of guns. “We cannot go on like this.

“I’m going to make this a centerpiece of what I do as president, and together we’re going to save lives,” she said.

Sanders has called the Sandy Hook shootings “murder, assault, slaughter, unspeakable act” and said guns must be kept out of the hands of those who should not have access to them.

But the senator from Vermont has reiterated his support for the 2005 immunity law by pointing to the gun culture in his home state.

“I was concerned that in rural areas all over this country, if a gun shop owner sells a weapon legally to somebody and that person then goes out and kills somebody, I don’t believe it is appropriate that that gun shop owner who just sold a legal weapon to be held accountable and be sued,” he said during a CNN debate this month in a scathing exchange with Clinton.

A family member of a Sandy Hook victim said Sanders owed them an apology; he repeatedly declined. The New York Daily News responded by declaring on its front page: “Bernie’s Sandy Hook shame.”

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Sanders’ wife, Jane, countered that Clinton had politicizied the tragedy and had flip-flopped on gun control.

Newtown is used to the attention, as unwanted as it may be.

“Newtown’s been politicized since the beginning,” said Curtiss Clark, editor of the weekly Newtown Bee, which was founded in 1877. “We learned long ago that … Newtown’s fate, its legacy … is shared by a larger audience.”

In its historic downtown, a few signs adorn storefronts: “We Are Sandy Hook. We Choose Love.” “Newtown Conn. Never Forget.” These are the few overt, visible indicators of the massacre that stunned this enclave of 28,000 about 60 miles outside New York City. A memorial will be built.

Many of the town’s residents do not want to be forever defined by the tragedy, and there’s a general weariness about once again being in the spotlight.

“We’ve moved forward. We’ve moved on. We don’t need to rehash all that stuff,” said Nick Heron, 21, a sales clerk at Sandy Hook Wine & Liquor.

Heron, born and raised here, remains annoyed by the media and politicians who overran the town immediately after the shooting. “It should be over.”

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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Twitter: @LATSeema

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