30. Dusk

September 8, 2004

Bushmaster Headquarters — Windham, Maine

The news came in a press release, signed by Richard E. Dyke, chairman of Bushmaster Firearms, Inc.:

Bushmaster Firearms is pleased to announce a conclusion to the DC sniper case brought by the victim’s families and the Brady organization. The balance of the insurance policy not spent on legal fees, approximately $550,000, will go to the victim’s families for their grief.

Bushmaster reaffirms its commitment to BATF requirements and the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s (NSSF) goals. Bushmaster supports that FFL Dealers and Distributors who sell its products follow the recommendations of the BATF newsletters and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) publication “Don’t Lie for the Other Guy” program and their other safety literature.

In all, the eight families of DC Sniper victims, and the survivors, including the boy who was injured outside of Benjamin Tasker Middle School, would share an approximately $2,500,000 payout (the gun store in Tacoma was responsible for the majority of damages.)

Bushmaster was annoyed when the Brady Campaign took credit for a legal “victory” over them, and the gun maker did what they could to diminish that interpretation. “We felt the compassionate thing to do was give it to the victims’ families, not because we had to but because we wanted to,” Bushmaster explained in their press release. “The Washington DC Brady Group should learn what compassion is really all about!”

NSSF Headquarters — Newtown, Connecticut

On the day of the settlement, a spokesman for the NSSF emphasized that Bushmaster had admitted no wrongdoing, and was merely giving what was left of their $1,000,000 liability insurance payout to the families, “for their grief,” rather than wasting it on more lawyers. “Everyone in our industry has great sympathy for the victims in this tragedy,” the representative told the Washington Times. “It’s unfortunate that the focus is not on the individuals who plotted and went on a shooting rampage. Instead, we’re focusing on a shopkeeper who had a product stolen.”

The NSSF knew that the settlement was bigger than just the D.C. Sniper case; as much as Bushmaster wanted to frame it as an act of compassion, it was an unprecedented outcome for a liability case involving a legally-manufactured firearm. Now, the anti-gun lawyers would smell blood. This significance was recognized by the investment website Motley Fool, which warned owners of gun-company stocks that, although the manufacturer of the snipers’ weapon was not a publicly traded company, the firearms industry as a whole could still take a hit. “It’s now only a matter of time before Bushmaster is known not as the only manufacturer to settle such a lawsuit, but as the first manufacturer to settle such a lawsuit.”

September 13, 2004

Capitol Building — Washington, D.C.

Five days after the D.C. Sniper settlement was announced, the firearms industry and its opponents observed another major milestone: ten full years had passed since President Clinton signed the Federal Assault Weapons Ban into law.

For the last decade, advocates and opponents of gun control alike had debated the bill’s effectiveness, mostly centering around the same old weakness in the language that had been around since the late 1980’s: that manufacturers could always modify a “banned” gun, call it by a different name, and go right on selling it. Meanwhile, the high-capacity magazines manufactured before the ban went into effect were still legal, and abundant. Measuring the impact of the ban would be difficult — if it ever again mattered.

Since the Assault Weapons Ban had a sunset provision, the tenth anniversary of its signing was also its expiration date. On September 13, 2004, the sun set, and the ban was no more.

Hartford, Connecticut

“Right now, we have the Federal government recalling the Super Soaker toy gun, at the same time we are within hours of letting assault weapons back on our streets,” said a U.S. Representative from Connecticut, at a news conference that afternoon. “The mere notion that we would again legalize these guns is outrageous.” He had just been one of the congressmen to vote for the federal ban’s renewal, but there were no longer enough like him in other states to sustain it.

Within Connecticut, the lifting of this federal law meant that the state’s assault weapons ban — a bedrock layer of anti-gun legislation that, until then, rarely came into play (as it was mostly weaker than, or redundant with, the federal ban) — was now the only restriction left on such weapons. The state’s Attorney General released a statement, emphasizing this new reality: “Our state must now commit to continued, even stronger enforcement of our assault weapons ban. We can no longer count on our federal agencies to assist us.”

Connecticut’s gun ban was still quite similar to the lapsed federal ban, so in practice, there was little change as far as the legality of owning a semi-automatic rifle in the state: if you weren’t a felon, you could usually still buy an AR-15 made by any number of manufacturers. Just not a Colt AR-15 — and certainly, never a Colt Sporter.

Fall 2004

Newtown Middle School

Newtown’s only middle school was built on a grassy plot off of Queen Street — the path one block over from Main Street, and the flagpole. The school began its life in 1951 as the town’s first dedicated high school, a simple colonial brick building of two stories and 55,000 square feet. The town’s surging population quickly outgrew it.

In 1974, construction was completed on what is the current Newtown High School, on the edge of Sandy Hook, at the north base of the sloping fields leading up to Fairfield Hills.

The old high school on Queen Street was thus handed down to the younger students, and now, simple, black, NEWTOWN MIDDLE SCHOOL lettering marks its entrance. Above, a white, church-style spire rises into sky, the school’s tallest point capped by an image straight from Newtown’s official seal: an iron weather vane, in the shape of a rooster. A labyrinth of hallways snaking out of the back of the original structure records the growth of Newtown over the decades since it opened, as the old hand-me-down building grew in phases from its original footprint, into to a twisting 175,000 sq ft campus.

* * *

It was Adam’s third school in as many years. Shortly after starting the 7th grade, he gave his father a tour, and even though Peter didn’t need to be shown around — he had already seen Ryan pass through the sixth, seventh and eighth grades at NMS — he was still caught off-guard, just from seeing the way his son acted within its walls. “Man, that kid, you couldn’t shut him up!” Peter would say, when remembering the day a decade later. Adam was excited, maybe even happy to be showing off how ready he was for his new surroundings. And by this point, expecting Adam to adapt to any change in life had become a tenuous proposition. It was almost too good to be true.

For Adam and his classmates, the biggest departure from life at Reed Intermediate was that they couldn’t just sit still and have the walls change around them anymore; now there were seven class periods every day, each in different rooms scattered around a massive school. That meant passing periods in between — exactly four minutes long, bell-to-bell — during which the school’s 861 students would all empty from its 69 classrooms, filling the halls and forming into currents and counter-currents, a mass of people all rushing to get to their next desk before the bell rang again.

Lunchtimes presented even more intimidating displays of humanity. In an issue of the school’s “Lion’s Roar” newsletter that year, a Guidance Counselor painted, for parents, the scene that she saw from her office every day at 11:00am, when as many as 260 students at a time would be competing for space in the cafeteria:

Seating and company are of utmost importance, even at the expense of eating your own lunch. There are those who dash to scout out the best table and stake a claim or save seats. A few will not leave their seats for fear of losing them. They’ll say, “No, I’m not buying lunch today” or if they’re lucky, they’ll give money to a friend going to the snack line. Ah, seat secured. […] Nobody ever knows who made the mess, nobody ever looks under the table, but somebody always cleans it up. Students least happy to return to class sit farthest from the exit. “Neighborhoods” happen…. Lunch may be the high or low point in your child’s day, but it’s always an adventure. Just ask them!

Around this time, Adam told his mother he was a vegetarian. He could not tolerate certain textures of foods anymore, or even smell them, and all meat products were definitely out. Standing in the cafeteria, he would be nauseated by the trays racing by him, carrying lunch-line staples like pepperoni pizza or hamburgers. He was starting to question consuming cow’s milk as well, objecting to what he viewed as inhumane (and, perhaps even more objectionable, unsanitary) living conditions at dairy farms. When Nancy packed his lunch every morning, she had to keep in mind that Adam liked things a certain way.

* * *

Later that school year, a parent approached the principal of Newtown Middle School, and expressed concern about the school’s “climate.” Having heard the sentiment before, Principal Diane Sherlock decided to share her response with all the parents, in her column for the “Lion’s Roar.”

“We know from research that students have a difficult time learning if they feel threatened or afraid,” she wrote, and she shared that the school had a number of strategies (such as grouping students into a sequence of classes together, with the same teacher) that they would use to “transform a large school of adolescents (who frequently are at the point in their development where self-confidence is shaky) into one where ‘everyone knows your name.’” The assigned teachers would become “expert advocates” for each of their 100 students, and the whole system would work best “when parents, through conferences or various communiqués, share their own understanding of their child.” Finally, the school’s counselors, nurses, and special education staff would “work to address the more ‘hidden’ needs of our students, again contributing to the positive climate we want our students to experience on a daily basis.”