The “AR” in AR-15 stands for “Armalite Rifle.” The gun was a creation of arms-maker Armalite’s chief designer, an ex-marine named Eugene Stoner, who had also worked on a number of previous “AR” designs before realizing his vision in the 15th iteration, in 1957 — the perfect battle rifle, as Armalite saw it. Their bet was that they could get the U.S. Army to see the AR-15 the same way: it was a lightweight infantry weapon with a detachable magazine, chambered for a new, small-caliber, high-velocity round, the .223 Remington. And it was designed to fire fully-automatically.
Unfortunately for Armalite, when it came time for the Pentagon to choose their next battle rifle, the brass went with Springfield Armory’s M14 design, instead: it wasn’t as much of a departure from the Army’s then-standard M1, and in their tests, it was more accurate than the AR-15 at long range.
After that, Armalite promptly cut their losses, sold the AR-15 design to Colt Firearms, and moved on. And it could have ended there for the AR-15 — if not for the Korean War, and especially, Vietnam.
In Korea, the American forces had to adapt against a new form of warfare: “human wave” tactics, in which the adversarial nation sought to overwhelm the U.N.’s advanced weaponry through sheer numbers of advancing troops. Against this sort of dense onslaught, the Army learned, “accuracy of fire” over long range was not nearly as important as the sheer volume of fire being directed at the enemy.
Here, there was a problem: the U.S.’s leftover M1 rifles from World War II fired a big, heavy .30-06 round — and since one of the most significant metrics in infantry warfare is the gross weight carried per-soldier, this was no minor detail. It meant fewer bullets in their magazine before they would have to reload, and fewer shots to fire before they were out of ammo completely. Worse still, in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the Soviets’ new Avtomat Kalashnikov rifles made their first appearances on the battlefield: the AK-47 fired a shorter, lighter, 7.62×39 bullet, and was designed to stay accurate during automatic fire. (The soon-to-debut M14 would technically be capable of full-auto, but like its predecessor the M1, it fired a longer and heavier round — the 7.62×51mm NATO — and as a result was nearly impossible to control without a tripod.) A new era of modern small-arms warfare was thus dawning, and it appeared that the United States was going to be left behind.
The Korean War would grind to a stalemate before any resolution to the “big bore vs. small bore” issue could be reached, and so, when the first American troops were sent off to Vietnam in the early 1960’s, they were still holding heavy, bulky M14s. That rifle’s shortcomings would become more evident as time passed, and as more and more of the Viet Cong they met on the battlefield were armed with AK-47’s.
* * *
Meanwhile, Armalite’s designs for the AR-15 were still on the shelf at Colt, and were looking better every year. The action of the rifle’s receiver used fewer parts than traditional designs, which meant less weight. It was also constructed out of modern materials — aircraft-grade aluminum and advanced polymers — which shed even more of the burden on a soldier’s back. And the 5.56mm round (a slight change from Stoner’s original .223 Remington) was smaller and lighter than the AK’s. Army tests found that, “One 5-to-7 man squad armed with the AR-15 would be as effective as a 10-man squad armed with the M14.” Numbers like that were hard to ignore.
In 1965, a small batch of AR-15s — now designated by the U.S. Army as its Model 16, or more simply “M16” — made their way to the jungles of Vietnam, in the hands of combat instructors and a few select South Vietnamese regiments. “The boys who use it think it is the greatest thing since the invention of the wheel,” one American officer told the New York Times. And they found the AR, at six-and-a-half pounds, to be far better suited for the generally-smaller South Vietnamese soldiers to carry. It fit their hands.
Giving up some long-range accuracy was no major loss; most of the fighting in Vietnam was taking place in dense brush, at less than 100 yards. “Spray and pray” often won the fight. Year over year, more and more troops would be sent to Vietnam, and as the weapon proved itself on the battlefield (and especially after some early reliability issues were found to be related to ammunition and maintenance, rather than the gun itself), more and more of the troops would be carrying an M16. Finally, in 1969, Armalite’s design was officially adopted as the standard service rifle for the United States military. The bulky M14 was finally dethroned, by the gun of the future.
* * *
The tactical advancements that the M16 represented were not isolated to the battlefield. Within a year of its deployment overseas, the black rifle rose from the mud of the Vietnam jungle, and sailed back over to its country of origin, where Colt began marketing a semi-automatic version, under its original model number: AR-15.
A man named Mack Gwinn Jr. followed close behind the rifle, returning across the Atlantic to his native Bangor, Maine, from his tours of duty with the Green Berets. In the early 1970’s, he founded Gwinn Firearms, and began manufacturing a variety of pistols and submachine guns. In 1973, a man named Richard Dyke purchased the company from him for $241,000, moved the factory to the town of Windham, and changed the name to Bushmaster Firearms.
Three years later, Colt’s patent on Eugene Stoner’s design expired, opening up the market for any manufacturer to produce weapons based on the platform. A number of manufacturers started doing exactly that, all at the same time; but the AR-15s that Bushmaster produced, beginning in 1976, quickly earned a reputation as some of the most accurate and reliable on the market.
* * *
In 2006, Richard Dyke sold Bushmaster to a private equity firm out of New York, Cerberus Capital Management. Bushmaster would thus join Remington, Marlin, and several other firearms manufacturers, as part the firm’s “Freedom Group.” But, for the workers at the factory in Windham, nothing much changed.
* * *
On February 12, 2010, the factory in Windham was humming along like usual, when a particular Bushmaster AR-15 came rolling down the assembly line. A serial number, L534858, was etched into its barrel, and the long gun was loaded into a crate with a half-dozen other ARs just like it.
Bushmaster sold the crate to a wholesaler, a company called Camfour. And a few days later, Camfour shipped the gun bearing serial number L534858 to a gun dealer in Connecticut.
March 29, 2010
Riverview Gun Sales — East Windsor, Connecticut
The door to the gun store opened, and Nancy Lanza walked in, to pick up her son’s birthday present. Riverview was almost an hour’s drive from 36 Yogananda, but they nearly always had AR-15s in stock. For her Bushmaster, Nancy paid $1,164.94, after tax.
She had been to Riverview once before, on the 15th — Connecticut had a two-week waiting period — and on that day, the gun store had her fill out a “Firearms Transaction Record,” for the background check. That form asked her if she’d ever been convicted of a felony, or for misdemeanor domestic violence, or if she had a restraining order against her, or if she’d been “confined in a hospital for mental illness within the past twelve months,” or if in the past 20 years she’d been “discharged from custody after having [been] found not guilty of a crime by reason of mental disease or defect.”
She checked “no” for each of these.
On another sheet, she certified that she was not a fugitive from justice, nor an illegal alien, nor “an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance.”
Riverview transmitted the pages to NICS, in Virginia, where the hallways were lined with boxes of files. Nancy’s answers checked out, and the FBI sent Riverview their verdict on the sale: PROCEED.
36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut
The door at the top of the stairs was closed.
He was watching a documentary on his computer — The Killing of America. Released in 1982 as something between a true-crime documentary and Faces of Death-style exploitation cinema, the film vividly portrayed the rise of violence and mass murder in America since the 1960’s. Its title came from a voice-over, late in the film, played out over a montage of a convicted serial killer’s daily life in prison:
Most sadistic mass murderers have an IQ above 125. Yet they continue to kill like clockwork… Almost as if they are dedicated to the killing of America itself. One even said he mass-murdered college students because ‘I wanted to hurt society where it hurt the most. By taking its most valuable future members.’
He liked the film, a lot. And it was freely available on YouTube. He posted a link to it on the Columbine forum — it was one of the first things he did as Smiggles.
The 2010 archives from the forum are spotty — what survives, mostly, is just a list of topics that the site’s users posted about that year, and some of the usernames who posted to them, but not what was actually said. Still, from just this, it is apparent (given the count of views and replies to the thread) that his spreadsheet did not generate much interest; likely disappointed, he moved on to commenting on other threads instead. There were several topics discussing Harry Potter, and users remember that in one thread, Smiggles said he “liked the Harry Potter idea that at the age of eleven, the kids were taken away from their families,” to be brought over to their own society.
* * *
Downstairs, Nancy crossed the threshold, and in that moment, 36 Yogananda became an AR-15 home.
She gave the “modern sporting rifle” to her son, to keep in the computer room, across from his bedroom: in the closet, there was a tall, brown gun safe. It already contained the family’s Ruger Mini-14 — and, there was another new addition, purchased that same month: a Saiga-12 shotgun (nearly identical to the digital one that “Kaynbred” said he wanted to unlock in Combat Arms.)
Nancy bought the Saiga on the website Gunbroker.com, placing a winning bid of $999. She also ordered accessories for it: two bulging, 20-round “drum” magazines. These went on a shelf next to the safe, resting on top of a pile of gun manuals.
Tucked into one of the books on the shelf was a scrap of paper, with a shopping list written on it:
$75 for the box of ammunition
$850 for the shotgun + 8-round magazine
$150 for all of the other magazines
The note wasn’t in Nancy’s handwriting. And it appears they exceeded the budget they’d laid out — but the Lanzas could afford it.
Ryan was away at college at this time, but as he understood the situation back home, all the guns in the safe “had been legally purchased by Nancy, and were registered in her name, but [his brother] actually owned the AR-15, and the weapons were all kept in a gun safe in [his] bedroom closet.”
It is perfectly legal, even common, for Americans to purchase guns for their adult children. Besides, he would have passed the same background check she had.
* * *
If he visited Bushmaster’s website at this time — which he almost certainly did, as part of researching a purchase that was very important to him — Nancy’s son would have found an online version of the gun’s user’s manual, and a list of its technical specifications, along with links to where he could find a local dealer (such as Riverview). At the time, on the right sidebar, there was a section headed “Legislative Updates” with two links: one to the NRA-ILA, and one to NSSF. Then, there was a prominent banner-image of the AR-15, with the ad copy “CONSIDER YOUR MAN CARD REISSUED.”
It was actually a link to a promotion, the “Bushmaster Man Card Sweepstakes,” where you could win a free AR-15. The promotion would prove so successful, Bushmaster followed it up with a full “Man Card” ad campaign later that year:
To become a card-carrying man, visitors of bushmaster.com will have to prove they’re a man by answering a series of manhood questions. Upon successful completion, they will be issued a temporary Man Card to proudly display to friends and family. The Man Card is valid for one year.
Visitors can also call into question or even revoke the Man Card of friends they feel have betrayed their manhood. The man in question will then have to defend himself, and their Man Card, by answering a series of questions geared towards proving indeed, they are worthy of retaining their card.
The “man card” itself was meant to be shared on social media, as were the posts one could send to a friend, notifying them that their Bushmaster Man Card was “revoked,” and which were all in the form of an accusation of some un-manly behavior that the target had supposedly exhibited. One template alleged that the recipient “AVOIDS EYE CONTACT WITH TOUGH-LOOKING 5TH GRADERS.”
Along the bottom of every page was a banner graphic, featuring a soldier posing in desert fatigues, carrying an AR-15, with a slogan printed across the scene: “If it’s good enough for the military, it’s good enough for you. Bushmaster. The world’s finest commercial AR-platform rifle.“
National Shooting Sports Foundation — Newtown, Connecticut
The NSSF hired a market-research firm, Harris Interactive, to take a survey of Americans who purchased guns during a week-long period in March 2010. They wanted to see if their “modern sporting rifle” re-branding campaign was having the intended effect on the gun market.
When the data came back, it showed they still had a lot of work to do:
Question: Which of the following best describes the primary purpose for your modern semi-automatic rifle (such as AR-15)?
Purchased to avoid any potential future ownership ban: 27%
Target shooting sports: 18%
Home/Personal protection: 17%
April 8, 2010
Nanping — Fujian Province, China
A prisoner was led into the courtroom wearing an orange vest, over a black-and-white checkered jumpsuit. The 42-year-old man appeared agitated. A pair of policemen with white gloves restrained him as he stood in front of the judge, while a flat-screen monitor played security-camera clips showing what the man had done at Nanping City Elementary School, two weeks before: parents were arriving with their children outside the school, when suddenly, the man pulled out a knife, and started attacking the students. The school’s security guard rushed over, and with the help of civilians, restrained him until police arrived. He reportedly told them, during the struggle, that “life was meaningless.”
Now, in the courtroom, he whimpered that he did it because a woman had rejected him, and he felt he had suffered “unfair treatment” from her wealthy family.
The trial lasted four hours. The judge sentenced him to death by gunshot. The sentence was carried out two and a half weeks later.
But another strange and tragic thing happened, a few hours after the execution: 700 miles away, in Leizhou, a city on the southern end of China’s east coast, a 33-year-old man attacked another primary school. He had been a teacher himself, but was on leave since 2006 for “mental illness.” Adults rushed him as soon as he started swinging the knife, and he was arrested. Within weeks, he too was sentenced to death, and executed.
The day after the Leizhou attack, in a city all the way back at the north end of the coast, it happened again. A 47-year-old man with a knife attacked a kindergarten in Taixing township, in the province of Jiangsu. China’s state-run media would report that he “admitted in court his motive behind the attack was to vent his rage against society.” Though all of his victims survived, the judge still sentenced him to death, because, “The attempt was hideous, the act brutal, the impact serious.” He wrote that the attacker “could not handle his frustrations and vented his rage against society in such a way that could not be tolerated.”
The following month, another one, in Weifang: a local farmer rammed his motorcycle through the front gate of a preschool, and started attacking everyone he saw with a hammer. He then doused himself in gasoline, and grabbed two students; teachers were just barely able to pull the children back to safety before he set himself ablaze.
By this point, the state determined that further coverage of such stories would not be desirable, and so the latest incident was barely covered at all domestically. But by then, the phenomenon had garnered global attention. “What is going on with these people?” a father in Beijing asked CNN. “Why take out their frustrations on defenseless children? We need better security in schools, but we also need to take care of the mentally ill.”
The next one came in May. The worst yet, at a kindergarten. An outcry was building, with parents demanding better security at the schools. The government had already boosted funding for school security, when the attacks first started, but it wasn’t enough. China Daily interviewed a police officer from the local force, who said the crimes were “almost impossible” to prevent in such undeveloped areas. “We can only focus on the schools with the highest populations because the strength of the police force is just not enough” he said, adding that in another township, “We have only 11 criminal investigation policemen for a population of 110,000. But at least 20 schools are located there.”
Another one came in August. Back in Shengdong, near the coast, in the city of Zibo. A 26-year-old man attacked a kindergarten class with a knife. He was arrested, put on trial, and executed. There was no known motive.
Wooster Mountain Shooting Range — Danbury, Connecticut
Peter took his son to an outdoor target range, one weekend. When he picked the teenager up at 36 Yogananda, he saw his son had two long guns with him; one of them was the AR-15.
Peter didn’t think much of it. The date of April 22, 2010 had just passed — as of that date, his son was officially an adult, in the eyes of society.
Around this time, Peter told the 18-year-old the same thing Nancy had: that there was no way he could meet even the basic requirements for military service, and so his plan to become an elite commando would go nowhere. Dreams were going to have to stay dreams.
Peter could tell his son was resentful at receiving such a message, but got it nonetheless: he never did enlist.
The range at Wooster Mountain was scenic. There was a long shooting bench, and a backstop at the other end of a grassy field where the targets would go up, and it was all surrounded by the verdant canopy of a state forest. There were families that looked just like the Lanzas, there every weekend, enjoying the same outdoor activity.
Peter remembers he paid for all the ammunition he and his son used that day — he always did, whenever they went shooting. And he’s sure they always fired every shot they purchased, before leaving.
36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut
Ryan graduated from college that summer. Nancy put his graduation photos in a nice frame, on a shelf right in the foyer at 36 Yogananda. Ryan already had a job working at Ernst & Young in Manhattan, and soon he got an apartment in New Jersey, with some friends. He was ready for real life.
Nancy’s younger son had finally disabused himself of his soldier-fantasy, but she held out hope that he would at least be interested in going to college. Even if so, she accepted that it would involve what would surely not be an easy transition: extricating him from his room at the top of the stairs, and sending him off on his own, to be absorbed into a mass of other students his age. So she got out a notebook, and scribbled some plans; what she thought it would take to make the college plan work.
First, he would need another IEP. And they would again be updating it as necessary, all the way until graduation. But these IEPs would be different: he wasn’t a schoolboy anymore. He was a man. And he wouldn’t have his mother around all the time, to soften the rough edges whenever he left his comfort zone. This time, the plan would treat him, ostensibly, like an adult.
Nancy would lose control of her son’s situation from the outset; he would be deciding the school, not her. And whatever school he chose could potentially be out-of-state, moving him even further from her zone of protection. But at the same time, she knew that any place where he could thrive would have to be (as summarized by the Courant, who first obtained Nancy’s notes) “a school that is accommodating to students on the autism spectrum.” She felt that her son was “vulnerable to victimization,” even in college, and if there was any hope of the plan working, “He would have to get a grip on his anxiety and depression and his sensory issues.”
Nancy wrote, “He’ll need extra time for classes and pacing of major exams,” and “stress management is key including the identification of calming methods.” She foresaw that he would have to keep a daily planner, learn time management skills, and keep his driver’s license valid; responsibilities she had handled until then, but that, gradually, would be shifted onto his shoulders.
Without his mother being a phone call and minutes away, he would finally be forced to advocate for himself. And he would have to manage his anxiety over social interactions, or else Nancy foresaw a “nightmare” unfolding, when he attempted dorm life. He would have to memorize “dating etiquette,” as well as strategies for coping with “peer pressure, criticism and rejection.” And he would need to rely on “scripts” in order to interact with other people in this theoretical college life — particularly, Nancy thought, when it came to girls.
As the Courant would relay it, Nancy felt that her son needed “warnings [to] stay off social media such as Facebook,” and to “be careful of porn.” She also expressed “concerns over suicide” — but it does not appear that she elaborated on this point.
Finally, Nancy’s plan mentioned “the possible use of medications” to help him manage the stress — but Nancy surely knew this would be, at best, a distant wish. She was there for the “Celexa” war. But apparently, she still held out some small hope that, at whatever college her son chose to attend, the support staff there could succeed, where she and Yale had Dr. Fox had all failed.
* * *
“Kaynbred” wasn’t playing Combat Arms anymore. It appears he only played it for a period of about seven months — first registering his account in mid- September of 2009, and eventually quitting his clan in early March of 2010. But the stats also show that the played an astonishing amount in that time: he was averaging more than 500 “kills” every day. It was like a carry-over from his World of Warcraft routine: hours upon hours in physical solitude in his room, but in near-constant contact with the other players, online. And so he became familiar with many of his teammates; but still, he didn’t grow close to them — with just one exception. There was one player in the clan that he found he could really talk to.
In fact, at some point, he even indicated to this person that he loved them.
It appears that after Kaynbred stopped playing Combat Arms, the teammate he “loved” was still keeping in contact with him for some period of time. But the user at 36 Yogananda had experienced a change of heart, and now wanted to sever that social bond. He wrote an email (the message is undated in its released form, but context shows it was sent roughly around this time) that revealed some of the person behind “Kaynbred,” and why their supposed love for their teammate was now gone forever:
After having spent much time analyzing this, I’ve determined which factors enabled me to love you.
I projected a personality, which I consider to be virtuous, delusionally onto you. For the same reason, I ignored the many things which I fundamentally hate about you. I was deluding myself.
I am heavily emotionally susceptible to environments. Most of my social contact was through those players. All of them are typical detestable humans, and it bred an aura of innumerable negative emotions for me. You were a respite from that.
You could actually type coherently. Relationships cannot exist if communication is not present, which would immediately preclude me from being able to have a relationship with 99% of the humans there.
Once every month or so in that game, I would meet someone who would type properly, and I would always try to play with them. I remember one person in particular whom I followed around only because he typed properly, which allowed me to communicate with him without feeling as if I was dealing with a severely handicapped duck. He spoke disrespectfully of his girlfriend the first day I spoke to him, which would normally serve as the catalyst for my detestment of such a person, yet I completely overlooked it because I was so relieved to be able to speak with someone who was in any way capable of communicating.
Relationships have absolutely no physical aspect to me: all that matters is communication. The nature of the internet fosters this.
I incessantly have nothing other than scorn for humanity. I have been desperate to feel anything positive for someone for my entire life.
Early on, you referenced serial killing multiple times in ways people normally don’t. That immediately appealed to me.
Apparently, the Combat Arms teammate was routinely the target of some kind of harassment by other players during some of their sessions with Kaynbred — or possibly, this other player simply shared stories of such treatment, which they endured in another setting. Whatever the experience was, Kaynbred had strong feelings about it:
I have an affinity for people whom I perceive as being abused, and consummate scorn for the abusers. It was probably the primary enabling factor. The way you are relentlessly treated by these humans is obscenely offensive to me, so every time they would do it, it would simultaneously increase my sympathy for you and increase my resentment for all of them. My wrath for them fostered more of a negative atmosphere, which would cause you to be ever more of a respite from their depravity. It was self-perpetuating.
I’m capable of boundless affection. I had never been in a situation to feel that way before, so I thought that it was special.
I took my focus away from myself and directed it toward you.
Despite the tone of the message, near the end of it, the user behind Kaynbred made a passing reference suggesting that his own temperment had actually improved recently, due to an unspecified change of circumstances in his life (likely referring to his being liberated from the school system, and reaching the age of eighteen; the circumstances that enabled him to retreat into his cave):
I used to be hate-filled and couldn’t just dismiss people I didn’t like. It tore me apart, and I needed someone who didn’t.
Finishing his dismissal of his teammate, the former-Kaynbred tried to depersonalize his critique of the other player’s conduct; they weren’t a bad person. They were just another participant in a corrupt civilization, as made evident by their adoption of their parents’ values — the very enculturing process that Kaynbred detested most of all:
Coercion is endemic to parenting in general. Children are slaves to their parents’ will in virtually every family.
You’re a Christian. Religion, being cultural, inherently subjugates.
The whole “dishonor” fatuity. Something is “dishonorable” not because it lacks virtue, but because it goes against their “authority.” All they’re doing is imposing their will on you.
You submit to the notion of culture, which your parents forced onto you.
He finished his message, and clicked SEND — he was done with that period of his online life. But he was still very much connected, under his new identity. It was the only way he could really communicate. And most importantly, he didn’t have to leave his room.
* * *
Nancy’s email records show that on May 24, 2010, she exchanged a number of emails with a boyfriend, regarding “problems in their relationship.”
Things didn’t work out with the man she met at the Redding Roadhouse; a friend of hers would recall that there was one boyfriend over the years — it’s unclear if this was the same man, or someone else — who had even proposed marriage to Nancy. But as Nancy told her friend, if she accepted, she knew she would have to move. And she could never do that with her son living at home.
It was back to the single life for her. Fortunately, she was still seeing her friend the dressmaker for dinner every week or two. Nancy was putting more energy into looking good than ever.
June 2, 2010
Cumbria, United Kingdom
Fourteen years passed after Dunblane before there was another attack in the UK. But it did happen again; the shooter was a taxi driver, with no known history of mental illness, and he used only the kinds of guns he could still legally obtain after Dunblane. Yet, he managed to harm many, many people across the village of Cumbria — by driving around in his cab and calling pedestrians over, ambushing them when they were at point-blank range, and then driving away. It went on for hours. And though the police gave chase, the officers were all unarmed, themselves; when the cab stopped and the gunman turned around, they could only duck and pray, waiting for the designated “Armed Response Units” to arrive. By the time they did, it didn’t matter; the gunman had already run out of shotgun shells, and then totaled his car. He walked off into the woods with his .22, and took his own life.
For many in the UK, it seemed like just the sort of incident that the Snowdrop Appeal was supposed to have prevented. But the grieving father from Dunblane rejected this notion; after all, the 1996 gun ban had actually been a watered-down version of what they called for in the Snowdrop Appeal. And if the gunman in Cumbria had been given access to the same guns as the Dunblane shooter, it all could have been far, far worse. Cumbria was more a sign that police responses needed improvement — and that wouldn’t have made any difference at Dunblane. “It took 15 minutes until any police officer arrived at the school, when the incident was all over in three minutes.”
June 28, 2010
United States Supreme Court — Washington, D.C.
The only thing restraining the Heller vs. District of Columbia ruling from overturning state-level gun laws nationwide was that D.C. was a federal enclave — decisions there didn’t address the issue of states’ rights. The missing piece came from Illinois, and the city that banned handguns.
As everyone on the south side of Chicago knew, despite the ban, all the criminals still had handguns; Otis McDonald was a law-abiding resident who had seen his neighborhood in Morgan Park decline over the last 40 years, and he wanted a handgun for home defense. But the city wouldn’t let him have one. In response, he said they were infringing on his constitutional right to bear arms. McDonald v. Chicago was the result.
The NSSF submitted a brief for the case: “Personal ownership of firearms was, of course, often critical to survival in the 17th and 18th centuries (and long thereafter),” they said, “providing food before there were supermarkets, and safety before there were police forces. More importantly, late 18th century Americans deemed firearms to be their principal protection against tyranny — first from the British crown, and then from the new national government they were creating in the Constitution.”
The court found that Americans themselves had changed since then, too. “By the 1850’s, the fear that the National Government would disarm the universal militia had largely faded, but the right to keep and bear arms was highly valued for self-defense.” After the Civil War, when the Southern States engaged in “systematic efforts to disarm and injure African Americans,” the Fourteenth Amendment was passed with the intent to protect the fundamental rights of such former slaves — including their right to bear arms.
The court ruled 5-4 against Chicago, ordering that the city could not ban handgun ownership. With that, the right for Americans to bear arms in individual self-defense was secured in all fifty states.
* * *
There would be more disagreements over guns, and more cases before the courts… but for Americans who had already acquired firearms, it was too late for any of it to matter. The remaining barriers to tragedy would have to be local, and personal.
Norwich University — Northfield, Vermont
Peter’s son finally obtained his driver’s license in July. Standing before the blue background for his photo, he was as wide-eyed ever, with sunken cheeks.
Peter got him a car, as promised: it was a brand new, black, 4-door Honda Civic. A very safe vehicle, for a very safe driver.
Father and son went for a drive up to Norwich University over the summer — the oldest private military college in the United States, and the “Birthplace of the ROTC.” Peter knew his son wanted to enroll, so they went to check out the campus — but again, he sought to temper expectations; he suggested his son start smaller, with a partial course load back at Norwalk Community college. Work up to university from there.
This time, his son took it very personally. He said that if he had to go to Norwalk, he wasn’t going to take a partial load, but in fact five classes: an overloaded schedule. “I hardly ever saw him pissed, but he was pissed,” Peter would recall to Andrew Solomon.
His father wondered if there was an unspoken issue that was really causing friction: things were serious between Peter and his girlfriend, and they were talking about getting married. Peter still hadn’t introduced the woman to his youngest son, who had no interest in another social bond, but the 18-year-old was surely aware that his father was planning to remarry. The fundamentals of his life were shifting around him, even as he stayed put.
36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut
The door was closed.
He apparently stopped updating his spreadsheet back in June; the taxi driver in the UK was the last shooter, chronologically, that he added a row for (although it’s possible he went on adding older shooters after that). He knew what he needed to know. Now he had moved on to studying them culturally, trying to find every movie and television reference to shooters, or depictions of gunmen in black trench coats.
He found some like minds on the Columbine forum — at least when it came to horror movies. He posted about Bloody Wednesday, the bizarre movie based on the McDonald’s shooter, saying he didn’t think anyone else would like it — but another user said they felt the same way, and together they gushed about the “teddy bear” scene.
The forum had a function for sending “PMs” — Private Messages — and Smiggles utilized it to talk to several different individuals from the board. He never gave any identifying information — no names or cities — and he never talked to any of them outside of PM or email. But they nonetheless gleaned an impression of the person on the other end of the correspondence. Years later, some of them would still have copies.
* * *
In one exchange, late at night, the user behind “Smiggles” tells another user that he often finds himself listening to the same songs, over and over:
Smiggles: I don’t know if listening to it is cathartic for my mind or if it just exacerbates my relentless thoughts… I get preoccupied with the simplest things and I obsess over them every conscious moment until something else gets my immediate attention, at which point the first one gets relegated to some mental cesspool where everything just keeps accumulating. It gets irritating. I’m going to be awake for a while thinking about something even though I’m exhausted, and tomorrow probably isn’t going to be better.
The conversation drifts to movies, and Smiggles explains how he had lately acquired a taste for psychological horror films from the 1970s and 1980s, like Bloody Wednesday. He offers an explanation for why the production style appeals to him:
Smiggles: It emphasizes a looming atmosphere that’s isolated, perfunctory, and despondent… A lot of people probably treat media as some form of escapism, but for me, it’s as if I seek anything which might somehow augment the atmosphere in my mind.
I don’t feel like I’ve ever had a “life”. I’ve been in my own mind for so long, and there’s nothing really there. It’s more of a volatile atmosphere than anything material, and everything in my life is just following it.
I guess that’s sort of why I’ve been interested in Columbine and other massacres for so long. A lot of them reflect the atmosphere in my mind, but unlike my incorporeal thoughts, they’re factual accounts of real incidents. Each massacre is like a different manifestation of some nameless emotion I’ve felt or mood I’ve had.
Later, he talks about the Orange High School shooter, who had ambushed his father on the couch. Smiggles says the videos of the trial, with the shooter’s home-movie confessionals projected against the courtroom wall, had the same aura as his favorite horror films: “enchantingly surreal.”
* * *
Later, in the thread “Favorite films”, Smiggles posted a list of his “Top 25.” Nearly all of the films fell under the 1970s/1980s low-budget psychological horror category that he had mentioned in the PM conversation. And while it may have been more of a hobby — to occupy some of the many, many hours he spent idle in his blank-walled room — there are some possible insights to be gleaned from his carefully-selected list of films.
One, 1973’s The Baby, depicts a sadistic mother with a grown, disabled son whom she infantilizes and confines in his bedroom, in order to reap benefits and attention for herself.
Another, 1980’s Don’t Go in the House, was notorious for its depiction a flamethrower-wielding serial killer, but is more notable for the killer’s fixation on his mother; Smiggles would post a clip to the Columbine forum from this film (his contribution to the thread “Favorite move scenes”), which showed the killer heading upstairs in his old mansion after committing a murder, and hearing the voice of his mother tormenting him — “Trash! Just like your father!” — right after which he hears other voices, telling him to “punish” her again (i.e. commit another murder). He shouts up the staircase at her, enraged: “You hear that, old lady? I’ll punish you again!”
But the most common thematic element in the list of films, and one which may indeed have “augmented” the “atmosphere” already present in his mind, was one of isolation: Bad Ronald, Pin, The Attic, and Crawlspace each depict reclusive protagonists who hide in the walls and attics of large homes, and have antisocial or violent tendencies. (He even had a copy of the novel upon which Crawlspace was based, mixed in with the stack of books in his closet.)
And so while the environment he had long grown accustomed to was a claustrophobic, sterile box, shut away from civilization, he did appear to have some self-perception, an awareness that this was the case. (This was probably also reflected in something he typed in one of his text files: a passing mention that he had been listening to the Beatles song “Nowhere Man.”)
* * *
Peter had been trying to get in touch with his son for weeks. They hadn’t seen each other since the fight at Norwich. And now, he wasn’t even getting responses to his emails anymore. So he wrote to Nancy instead.
She wrote back. “He is despondent and crying a lot and just can’t continue… I have been trying to get him to see you and he refuses and every time I’ve brought the subject up it just makes him worse.”
There was already one more father-son visit scheduled, from prior to the Norwalk fight. When the day came around, Peter headed up the long driveway to 36 Yogananda, and rang the doorbell, hoping for the best. But his son refused to leave the house. Peter told him, “We’ve got to figure out a system so I can work with you.” But he was getting nowhere.
Peter got in his car and headed back down the driveway. He was hurt, but he figured his son would get over it, eventually.