Some carried flowers and others brought stuffed animals or poinsettias. For the people of Newtown, Sunday was about mourning the deceased of Friday’s school shooting and pondering how and why such a tragedy had hit their quiet corner of Connecticut.

“What can I say? It’s a town like every other town,” said David Taylor, a life-long Newtown resident, who choked back tears after visiting the makeshift memorial that has sprung up at one of the town’s main crossroads. “A tight-knit community, solid, religious community. Everyone is close. Everyone knows each other.”

The death of 20 six- and seven-year-olds is what makes Friday’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary tragically unusual in the US’s grim history of mass shootings. But what will register with many Americans is how frighteningly normal – even privileged – a community Newtown is.

Newtown, which had a population of 27,560 and a median family income in excess of $100,000 when the last census was taken in 2010, has grown rapidly in the past couple of decades, transforming itself from a quiet rural community to a popular dormitory town. Families have moved there from suburbs closer to New York, for the peace and quiet and the open space.

Many residents still make the three-hour round-trip commute to work in Manhattan. Yet it retains the close-knit feel of a village.

When reporters came to visit in the past they usually did so to celebrate it as an idyllic respite from urban life just outside the commuter belt. “Enjoy the Horses; Skip the Urban Circus” was the headline on a 2011 feature in the New York Times’ real estate section which labelled it a haven for horsey former New Yorkers.

“The sound of hooves is even louder in Newtown,” the article declared, quoting town officials and residents “who boast that this 60-square-mile town about 70 miles from Manhattan is among the most inviting places to keep and ride a horse in the state, and possibly the region.”

The town is also home to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a lobby group whose stated mission is “to promote, protect and preserve hunting and the shooting sports”.

The NSSF was not returning calls for comment on Sunday and two plain-clothed men who claimed to be “security” blocked the entrance to the office park in which its headquarters are housed. In a statement on its web site it said: “Our hearts go out to the families of the victims of this horrible tragedy in our community. Out of respect for the families, the community and the ongoing police investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment or participate in media requests at this time.”

Linda Lyons, who was walking her dog near one memorial on Sunday, said she had moved to Sandy Hook about eight months ago and had so far found it to be among the nicest places she’s ever lived.

“It’s a very caring community. There’s a sense of pride in the community and people enjoy giving back to the community,” she said.

However, she noted that guns were not uncommon in the area, saying there was a healthy “sporting community”. “If you do your laundry in the local Laundromat, you’ll see copies of magazines like Garden and Gun,” she said.

Such sights are not unusual to anyone accustomed to life in America’s “exurbs”, the outer limits of metropolitan areas where suburban sprawl runs into rural life and cultures sometimes clash.

Newtown is a small-town that like many celebrated its innocence before Friday’s shooting. Sandy Hook Elementary is one of four elementary schools in the town that feed two middle schools and a single high school. The city’s website lists the local Big Y Supermarket as one of the town’s major employers.

There were signs it was trying to heal and at least try to regain some of that innocence on Sunday as townspeople and visitors took solace in church.

The mass at Saint Rose Catholic church was packed, Reuters reported. The priest’s announcements at the end included news that the Christmas pageant rehearsal would go on as planned, but without 6-year-old Olivia Engel, killed on Friday before she could play the role of an angel.

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