By Oliver Ryan

(FORTUNE Magazine) – IN THE DAYS BEFORE THE EXPIRATION of the Clinton era "assault weapons" ban on Sept. 14, L.A. police chief Bill Bratton warned of "carnage," while the NRA talked of a "monumental accomplishment." Candidates Bush and Kerry traded shots on the issue without failing to note their enthusiasm for hunting. To get a clearer read on the matter, we headed north from New York City into the wilds of Connecticut's Gun Valley.

Before the Civil War, it turns out that the Connecticut river valley was the cradle of American gun manufacturing. "Way, way back, over 90% of the guns in the country came from Connecticut," says Tony Aeschliman of Marlin Firearms, a small manufacturer in North Haven. Companies like Colt, Ruger, and U.S. Repeating Arms--formerly Winchester--still have offices in the area, along with smaller names such as Mossberg. A few miles north in Springfield, Mass., is Smith & Wesson.

Things were quiet on the first post-ban shopping day at Bob's Gun Exchange, a cluttered shop in Darien. A trim middle-aged woman in jeans with a gold watch came in to buy 50 rounds for her shotgun. "I'm a better shot than my husband," she said. "It makes him furious." Owner Bob Montlick thinks the ban is "ludicrous" but says he doesn't sell many military-style weapons anyway. "You don't see a lot of the Rambo thing here."

In fact, few in Gun Valley think the expiration will really affect business. Connecticut is one of seven states that have their own assault-weapons bans. And even in states without local bans the impact is likely to be muted. It has always been legal to sell weapons made before the 1994 law, and gunmakers have gotten around the restrictions by making superficial changes to gun models. New Haven mayor John DeStefano, nephew to two former Winchester employees, thinks the federal ban--though imperfect--was better than nothing. Not so businessmen like Richard Millo, who owns a gun shop in Shelton and applauds the symbolic victory. On his door a sticker reads MY PRESIDENT IS CHARLTON HESTON. Says Millo, "It's nice to be on the winning team for once." --Oliver Ryan