By Edith Honan
NEWTOWN, Connecticut (Reuters) - Residents of Newtown gathered on Monday to share ideas on how, after the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the small Connecticut town can escape the designation of "just another site" of a school shooting in America.
The group, calling themselves Newtown United, said they hoped that as long as the country's eyes stare mournfully on this sleepy town, something powerful could come of the shooting on Friday that left 20 first graders, and six teachers and administrators, dead.
Most of all, they talked about guns. And their discussion showed that Newtown, like the rest of the United States, has a long way to go to reach consensus.
"I would like, when you think of Sandy Hook, you think, 'Oh, that's where they banned assault weapons," said John Neuhoff, a retired painting conservateur who lives in Newtown. "If we can ban fireworks, we should be able to ban assault weapons."
Neuhoff said his 13-year-old daughter had volunteered to launch a petition drive.
Newtown United was formed on Sunday night, two days after 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother at their Newtown home and then drove five miles to the elementary school, where he opened fire on classrooms of first graders before turning the gun on himself. About 55 people attended Monday's meeting.
"There's a big feeling of helplessness, at least for me," said Lee Shull, one of the group's organizers. "There's been so much media attention, and part of this is to take advantage of that ... We need to turn this into something positive."
No major reforms followed mass shootings in Tuscon, Arizona, and Aurora, Colorado, and Shull said he feared the same for Newtown. "Enough is enough," he said of the shootings.
Others suggested creating a public gun-owner registry and restricting the amount of ammunition a person can purchase. Several said they planned to join the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence's rally on Tuesday in Washington.
Still, while most of the residents had come to talk about guns or the need for better mental health services for troubled teens, others objected to what they suggested was an overly assertive and political response to the tragedy.
One man suggested a better response would be to encourage neighbors to smile and shake hands when passing one another on the street, while others bristled at the idea that residents would step head-first into the polarizing U.S. debate over guns.
"Our hearts are broken wide open. If we go into the old battles and divisions, I'm afraid that's going to keep us from being Newtown United. We need to come together and say it's possible," said Ben Roberts.
Many echoed President Barack Obama, who visited Newtown on Sunday and declared that America had failed to protect its children from harm. But they noted that Obama has repeatedly stopped short of issuing an explicit call for gun control or reform that would curtail gun owners' rights.
At the gathering in Newtown, many said it was time for their community, still reeling from tragedy, to take matters into their own hands.
"I sort of hang onto the idea of 'Think globally, Act locally,'" said Craig Mittleman. "My culture is one of getting things done."
(Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Jackie frank)