As a decade-long push to make a national park out of Samuel Colt's 19th-century gun factory won approval, elected officials hailed the project as a way to boost one of Hartford's poorest neighborhoods and honor the revolver as a marvel of manufacturing. Notably absent from the celebrating was Colt's Manufacturing Co., as it and other gun makers say a strict gun control law has left them feeling unwelcome in the state.
The factory, distinguished by its blue onion-shaped dome, opened in 1855 and is perhaps the best-known symbol of an era when gun companies in the Connecticut River valley helped to pioneer the concept of interchangeable parts and drive the Industrial Revolution.
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While New England politics have not been seen as friendly to guns for years, the relationship between gun makers and leaders who championed gun control became bitter after Connecticut adopted one of the country's toughest gun control laws following the 2012 Newtown elementary school shooting. A gun industry association withdrew its support for the park project, and Colt executives, who closed the factory in West Hartford one day last year so workers could protest the gun legislation, have declined to discuss it.
The project's leading advocate in Congress, U.S. Rep. John Larson, a Democrat, said in an interview that the park could provide a forum for discussions of Colt's historical significance and issues including modern-day gun violence.
"It can become a living monument to what transpired and what went into the making and planning of the place and what the ramifications of that are," Larson said.
The measure designating Coltsville as a national park was signed into law Friday by President Barack Obama. It is expected to bring in millions of dollars and, eventually, 200,000 visitors annually. A proposal describes possible attractions including a "Colt manufacturing multimedia experience."
The 260-acre site, which was involved in manufacturing until 1994, includes armories, buildings for worker housing and an Episcopal church Elizabeth Colt commissioned in her husband's honor following his death. The Church of the Good Shepherd features revolver parts carved into sandstone above one of the entrances and, at the rear, stained glass with a rendering of Samuel Colt in flowing robes.
Colt and the company's president, Dennis Veilleux, declined several requests to comment on whether it might become involved in the park's development. Veilleux warned last year that the gun law was likely to erode Connecticut ties the company had built up over its 175 years because customers would not want to support the state.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a Newtown-based gun industry association, withdrew support for the Coltsville legislation last year, saying the campaign reflected hypocrisy by the state's congressional delegation and governor. The group's senior vice president, Lawrence Keane, said last week he did not expect it would be involved at all with the project.
"We think it's more important to focus on good-paying manufacturing jobs rather than creating part-time jobs for ticket-takers at a park," Keane said.
While the gun industry has been at odds with Connecticut officials, advocates of tighter gun control say they recognize Colt's historical significance and take no issue with devoting resources to the park project. Whether or not Colt takes a role in the project's development, Larson, who first began pursuing the idea 14 years ago, said he is sure it is a point of pride for the company.