77. Winter

December 16, 2012

Newtown High School

It seemed like the whole town was there, for the interfaith vigil held in the auditorium of Newtown High School. The governor took the stage first, then he introduced the President of the United States; in his remarks, Obama praised the first responders, and the students and staff of Sandy Hook Elementary School, for the strength they’d shown throughout their ordeal, and for the inspiring example that all the townspeople set for the country. “In the face of indescribable violence,” he said, “in the face of unconscionable evil, you’ve looked out for each other, and you’ve cared for one another, and you’ve loved one another. This is how Newtown will be remembered. And with time, and God’s grace, that love will see you through.”

But the country had some hard questions to face, he explained. “Caring for children is a civilization’s first responsibility. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged… and by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations?” The question lingered for a moment, up in the rafters of NHS. “I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is ‘no.’” The nation itself would have to change, he explained, if anything of substance was going to happen differently this time around:

We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law — no set of laws — can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society. But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this…

In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens — from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators — in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because, what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?

The president read out the names of all the victims. “God has called them home. For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on, and make our country worthy of their memory.”

* * *

Later, a representative from Connecticut told his colleagues something else the president had said, in a speech to a private gathering during his pass through Newtown: “As winter approaches and snow begins to fall, I will always think of these children as precious snowflakes during this winter of events. But I am heartened by the fact that every spring, when the flowers bloom, we will think of their precious memory as well.”

December 17, 2012

Hall of the House of Representatives — Washington, D.C.

One of Connecticut’s representatives took to the floor of the House. “It’s hard to witness such a senseless and evil act, and similar acts that some of my colleagues in this Chamber have faced,” said the congressman from New Haven. “In Aurora and Oakland, Tucson, Blacksburg, Littleton, you can’t help but feel a despairing of the soul. But we in this institution cannot afford that luxury.” They had a job to do, he reminded the chamber. He then yielded the remainder of his time to a representative from Hartford.

“Clio, the muse of history, used to sit above this Chamber,” the representative said, referring to an 1810 marble statue from the Old Hall of the House — now itself a hall of statues — where the figure of Clio stands atop a winged chariot, with a clock-face as its wheel:

The muse of history’s responsibility was to sit there, with a book and pen, recording the events of this Chamber. We are in a unique position of responsibility. We have been sent here to perform a duty; and not only the muse of history, but all the world is watching the United States Congress.

We have a responsibility to respond in the most comprehensive way. This is an attack of terrorism. This has happened all too often and all too frequently all across this country. And in such an attack, we would do everything within our power to make sure that no stone was left unturned, to make sure that we provided every answer and every opportunity that we can, to protect our children. That’s why we take an oath of office here. That is our God-given responsibility. We must act, and act now.

He described what it was like driving to the airport that morning, along the back roads of Connecticut; every school he passed had a police car parked right out front. He said it was comforting to see; “But that is not an answer. To say that we are going to turn our schools into fortresses is not where we should be as a nation. We need to go deeper in terms of solving this problem of mass killings and of violence that now, again, is striking at the most innocent in our society.”

Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace

The representative from Texas, still stinging from his gaffe after the Aurora shooting, went on Fox News. He praised the sacrifice that the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary had shown, confronting the shooter at the first sign of danger. He, too, was searching for how to stop the next tragedy. “I wish to God she had had an M4 [rifle] in her office, locked up so when she heard gunfire, she pulls it out and she didn’t have to lunge heroically at him with nothing in her hands.” Instead of nothing, he wanted the principal of the elementary school to have a great, big, gun: essentially, another AR-15, just with a shorter barrel (unless he meant the military version, which would also have either three-round-burst or fully-automatic fire modes). They went for about $700 apiece.

December 18, 2012

Cerberus Capital Management — Midtown Manhattan

Gun sales had never been better. Two million in one month, at this rate. Sandy Hook had ignited panic buying like nothing since Stockton; it made the “Barack Boom” look more like a bump. So, the executives at Cerberus Capital Management had to fight every instinct in their being to make their decision. “It is apparent that the Sandy Hook tragedy was a watershed event that has raised the national debate on gun control to an unprecedented level,” the owners of Bushmaster said in a statement. “It is not our role to take positions, or attempt to shape or influence the gun control policy debate. That is the job of our federal and state legislators. There are, however, actions that we as a firm can take. Accordingly, we have determined to immediately engage in a formal process to sell our investment in Freedom Group.” It would be a complicated process, but they said they’d be hiring a financial adviser, who would then figure out how to sell off their interests in the firearms group, and return the capital to their investors. They wanted no more of guns.

December 19, 2012

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room — The White House

The press assembled again, five days after the tragedy. President Obama had not yet made any specific statements on what he was going to do about guns. But at the press conference that day, he announced that his Vice President, Joe Biden, would be heading up a new “Task Force On Gun Violence,” and that they would have some recommendations ready after the new year.

He took questions. One reporter asked simply, “What about the NRA?”

“Well, the NRA is an organization that has members who are mothers and fathers,” the president said. “And I would expect that they’ve been impacted by this as well. And hopefully they’ll do some self-reflection.” But he knew there was going to be conflict. “What we’ve seen over the last 20 years, 15 years, is the sense that anything related to guns is somehow an encroachment on the Second Amendment. What we’re looking for here is a thoughtful approach that says we can preserve our Second Amendment, we can make sure that responsible gun owners are able to carry out their activities, but that we’re going to actually be serious about the safety side of this; that we’re going to be serious about making sure that something like Newtown or Aurora doesn’t happen again.”

December 20, 2012

Riverview Gun Sales — East Windsor, Connecticut

ATF agents raided the place just after 5:00pm. They said it had nothing to do with Sandy Hook — the bureau had been receiving reports about lax practices at the store for years, from ignoring the NICS background check when it came back “wait,” to failing to report multiple firearm thefts — but the timing was hard to ignore. Fear spread in the industry.

December 21, 2012

Willard Hotel — Washington, D.C.

One week after the attack, Wayne LaPierre scheduled a press conference. “While some have tried to exploit tragedy for political gain, we have remained respectfully silent,” he said from the podium, to a small crowd. “Now, we must speak, for the safety of our nation’s children.” Wayne said that the problem was not guns, but more likely, “Gun Free Zones,” like schools. The politicians who passed such laws, he said, were simply telling “every insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to inflict maximum mayhem, with minimum risk.”

“How have our nation’s priorities gotten so out of order?” Wayne continued. “Think about it: we care about our money, so we protect our banks with armed guards.” Airports, power plants, places of government, and sports stadiums, all had armed guards, he observed. “Yet when it comes to our most beloved, innocent, and vulnerable members of the American family — our children — we as a society leave them, every day, utterly defenseless. And the monsters and the predators of the world know it, and exploit it.”

Suddenly a protester stood up in the audience, and unfurled a red banner that read “NRA IS KILLING OUR KIDS.” They shouted the message, too, over and over; Wayne trailed off, and after a few moments, a security guard snatched the banner and dragged the man away — but his voice still echoed from down the hotel’s hallway: “We’ve got to stop the violence! And the violence starts with the NRA!”

Wayne clenched his jaw, and returned to his prepared remarks. “The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters. People that are so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons, that no sane person could ever possibly comprehend them. They walk among us every single day.” A registry was indeed what was needed, Wayne said, but not of guns, nor of gun owners — what the country needed was “a national database of the mentally ill.”

Another protester interrupted — “The NRA has blood on its hands! Shame on the NRA! Ban assault weapons now! BAN ASSAULT WEAPONS NOW!” — and they too were dragged away.

Wayne waited patiently, again, but would not be silenced. He was sick of the debate, too. “You know, five years ago, after Virginia Tech, when I said there should be armed security in every school, the media called me crazy.” He envisioned a different America — one where the Sandy Hook shooter, after blasting his way through the front glass of the school, would have been “confronted by qualified, armed security,” and asked, had that been the case, “Will we at least admit that it’s possible, that [lives] might have been spared that day? Is it so abhorrent to you, that you’d rather continue to risk the alternative?”

He had been in the gun rights advocacy game for a long time, and he knew he had to sum up his message in a way people would remember. “The only way — the only way — to stop a monster from killing our kids is to be personally involved, and invested in a plan of absolute protection,” he said. ‘The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.”

December 29, 2012

Red Lake, Minnesota

An editorial ran in Minnesota’s Star Tribune, written by a retired FBI agent named James Egelhof. Something was troubling him; he was an NRA member, and he thought that Wayne was correct in saying there are monsters in America, and that guns weren’t responsible for creating them. But he knew that also meant that the shooters were going to keep coming. And it was going to get worse. “Unfortunately, right now, even as you are reading this essay, at least several people in this country are plotting new attacks,” he warned. “We don’t know who they are. But we know what they are — members of a new cult of death that worships the monsters who came before them and has but one goal: to exceed the body count or the horror of the latest massacre and thus be remembered as the worst of them all.”

The cult of Columbine. He knew all about it.

Agent Egelhof had been one of the first law enforcement officers, on the afternoon of March 21, 2005, to respond to reports of a shooting at Red Lake High School. He was in the active-shooter formation that came down the corridor, and exchanged fire with the monster. He saw it die — but the nightmare kept coming back, year after year.

Working in law enforcement in Red Lake, Egelhof knew the shooter’s grandfather, as well as the school’s security guard, ex-tribal officer Derek Brun. He missed them both dearly. “I lost two friends, and for what? So an Internet-addicted kid could try and make a name for himself… when each new mass killing is announced on television, I can’t watch; I begin sweating, get sick to my stomach. My cup has runneth over.”

But in the wake of the latest tragedy, Egelhof was not beyond self-reflection:

All that said, the NRA and we gun owners have tolerated an intolerable situation: the profusion of assault weapons and large-capacity magazines; the ridiculous loophole of gun shows and private sales evading the instant background check; the inability of the background check to be integrated with the National Crime Information Center; the lack of due diligence in transferring firearms to those who should not have them; the lack of cooperation with law enforcement to report problematic behavior; the selfishness of our desires to have more and more lethal weapons and technology without concern for our terrified fellow citizens who do not share the belief that such weapons better secure us….

He remembered the day he came out of the FBI Academy, in 1984: “I was issued a six-shot revolver and 18 rounds of ammunition, and I felt well-armed. To this day I cannot for the life of me understand why someone would want to own, much less carry, a weapon with a magazine holding 15 rounds and more. If you need to do that, join the Armed Forces.”

January 16, 2013

The White House — South Court Auditorium

“It’s literally been hard for the nation to comprehend, hard for the nation to fathom,” the vice president said to the audience, gathered there for Obama’s formal announcement. “No one can know for certain if this senseless act could have been prevented, but we all know we have a moral obligation — a moral obligation — to do everything in our power to diminish the prospect that something like this could happen again.”

Joe Biden had been in the Senate for decades. He knew about the country’s legacy of failure to pass meaningful gun legislation — he had been there for it, and so, had been a part of it — but his task force had been hard at work over the past few weeks, poring over draft legislation, and exploring what the president could accomplish without congressional approval, if necessary.

Biden pointed out someone in the audience whom he had met at one of the planning meetings: Colin Goddard, the survivor from Virginia Tech. “When I asked Colin about what he thought we should be doing,” Biden recalled, “he said, ‘I’m not here because of what happened to me. I’m here because what happened to me keeps happening to other people and we have to do something about it.’”

Biden looked him right in the eye. “Colin, we will. Colin, I promise you, we will.”

The president took the podium. 33 days had passed since the attack at Sandy Hook, and he said that in that time, “More than nine hundred of our fellow Americans have reportedly died at the end of a gun — nine hundred in the past month. And every day we wait, that number will keep growing.”

He motioned to the desk next to him on the stage, where some papers and a pen were waiting. He said they were the 23 “Executive Actions” he was about to sign, each signature representing a step his administration would take, immediately, toward reducing gun violence. They ranged from a Presidential Memorandum requiring federal agencies to make their data available to NICS, to “directing the Centers for Disease Control to research the causes and prevention of gun violence.” Similarly — and touching on something that Wayne had brought up at his NRA speech — “Congress should fund research into the effects that violent video games have on young minds.” In both cases, he emphasized, “We don’t benefit from ignorance. We don’t benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence.”

The 23 pieces of paper were of modest significance, in the grand scheme. They represented the extent of his powers as president — acting without Congress. By design, under the United States Constitution, that wasn’t very much. And so in the same speech, he called on the Senate and House to do two things: first, pass universal background checks. NRA members supported that move, he said — “So there’s no reason we can’t do this.”

Second: Congress should restore the assault weapons ban, and institute a ten-round limit on magazine capacities. He pointed out the Aurora gunman’s obscenely huge “double-drum” magazine; “Weapons designed for the theater of war have no place in a movie theater. A majority of Americans agree with us on this.” And, “by the way, so did Ronald Reagan.”

January 28, 2013

National Shooting Sports Foundation — Newtown, Connecticut

Steve Sanetti would always remember being at the airport on the morning of December 14th. He was about to board a flight to Europe when he saw it on the news screens: “My jaw dropped open as everybody’s at the airport did, as increasing information came in and kept coming in about this horrible unspeakable incident. And I immediately canceled my trip and got back to the office.”

Larry Keane was there, at headquarters. He had heard the police sirens flying by out on Main Street, and then his co-workers crying, watching the news. He got up and saw Sandy Hook Elementary School on the television screen, a place just two miles away from where they were standing, its glass entrance area blasted away. And reports about an AR-15 — one of the “modern sporting rifles” they’d spent so long trying to exonerate in the minds of gun buyers. “There aren’t even words to describe the unbelievable coincidence that this occurred where we happened to be located,” he would tell The Hill. And though there were no lawsuits filed yet, if the victims’ families ever did try to sue Remington (who now owned Bushmaster, under the Freedom Group), they’d be on a collision course with the NSSF’s pride and joy, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. The shield they had spent so long, and sacrificed so much, just to build.

There was a photo on Larry Keane’s office wall, showing him in the Oval Office next to Wayne LaPierre, as President Bush signed the PLCAA into law. He knew that some were now, already, calling for the shield to be taken down. “It’s not going to happen,” he promised. “Suing law-abiding firearms manufacturers for the criminal misuse by third parties of firearms that were lawfully sold amounts to suing Ford for drunk-driving accidents.” (Were that true, as some legal scholars observed, it still wouldn’t explain why Ford didn’t have, nor apparently need, a law shielding them from such liability suits. The liquor industry, for that matter, similarly thrives without any such blanket-protections.) The NSSF had fought a long war against America’s mayors. They didn’t want to go back to that.

The NSSF said they were open to helping where they could. Connecticut had just announced a “Gun Violence Prevention Working Group,” as it was now clear that the state’s 1993 ban was flawed, since the Bushmaster rifle was not an illegal weapon in Connecticut, despite all the long hours debating (and banning) a practically identical weapon, the Colt Sporter. The NSSF sent a letter to the group on January 28th, saying their organization was “deeply shaken and saddened by the horrible events that took place in Newtown, Connecticut, our headquarters and home.” They emphasized their record of support for NICS improvements, and the millions of gun locks they’d donated through Project Childsafe. They pledged to lend their firearms expertise to “any federal or other commission on public safety and firearms to address the many issues that are part of this complex situation.”

There was just one other thing the NSSF, being a trade group, wanted to mention: “The firearms industry has contributed over $1.7 billion in economic activity to Connecticut in 2012, employs close to 2,900 people in the state and generates an additional 4,400 jobs in supplier industries.” And guns were selling better than ever. “In these difficult economic times, the firearms industry is still one of the few industries that has grown its profits while also contributing increased tax revenues to the state (to the tune of $119 million.)”

* * *

The first protests came in March, not long after the series of funeral processions finally disappeared from Church Hill Road. It could barely have been called a crowd at first — just a handful of high schoolers standing out in front of the gun lobby’s headquarters, with homemade signs: “SHAME ON YOU NSSF.” And they weren’t there every day, but — as the NSSF’s employees leaving work in the afternoons would witness — week over week, the gatherings seemed to be getting bigger.

February 1, 2013

Bangor, Maine

Stephen King released a series of short essays, all about the exhausting cycle that he and every other American now, once again, found themselves caught up in.

One was a list of 21 separate rituals he had identified, that it seemed the country must complete, whenever this happened: from the shooter’s yearbook photo appearing on TV, to interviews with people who knew him (“they all agree that he was pretty weird, but no one expected him to do something like this.”) Then there were the politicians, who would “decree a national dialogue about gun control.” A routine sets in: The NRA stalls, then obstructs. A distraction comes along. Then, another shooter. Start all over. The veteran of horror was sick of it.

In another essay, King told a story about what had become of what was, by then, one of his more obscure books, Rage: it was never a best-selling title, but he had worked hard on it, and it was still making money as of 1996. That was, until he heard about the school shooting in Moses Lake, by a boy who read Rage. Then, the following year, another. That had been enough for the author:

I didn’t pull Rage from publication because the law demanded it; I was protected under the First Amendment, and the law couldn’t demand it. I pulled it because in my judgment it might be hurting people, and that made it the responsible thing to do. Assault weapons will remain readily available to crazy people until the powerful pro-gun forces in this country decide to do a similar turnaround. They must accept responsibility, recognizing that responsibility is not the same thing as culpability. They need to say, “We support these measures not because the law demands we support them, but because it’s the sensible thing.”

March 1, 2013

Legislative Office Building — Hartford, Connecticut

The Sandy Hook Advisory Committee was formed by Governor Malloy shortly after the attack. At their March 1st meeting, they hosted a group of police chiefs from around the state. From Newtown, they invited Chief Michael Kehoe.

The session covered a wide range of topics, but one was whether or not their committee should recommend a new national ban on assault weapons.

The chief of the Manchester Police Department spoke up. “I sense that some common sense needs to be added to this equation,” he said. “Right now we’re in a situation where if you add this or subtract that from seemingly identical weapons, it makes it legal or illegal. We’re quickly approaching the point where as long as it’s painted green, we’re good, and if it’s not, then it’s an assault weapon.” It was 1989 all over again. “We need a better working definition of what an assault rifle is.”

Michael Kehoe spoke up, saying that when it came to assault weapons — like the classic Supreme Court definition on pornography — “I’ll know it when I see it.” And he had seen one lying on the floor of Room 10. “It’s a killing machine and it has no purpose, in my mind, in our society, other than to kill, okay? And I don’t see the sportsman [needing] access to that. That’s just my feeling.”

April 10, 2013

National Rifle Association Headquarters — Fairfax, Virginia

The big vote was approaching. Senate Bill 649, the “Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013,” would expand background checks — and, after the senator from California amended it, would purport to ban “assault weapons,” too; it was much like the legislation she had written back in 1994, upon which the sun had since set.

With a week to go, the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action sent out a directive to its allies in the Senate:

This legislation would criminalize the private transfer of firearms by honest citizens, requiring friends, neighbors and many family members to get government permission to exercise a fundamental right or face prosecution. The NRA is unequivocally opposed to S. 649.

In addition, the NRA will oppose any amendments offered to S. 649 that restrict fundamental Second Amendment freedoms; including, but not limited to, proposals that would ban commonly and lawfully owned firearms and magazines or criminalize the private transfer of firearms through an expansion of background checks. As we have noted previously, expanding background checks, at gun shows or elsewhere, will not reduce violent crime or keep our kids safe in their schools. Given the importance of these issues, votes on all anti-gun amendments or proposals will be considered in NRA’s future candidate evaluations.

The NRA said they would “enthusiastically” support measures that did not restrict gun rights: school security, prosecution of violent criminals, and “addressing mental health inadequacies.”

Wayne LaPierre later gave an even sterner warning against the bill Obama supported, in a speech at a hunting and conservation awards show in Reno: “He wants to put every private, personal transaction under the thumb of the federal government, and he wants to keep all those names in a massive federal registry.”

April 16, 2013

National Shooting Sports Foundation — Newtown, Connecticut

On the eve of the S. 649 vote, the NSSF sent out their alert to members. It turned out that an amendment to the bill, in prioritizing background checks done at gun shows to get them through NICS faster, was not to the NSSF’s liking:

Prioritizing gun show checks over storefront checks will harm firearms retailers’ businesses. Weekends, when gun shows take place, are the busiest time for storefront retailers who will not be able to run background checks for their customers. The Second Amendment rights of customers at gun shops are just as important as those of gun show attendees. Congress should provide adequate resources to NICS so that ALL background checks are done instantly.

The NSSF urged its members to call their senators, and to tell them to vote “No” on the amendment — and “No” on S.649, if the amendment was adopted. They supported another amendment, which mirrored the NRA’s priorities. It wouldn’t ban assault weapons, and it wouldn’t expand background checks for gun buyers. “Tell your senators not to put retailers’ livelihoods on the line.”

April 17, 2013

Senate Chamber — United States Capitol Building

The gun-control bill, the federal government’s response to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, failed by a vote of 54-46. It did get 54 votes — but under the rules of a sharply divided Senate, it needed 60 to pass.

As the votes were tallied, a woman shouted from the gallery above — “Shame on you!” — and she was promptly escorted from the chamber by security. Two years and three months before, she had been standing in a parking lot in Tucson, holding a dropped 30-round Glock magazine in front of a shooter’s face, berating him in the aftermath of his attack on Congress on Your Corner. Now, standing outside the capitol building, she told reporters that the senators who had just voted down the gun bill “have no soul.”

The amendments that the NSSF and the NRA had supported also failed. The response to Sandy Hook, from Congress, was nothing at all.

The White House — Rose Garden

Grieving families from Newtown, joined by a recovering congresswoman from Tucson, stood with the vice president next to the podium, outside the White House. President Obama visibly struggled to contain his disgust toward the Senate: “I’m going to speak plainly and honestly about what’s happened here because the American people are trying to figure out how can something have 90 percent support and yet not happen.”

He ran down all the compromises they had made, and all the promises they had heard. He was particularly angry about the false claim that Wayne LaPierre had made:

Instead of supporting this compromise, the gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill. They claimed that it would create some sort of ‘big brother’ gun registry, even though the bill did the opposite. This legislation, in fact, outlawed any registry. Plain and simple, right there in the text. But that didn’t matter.

And unfortunately, this pattern of spreading untruths about this legislation served a purpose, because those lies upset an intense minority of gun owners, and that in turn intimidated a lot of senators.

In reality, a gun registry would have been illegal anyway — as well the NRA knew, from supporting the 1986 Firearms Owners Protection Act, the legislation that had already banned any such thing. It was part of why the country’s background checks took so long: all those rows of files, stuffed in cardboard boxes, lining the halls at NICS. The NRA was responsible for that, had fought hard for it, and now, pretended it wasn’t even there. And their act worked.

The president acknowledged that the bill had not been perfect. It was seen as a pragmatic compromise. As he had said in the auditorium of Newtown High School in the days after the tragedy, their civilization had an obligation to act in defense of its children. And so if they could find a way to reduce gun deaths without infringing on the 2nd Amendment, they had an obligation to try. “This legislation met that test. And too many senators failed theirs.” He capped off what was likely the angriest speech of his administration. “All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington.”

Intersection of Church Hill Road and Main Street — Newtown, Connecticut

A bullet-pocked rooster weather vane watched with glass eyes from the roof of the meeting house, as a restoration company from Torrington brought a cherry-picker out to the intersection, and raised the machine’s arm 100 feet into the sky. The worker aboard was carrying a golden sphere in his arms; despite a lengthy search, the decorative ball that had sailed off the top of the flagpole in October 2012 was never recovered. But the town had obtained a replacement.

The worker repaired the snapped stem, and affixed the new sphere in place, at the top of the pole. The local icon finally restored, its stars and stripes were again unfurled, rippling under a grey Newtown sky.