Scott Wilson helped found what is now the state’s largest gun group, the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, not long after Barack Obama became president in January 2009 and gave Democrats control of the White House for the first time in eight years.
Wilson, a soft-spoken logistics specialist at a trucking company, has emerged as a leading voice of gun owners in Connecticut, a state famous for its role in the design and manufacture of firearms — and more recently, as the home of some of the toughest gun controls in the U.S.
CCDL grew rapidly after the Sandy Hook School massacre in December 2012, a catalyst for the rapid passage of a gun control law that expanded background checks for the purchase of guns and ammo and banned large-capacity magazines and certain military-style semi-automatics, such as the AR-15.
Overnight, membership jumped from fewer than 3,000 to more than 10,000. It’s now 28,000 — more than 10 percent of the 250,000 residents who have a permit that allows them to carry a handgun in Connecticut, either concealed or openly. You’ve probably seen one of their decals on the back of a car or truck: Its a handgun superimposed on a map of Connecticut above the jaunty slogan, “Carry On!”
CCDL had a win and a loss Friday: A bill opposed by CCDL that would have allowed police to force gun owners to show their permits on demand died in committee, as did a bill that would have directed Connecticut to strike reciprocity agreements in which the states would honor each other’s carry permits.
Guns were foreign to Wilson growing up. His first encounter with a firearm was disastrous.
I started to be concerned about the safety and the future of this country. I think what really got me up and going was what happened on 9-11. The planes hit the towers and the Pentagon and crashed into the field. I think I really started to be concerned that more types of terrorist attacks of all different kinds, from unpredictable sources, could really drive our country into some sort of disarray where you’re on your own. And you’re out there and if anybody is going to protect you or your family it’s going to be yourself. I had considered purchasing a firearm before that, but that was the catalyst.
So this was a decision you made as an adult? Some gun owners grow up around firearms, introduced to hunting or target shooting, knowledgeable about how to use them.
That was not my experience. My experience was almost the opposite. When I was 14, a friend of my brother’s brought a gun over into our house, told my brother it wasn’t loaded. He handed it to my brother. Not watching where the barrel was pointed, he pulled the trigger. It was pointed at me. The bullet hit my shoulder, came off my shoulder — ricocheted off my shoulder — hit my neck, hit the artery in my neck and the bullet lodged against my spine, paralyzed my arm for a time. For a year I did physical therapy to use my arm again.
[Wilson tugs at his collar and shows a scar at the base of the right side of his neck.]
So gun ownership was something I never really considered until later in life as we started to look at some of the uncertainty, with the potential for domestic terrorism here on our soil.
That was 2001. A lot of time has passed. Is that still your feeling for the reason to keep and bear arms?
Where it’s lawful I do typically carry my firearm. I don’t necessarily bring it everywhere. If I think it’s probably not a good idea to go somewhere, like when I work out at the gym — even though there’s been a shooting at the gym. I calculate my risks and I decide whether or not to have the firearm on me is appropriate at the time for myself. If I think I am going to leave my job and go to my in-laws in Rhode Island, I leave my firearms at home. That’s one of the reasons why we pushed that reciprocity bill this year.
What was the beginning of your activism, the inspiration for the founding of CCDL?
I started to look at some of the [on-line] forums. I started to pay attention to legislation and things of that nature. That’s when I learned that the lost-and-stolen law passed in Connecticut. If somebody has a firearm stolen from their house, they’re under obligation to report that theft of a firearms within so many days or they can be charged criminally for the theft of that firearm. I kind of a felt a little bit indignant. Even though gun owners should be responsible for their firearms, I have an issue with people being held criminally accountable for the actions of somebody else. That was part of it.
The other part of it was I lived in Montville, where the town council put forth a bill to ban the discharge of firearms in the town limits. I was a member of a gun club in that town, and I also lived on 10 acres of property where I actually target shot on the property. I felt that was another issue I took exception to. Myself and 500 other people from Montville went to the town hall meeting. Within a week’s time, the issue was dead. I liked that, the ability of people to go in and take exception and be heard.
And that was before CCDL?
It was before CCDL, but I had it in my mind that Connecticut could use a gun rights organization. We looked to the Virginia Citizens Defense League, VCDL. They were the most successful statewide grassroots organization at the time, and that’s why we modeled our organization after them.
So, it grew out of your experience in Montville?
It planted maybe a kernel in the back of my mind. There was a lot of uncertainty as the Bush administration was winding down.
What do you mean? You saw the coming Obama administration as hostile to gun rights?
Yes, that was part of it. We wanted to make sure we were prepared for whatever else came our way.
What the first big issue you organized around after creating CCDL in 2009?
The first thing we really go to do, we petitioned the Board of Firearms Permit Examiners for a declaratory ruling to clarify what criteria local authorities could ask for above and beyond state law in issuing pistol permits. Some towns asked for three letters of reference, for applications to sign a waiver for credit scores, for interviews with spouses and ex-spouses. [The board clarified what the towns could demand.] We considered that a substantial victory.
How do you view the permit process in Connecticut now? It often is ranked by national groups as having the some of the most comprehensive laws regarding the rules for purchasing and owning firearms.
It is a tough state. But the biggest problem we have right now is individual municipalities. It still comes back on the responsibility of how the state deals with it. There is a process outlined in the statute of how to issue a pistol permit. It’s not uniformly followed. The law gives eight weeks to approve or deny, but there’s no teeth for enforcement. It’s very frustrating.
What was the impact of Sandy Hook on gun owners and CCDL?
We had to compartmentalize our feelings and sympathy for those families and still march forward in spite of that and find the way to articulate our need for a Second Amendment, our belief system, in spite of the horrible thing that happened that day, that we still have a right and a need to protect ourselves and the right to bear arms. So we really had to suspend any kind of emotion for the most part. It was not an easy thing to do. We all have families. We respect life and we abhor violence. The reasoning behind gun ownership is to protect ourselves against violence.
You talk about schools as “soft targets of opportunity.” On a practical basis, what are you talking about, that teachers be armed?
The rhetoric I heard within days was we need to have a conversation about this. But our side of the conversation was just not going to be listened to. Whether it’s armed teachers, whether it’s armed administrators — we have to remember the first person that confronted Adam Lanza [the shooter] was an administrator of that school. That person walked up and tried to do something, but without any ability to stop Adam Lanza in any real sense was shot dead. Then Adam Lanza was free to go on about his killing spree.
Right there, that tells you — whether it was a teacher, a faculty member, a janitor — somebody that is in a position that might be trained could have made a difference that day. Why is that off the table? We can hash out the nuances of who would carry, when they would carry, would it be a teacher, would it be an administrator, would it be a janitor, would it be a security guard, would it be a police officer stationed right at the door. The bottom line was that day, that gun free zone, those signs that say this is a gun free zone did absolutely nothing to protect those children that day.
There is a different debate about placing a police officer at a school. But don’t you see a risk about having teachers armed in a school, even if they are trained?
Life is full of risks. The risk of not having them armed, we obviously see the end results of that. It’s almost like a Utopian mindset where we think all of a sudden if we put up a gun free zone sign at this school on this school property that somebody who is bent on killing, on creating as many mass victims as possible, is all of a sudden going to follow that sign. We’re already here, [citizens with concealed firearms.] We’re already next to you in line at the store. And the children are there, too. Life is filled with risk. Driving cars on the highway is a risk. Everything is a risk.
Almost four years have passed since the passage of the post-Newtown gun law. What is your view today?
I think everything we didn’t want to happen, happened. An entire list of guns that are common semiautomatic firearms are now banned for purchase. That happened. There’s a potential for creeping incrementalism that goes along with that.
There are Connecticut-compliant versions of the AR 15. They use less powerful ammunition, a .22 vs a .223, and can only use smaller magazines. But you do see them advertised. That raises a bunch of questions. What is the efficacy of the law? And to flip it to your side, what is the loss to gun owners, since there are versions you can still get?
I’m not much for cliche comparisons, but it’s sort of like buying a muscle car and putting a Volkswagen bug engine inside of it. They are still fun to shoot. I don’t see any problem with them. Twenty-two ammunition is fun. It is cheaper to shoot. There is no recoil. But if somebody really does want something that can shoot a .223 round, they are out of luck.
Our argument is it really is an effective firearm for self-defense in the home. I know most people typically think of a handgun or a shotgun. There are people who actually use these types of firearms to hunt with or to use them for home defense or competition shooting. If they’re into that kind of thing, it takes away their options to do that.
What is the purpose of open carry, as opposed to carrying a concealed firearm. [Both are legal in Connecticut with a pistol permit.] Firearms are valuable. If it’s visible, isn’t there a safety concern?
There can be if it’s not done properly. There are retention holsters that can protect somebody from just pulling the gun out of there. I certainly recommend if somebody is going to open carry, that they use a retention holster, that they learn to protect their strong side.
My question to legislators is if you’re so alarmed you might see somebody carrying a gun, how can you not be alarmed by the other 249,000-plus people out there that are carrying a gun concealed. [The number of resident with carry permits.] My question was, and still is, how would anybody, if they are that fearful of a gun, knowing there are that many people out there legally carrying a firearm, how do they ever leave the house?
What if everybody went to the mall carrying a gun in plain view? Wouldn’t that create a certain atmosphere?
I think a mass shooter would think twice in that instance.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.