Like many of my friends and neighbors, I was shocked to learn that the NRA had been indiscriminately canvassing Newtown residents with pro-gun robo calls and post cards this past week. It was a chilling indication of the organization’s complete indifference to the events in Sandy Hook and a stinging reminder of their unfailing ability to erase the horrors of gun violence from the conscience of our legislature before a decisive vote on gun control.
Nearly 15 weeks have passed since the shooting in Newtown. I spent the morning of Friday, December 14 feverishly collecting scant pieces of information about an incident in my hometown. As the details emerged, I did my best to shun the lurid images rushing to my mind. A massacre that could rival the most gruesome spectacle in any modern war had somehow unfolded in the elementary school I had attended as a child. I imagined the terror and anguish that must have gripped every parent with a child at Sandy Hook, then thought of the innumerable family members whose lives would never be the same after that day. It was the most sadistic act of madness imaginable visited upon the most innocent place I could think of.
By the time I arrived home the following morning, Newtown was unrecognizable. The global media had descended like locusts on our tranquil little town, eager to chronicle every moment of the hideous episode. Initially their invasive presence almost felt like a worthy sacrifice as coverage of the shooting appeared to prompt a national moment of sober reflection. For a few days, it felt at least possible to have a rational and intellectually honest discussion about gun violence in the United States. Several prominent conservatives joined the president in a vague but convincingly sincere call for action. Even Rupert Murdoch implausibly tweeted his outrage over the lack of sensible gun control in the America. Viewing the political landscape three months later, the cause for our collective and abysmal failure to every child at Sandy Hook is painfully evident.
Within days of the shooting the thoughtless pro-gun rhetoric had proudly reemerged, reaching new and inane heights during NRA chief Wayne LaPierre’s stupefying press conference held the following Friday. After vowing to offer a substantive contribution to ending gun violence, the NRA’s message amounted to blaming digital violence for actual violence and obdurately insisting that people, not guns, are the problem — yet curiously more guns will alleviate the problem and less guns will only make matters worse. LaPierre’s press conference was met with sweeping ridicule, even by the New York Post, which would be encouraging if his statements did not mirror our legislative posture on guns and the voting records of most members of Congress.
The most disheartening facet of gun rights advocates is their unyielding confidence in their frail logic. Twenty first-grade children were mercilessly slain, 18 of them dead where they fell, their bodies riddled with ordinance from a weapon that has no place in a private home. Six adults perished in desperate attempts to save the terrified swarms of children in their care. Over 3,000 Americans have died of gun-related violence in the weeks since the shooting in Newtown. Faced with such wanton bloodshed, it takes astounding hubris to declare with unwavering certainty that any efforts to limit the availability and lethality of firearms would be utterly futile. Banning video games and militarizing our schools are apparently viable options, but regulations governing the very devices indispensable in carrying out such atrocities are not even worth considering. This is an extraordinary position to maintain and should be supported by extraordinary evidence if it is not to be dismissed as blinding ignorance. At the very least, the prevailing pro-gun arguments underlying our anemic regulation of firearms should prove faultless in the circumstances at Sandy Hook.
The first assertion of gun advocates is that we cannot blame the gun. The cornerstone of the pro-gun position is reduced to seven vexing words “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” This phrase, as obvious as it is useless in solving the problem, casually overlooks the fact that no one is blaming the gun, only what the gun enables someone to do. Gun rights advocates constantly make the fallacious leap from claiming the gun is not solely responsible to pretending the gun plays no role at all. They similarly assume the false premise that a device should be free from regulation simply because it lacks a pulse. Guns are no less autonomous than a grenade launcher or a flame-thrower, yet we curiously don’t sell those items at Wal-Mart. With any device, other than a gun, we soundly weigh the interests of personal liberty against the dire needs of public safety. This principle has thankfully rendered the original intent of the Second Amendment laughably obsolete today. If citizens were truly allowed to maintain arms in pace with the federal government as a check against tyranny then everyone from the likes of Ted Kaczynski to Timothy McVeigh would be entitled to their own supply of enriched uranium. We have effectively crafted a Second Amendment sufficient to protect the government from us but hopelessly ineffective in protecting us from ourselves.
In the alternative world where guns are faultless, gun rights advocates attempt to peddle an absurd false equivalence between guns and other objects. The mere mention of gun control invites a host of derisive quips about how liberals will next want to ban cars, cooking knives or any household item that might be involved in a fatality. Even the language surrounding firearms is now sanitized, referring to guns as tools instead of weapons. We are meant to believe there is no difference between a hammer and a device that can, with minimal effort, continuously hurl steel slugs through a human skull with stunning accuracy from great distances. This raises the obvious question, if there’s nothing unique about a gun, why is the right to own one so important? Why not defend your home with a hammer or kitchen knife? In truth, there are innumerable federal, state and municipal laws governing the conveyance and possession of knives, fireworks, stun guns, brass knuckles, nunchakus and countless other inanimate objects that are pathetically benign compared to an AR-15. Guns remain conspicuously immune from the principle of restricting devices with the potential to do far more harm than good.
Hovering over his mother’s sleeping body that Friday morning, the scrawny Adam Lanza did not have to bludgeon her skull repeatedly with a hammer or even bury a blade in her throat. The only thing separating him from the commencement of his craven fantasy was the application of a few pounds of pressure in his index finger. It could not have possibly been easier for him. Even if Nancy Lanza’s fate was sealed by other means, there is no household item that could match the devastation he inflicted on 26 other hapless souls and their families in Newtown that morning. The comparably deranged Min Yingjun regrettably proved this the same day when he rabidly tore through a primary school in China stabbing 22 children but killing no one. Tens of thousands of violent criminals in countries with fewer guns than the United States prove this every day when they fail to kill their victims. Across states and nations, rich and poor, more guns equates to more murder.
Despite this irrefutable correlation we are told by voices spanning the political spectrum that the true culprit is a combination of mental illness and our uniquely violent culture. Still, only gun rights advocates believe that people should enjoy unfettered access to firearms in an abnormally violent society that is rife with untreated mental illness. They clamor for the removal of fictitious guns from film, music and video games but insist that actual guns should remain ubiquitous, even at the expense of other cherished liberties. The NRA doggedly fought to prohibit the creation of a federal registry for gun transactions, depriving law enforcement of an invaluable tool for tracking guns used in crimes. At the same time they have vigorously called for the creation of a national mental health database constituting an unprecedented violation to the right of privacy in the Fourth Amendment. It is revealing to see that the NRA, an organization that fashions itself as sacred guardian of the Constitution, has no qualms imploring the government to trample on the rights guaranteed in the First and Fourth Amendments whenever the spotlight is on the Second. It is important to note, even if a national mental health database existed, millions of gun sales would not involve its review since they transpire without background checks online and at gun shows under the private sale loophole, a law vigorously lobbied for and defended by the NRA.
The impassioned pleas to redress gun violence through treating mental illness would be more convincing if they didn’t come from many of the same elected officials who are responsible for cutting funding for mental health by $4.35 billion over the last four years. Additional resources for treating mental illness are also advanced as a panacea for gun violence without solving the riddle of how to compel mentally ill people to voluntarily help themselves. As difficult as effective gun control may be, it will be slightly more challenging to outlaw insanity. By most accounts, mass shooters are introverts who only grow more reclusive prior to a shooting. Even if it were possible to identify potential shooters before a crime, there is another slight constitutional problem of restraining people for actions they have yet to take. The timing of such an approach is also a grave concern. According to friends of the Lanzas, it is possible that Nancy’s intention to have her son committed was the catalyst for his actions. Perhaps, if he didn’t have access to his mother’s private armory, his demented scheme would have stayed in his mind long enough to have him placed in inpatient care.
Scores of people seem to join the NRA in placing blame with video games despite the burgeoning of the gaming industry coinciding with a double-digit reduction of violent crime in the United States over the last 20 years. The global proliferation of graphic video games has similarly failed to spur violence in other countries and the only studies on the subject have found no link between video games and violent behavior or mass shootings. Still, it appears that Adam Lanza played first-person shooter games regularly and it is certainly possible he was influenced by them in some way. The prospect raises two important questions. In weighing the interests of the First Amendment and Second Amendment, which deserves more scrutiny, and in examining the items in the Lanzas’ home, which was more dangerous, the PlayStation or the assault rifle?
The freedom of speech granted in the First Amendment has been carved out in more than a century of Supreme Court case law. Dozens of landmark judicial opinions have painstakingly refined precisely where, when and how the government can restrict every conceivable type of speech. In 2011 the Supreme Court specifically took up the question of violence in video games and found no conclusive evidence to justify curtailing speech. By stark contrast, the right to self-defense in the Second Amendment is a modern judicial invention conceived less than five years ago, an effective byproduct of 35 years of aggressive campaigning by the NRA. In its first ever ruling upholding an individual’s right to possess hand guns for the purpose of self-defense, the Supreme Court explicitly said such rights are not unlimited, nor “a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” They added that nothing prevented the government from enacting laws “imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” To date, the scope of rights granted under the Second Amendment, the same rights directly related to the third leading cause of injury-related deaths in this country, remain largely undefined as Congress has made no attempts to qualify them.
The right to bear arms for the purpose of self-defense is arguably the only reason to allow guns in a society plagued by gun violence, but it is also the reason that gun violence will never end. As LaPierre stated with infantile simplicity in his press conference, “the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” His phrasing reveals the fundamental flaw in the perception of pro-gun advocates; that we live in a world of clearly delineated good guys and bad guys. It appears somehow inconceivable to them that a good guy could, induced by rage, alcohol or operating under a misapprehension, commit irreparable harm with a firearm that they might not otherwise commit without one. If not the gun owner, perhaps an enraged relative or mentally ill child. Every argument of the pro-gun movement depends on remaining indefatigably shortsighted on this point. Of the 62 mass shooters totaling 1,007 victims in the last 20 years, 49 of them acquired their guns legally. At the time they purchased their guns, they were deemed “good guys” in the eyes of the law. A study of shootings in three demographically disparate communities around the country revealed only 13 instances of justified self-defense out of 622 home shootings, suggesting a gun in the home is 22 times more likely to kill a friend or loved one instead of an intruder. Similar studies found homicides were twice as likely to take place in homes with guns versus those without. As a nation, in the aggregate we kill far more innocent people than we save with firearms.
Nancy Lanza was by all accounts one of the good guys. She was, reportedly, a loving and attentive mother, someone who consistently donated her time and resources to helping the needy. The only seemingly abnormal facet of her personality was her staunch belief in an imminent apocalypse. Nancy was, according to her former sister-in-law, a Doomsday Prepper, someone who stockpiles large caches of weapons and canned goods for a pending cataclysm. Nancy believed, what gun rights advocates staunchly maintain, that the splendid arsenal in her basement made her family and community safer, and served as a deterrent to violent crime. It was a gun in the hands of a good guy. As with countless others, the statistics proved fatally true for Nancy Lanza when she was murdered in her sleep by the very weapons she procured to defend herself from an apocalypse that never came. In a sense her purchase did fulfill a doomsday prophecy as it enabled a massacre more grotesque than anything the most fretful Doomsday Prepper could have envisioned.
Given the dearth of federal legislation defining what constitutes an appropriate weapon for the purpose of self-defense, gun rights advocates have auspiciously declared this right should extend to cover any eventuality, including a “Red Dawn” invasion in rural Connecticut. The lack of any rational justification for the private ownership of assault rifles is best illustrated by the one piece of anecdotal evidence put forth in support of them by gun rights advocates for the last 20 years, the tale of the Korean grocers during the L.A. riots. It is unclear precisely how many assault rifles were among the dozens of more conventional guns used by Korean merchants to defend their grocery stores from rooftops in 1992. What is clear is that all of the proprietors had ample time to get themselves and their families to safety but chose to stay and fight off the approaching mobs to defend their storefronts. According to gun rights advocates then, our society should run the risk of lunatics having access to assault rifles with devastating firepower, on the chance that the worst riots of the last 50 years repeat themselves so people can stand in defense, not of their lives, but their produce.
It is fascinating to watch gun rights advocates explain how assault rifles and high-capacity magazines are effective in killing multiple hostile assailants but lack any distinct advantage when it comes to killing hordes of innocent people. Discussions of assault weapons often devolve into a game of evasive semantics and claims that the “assault” classification is purely arbitrary. The unique features of guns like the AR-15 are not a mystery to anyone who has shot them. They combine the accuracy and added muzzle velocity of a very stable rifle with the firepower of a rapid semiautomatic weapon.
The Bushmaster .223 that Adam Lanza brought into Sandy Hook Elementary is the culmination of nearly a century’s worth of research and development by the Pentagon and arms manufacturers in search of a weapon with the perfect combination of attributes to kill the greatest number of enemies in combat. That is why its near identical counterpart, the M-16, has been the standard-issue weapon for our infantry divisions since the Vietnam War. The only distinction being the M-16’s three-shot burst or fully automatic features, which soldiers are discouraged from using during firefights since they are considered a waste of ammunition. Few people are more aware of these facts than those who use their encyclopedic knowledge of firearms and ballistics to obfuscate the simple truth about these guns.
The Glock 9 millimeter is the gun of choice for most police officers who patrol and respond to emergencies in the most dangerous cities in the United States, but it is somehow inadequate for home defense. Also among the thousands of firearms that would be unaffected by an assault weapons ban are the .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum Revolver and the Remington Gas Powered 10 Gauge Shotgun. The Smith & Wesson is a .50 caliber handgun whose owners proudly boast having killed rhinos, buffaloes and elephants with a single shot. The Remington 10 Gauge can spray 18 large ball bearings through dense sheet metal from 150 feet away in a pattern 3 feet wide. If these guns are incapable of quelling the most fearsome potential home invaders it is hard to imagine anything that could. What those guns cannot do is replicate the estimated 100 to 150 shoulder-fired rounds unleashed by Adam Lanza in less than 10 minutes, nor would they ever need to, which is why the only justification for such weapons must involve preposterous hypothetical scenarios or the infamous parable of the Korean grocers. There is no constitutional requirement to placate fetishes or paranoia at the cost of public safety, nor a requirement against people thinking their rights have been infringed when they actually haven’t.
Gun rights advocates reject a ban on high capacity magazines on the principle that it only takes seconds to replace a clip. In fact, a shooter must take cover when reloading if he is facing gunfire, remove the empty clip, retrieve and insert a full magazine, manually pull back and release the slide loading the first round into the chamber, take aim again and fire, increasing the risk of a jam every time he reloads. Adam Lanza might have been forced to repeat this process 12 times instead of four had he been limited to 10 rounds per magazine. Anyone who dismisses these considerations as negligible should ask themselves if they would like those precious moments for themselves or their loved ones when attempting to escape a hail of hostile gunfire.
The pro-gun response, predictably, is to ensure someone is shooting back. The NRA claims mass shooters target schools precisely because they are unprotected. After Sandy Hook it is reasonable to assume even the most liberal parents might not object to every school being staffed with its own squadron of Marines. Unfortunately, the scheme envisioned by the NRA, at minimum a multibillion-dollar program to place just one armed guard in every school around the country, provides little more than a false sense of security in exchange for doing nothing to limit the availability of firearms. There is no evidence to support the belief that armed guards will produce a Hollywood ending. The assailants at Columbine and Virginia Tech managed to shoot a combined total of 82 people in facilities that were staffed with armed guards. Contrary to the NRA’s assumption, people on suicide missions are apparently undeterred by the presence of armed security. If, however, the NRA is correct, and mass shooters do follow the path of least armed resistance, we must then arm daycare centers, maternity wards, preschools, parks, churches, playgrounds, bus stops and any other location where innocent children may congregate. It becomes difficult to understand what sort of freedom the Second Amendment affords us when everyone in the country needs to surround themselves with guns just so less than half the country can enjoy the elective right to own one.
Critics of gun control insist that this internal arms race is our only recourse, since no matter what we do, criminals will always get their hands on a gun. As criminals do not obey the law, gun laws will be wholly ineffective in reducing the number of guns involved in violent crimes. Consequently the only byproduct of gun control is to leave law-abiding citizens defenseless against mobs of armed assailants. This notion, which could never be known with certainty, somehow justifies the complete moral abdication on the issue of gun violence along with the need to do anything at all. If this sweeping assumption is true, how does it not call into question the basis for all our laws? What is the point of having laws against speeding or murder, if speeders will continue to speed and murderers will continue to kill without regard to the consequences? Unlike most crimes, the proliferation of illegal firearms depends upon the cooperation of a broad range of actors including manufacturers, merchants, private dealers, collectors and career criminals. Gun control, correspondingly, is meant to deter everyone from the most risk-averse to the most reckless. What, precisely, about gun laws, as opposed to any other laws, renders them uniquely incapable of influencing behavior?
Many cite the city of Chicago as having some of the strongest gun laws in the country with a continually high rate of gun crime. Those same critics casually ignore the transformation of New York City from one of the most gun violent cities in the country to one of the safest, having the lowest number of homicides ever recorded in 2012. The vast discrepancy between the two cities simply demonstrates that gun laws, like all laws, are only effective to the extent that they are enforced. Chicago’s judicial system has been woefully negligent in catching, prosecuting and sentencing criminals for gun offenses. New York, conversely, has implemented some of the most rigorous police practices and sentencing guidelines for gun violations in the country as both its crime statistics and streets reflect. What both Chicago and New York unfortunately share is the blight of illegal guns funneled in from cities and states with weaker gun regulations. The vast majority of guns used in crimes on the streets of New York and Chicago originate in cities and states with little to no gun laws. Gun rights advocates are correct in criticizing the effectiveness of selective state and municipal gun measures, but only to the extent that it shows the need for comprehensive federal legislation.
It is hard to imagine how the current federal regulatory framework for gun sales could be less responsible. Private sellers are permitted to sell guns without requiring a background check and are only obligated to refrain from the sale if, according to the laws of some states, they have reason to believe the buyer would not pass a background check. As long as criminals refrain from blurting out their criminal record during the course of a purchase, the seller’s conduct is entirely lawful. In effect, a private seller may lawfully sell a gun that is illegal for a purchaser to buy. Over 80 percent of prisoners convicted of gun crimes report having purchased their guns in secondary markets that are exempt from the need to conduct background checks. This gaping loophole allows private sellers to operate with impunity regardless of who buys their guns and serves as an advertisement to all criminals on precisely where and how to buy a gun without a background check.
The pro-gun arguments against closing the gun show loophole are so attenuated and fatuous they can scarcely be understood. Instead of arguing the loophole has a purpose, gun rights advocates claim the number of transactions affected is not as high as its detractors claim, or insist despite overwhelming evidence, the loophole isn’t used at all. What then could possibly be the harm of closing it? Another popular argument holds that universal background checks would lead to more firearms being registered, which has at times in history preceded the confiscation of all guns. No one fails to mention Hitler and Stalin when making this point. If this contention were not laughable for being so acutely paranoid it would still be disingenuous due to the existence of another paranoid law that requires the FBI to destroy all records of gun transactions within 24 hours. By far the most bizarre argument against universal background checks is that we shouldn’t implement them because they will work. As Wayne LaPierre somehow uttered with a straight face before the Senate Judiciary Committee, “background checks will never be universal because criminals will never submit to them.” Sen. Durbin from Illinois replied incredulously, “That’s the point.” The private sale loophole is completely irrational until you examine it from the perspective of a $31 billion arms and munitions industry that benefits immeasurably from selling more guns to people by deliberately ignoring who is buying them.
The incoherence underlying policies of such vital importance is testament to the remarkable political accomplishments of the NRA. When polled individually most Americans, even most members of the NRA, are in favor of universal background checks. A majority of Americans are also in favor of a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. When those same ideas are framed as potential legislation the NRA gleefully watches one-half of the country fight with the other half over whether the government will be taking away all the guns. Decades of fear-mongering and misinformation has filled a tightly wound constituency with baseless suspicion leading them to perceive the slightest effort to regulate firearms as tantamount to eradicating the Second Amendment. The gun lobby has effectively managed to get us to publicly disagree on things we privately agree upon. The NRA sows doubt in the gun control debate by claiming there is no research to prove gun control is effective while they constantly work to ensure no such research is ever conducted. They depict our law enforcement as incompetent by insisting the government should enforce the laws already on the books while they quietly work to ensure existing laws cannot be enforced. They vilify any democratic decision they may oppose as the act of a fascist tyrannical government while wielding unparalleled influence in Congress. There are few organizations that exemplify tyranny more than a group that uses money, fear and misinformation to advance their agenda while obstructing the will of the majority.
There is no question of the harms of guns in our society, no doubt of the benefits of reducing the availability of firearms, and little question on how to do so. There are also no Second Amendment obstacles to implementing common sense reforms to make the country safer from people like Adam Lanza. The real constitutional impediment to gun control is not in the Second Amendment but in the requirement that Congress make and pass our laws. In the aftermath of any gun-related tragedy gun rights advocates attempt to separate the desire for gun control from the consequences of inaction by claiming such events should not be exploited for political gain. This is sadly ironic since the reason we lack effective gun control in America is precisely because there is no political upside to the issue. There is no money to be made and fewer votes to be gained than lost in restricting gun rights. The sentimental statements made in the wake of such massacres are obligatory, not opportunistic, as politicians are demonstrably more afraid of the NRA than the guns themselves. Three days after the shooting in Sandy Hook, President Obama came to Newtown and asked, “Are we doing enough?” The actual question still looms, are we doing anything at all?
On the evening of Dec. 15, I slowly drove along my old school-bus route from my childhood home to Sandy Hook Elementary, pausing every few minutes at the sight of another house with a State Police car in their driveway, the somber indication of a home irreparably damaged by one man’s lunacy. The flood of emotions we all felt in the wake of the shooting was a mere glimpse of the hell that has become a daily reality for those families. Their struggle to push aside their harrowing grief and fight to preserve the joyous memories of their children will always be indelibly humbling for me. Arriving at the driveway of the school, I recalled the years I spent as a child in Sandy Hook and the unmitigated trust small children place in the adults around them at that age. I imagined what those moments of terror might have been like through the eyes of a six-year old, then considered my own role in failing those children through my indifference and cynicism.
Neither the NRA nor any gun rights advocates are responsible for the actions of Adam Lanza, but the many among them who deny that our laws play any role in the countless lives destroyed by gun violence are unfit to make determinations for the public safety of children. The absence of outrage and dissent by the majority of Americans who disagree with them ensures that they will be dictating gun policies in this country when the next Sandy Hook comes to pass, and we will be confronted with the fact that we did nothing to prevent it.
James O'Donoghue is an attorney in New York City who grew up in Newtown, Conn., and attended Sandy Hook Elementary as a childMore James O'Donoghue.