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Connecticut has suddenly become the epicenter of the nation's gun control debate in a way no one there could've foreseen. And while the school shooting in Newtown has brought calls for restrictions on firearms, the state, a century and a half ago, led the world in creating modern weaponry. Jeff Cohen from member station WNPR has this report on the Connecticut's history of gun making and the industry that grew up around it.

JEFF COHEN, BYLINE: If you drive past Hartford on the interstate, you'll see the blue onion dome high atop the factory that was once the Colt Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company. The gun maker has long since left its Hartford factory, but it still makes guns nearby.

Today, the historic complex is a redevelopment project with the hope of being named a national historic park. A century and a half ago, the factory was where Samuel and Elizabeth Colt made the revolver.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV DOCUMENTARY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It was called the peacemaker, the equalizer, the gun that won the West.

COHEN: That's how a public television documentary recalled it. And that's how Governor Dannel Malloy recalled the gun and the complex that produced it. He said it's part of our history lesson.

GOVERNOR DANNEL MALLOY: Not just about Hartford or Connecticut, but about the United States. Listen, the West was won here in Hartford.

COHEN: That was a press conference announcing a new commercial tenant for the complex. While there, the governor joined the chorus of state boosters in favor of turning the gun factory and its surrounding 260-acre neighborhood into a national historic park that could attract investment and tourism. That was also the day before the shootings at Newtown Elementary School, an hour from the Colt factory. Soon Malloy would be consoling grieving families and renewing his calls for tougher gun laws.

MALLOY: I'm a big believer in hunting rights, a big believer in supporting the Second Amendment, but there is a reality that this stuff has gone too far and is too easy to own.

COHEN: Some state lawmakers want to limit the number of rounds a gun magazine can hold. But as they begin that debate, it's worth remembering that the Colt revolver was one of the guns that started the discussion. Before the revolver, a rifle could take 40 seconds or so to reload. With the revolver...

BILL HOSLEY: Now you've got six shots in six seconds - boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And it changed profoundly the mathematics of self-defense.

COHEN: That's Bill Hosley. He's a Colt scholar. And he points out that what began with Colt's six-shooter for personal use has evolved to guns that can carry 30 rounds at a time.

HOSLEY: There aren't too many places bluer than Connecticut, and so how ironic that the state that is pretty left-leaning in its politics has this iconically right-leaning industry.

COHEN: And today, Hartford, the state's capital city, is hoping that the history of this industry might be part of its economic rebirth. Congressman John Larson is a big supporter of making the factory a national historic park, because of all of the innovations in manufacturing, business, and community development that Colt and his invention once brought. Larson recently hosted a forum not far away on violence and guns. I asked him whether after Newtown it's hard to celebrate this part of Connecticut's history.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LARSON: It's not a celebration. It's a historic fact. When you look at the totality of what was launched by Samuel and Elizabeth Colt, I mean it's pretty remarkable. And whether you agree with the production of guns or not, it is a historic fact.

COHEN: Although this Congress didn't act to make Coltsville a national historic park, Larson says he hopes the next Congress will.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Cohen in Hartford.

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