79. Fall

August 22, 2013

Riverview Gun Sales — East Windsor, Connecticut

“Federally licensed firearms dealers are our first line of defense in making sure that firearms don’t wind up in the wrong hands,” the acting U.S. Attorney told reporters, before announcing the plea deal. As part of the day’s agreement, Riverview — “one of Connecticut’s largest gun leaders” — was closing down. The ATF’s investigation had uncovered hundreds of violations in the store’s record keeping practices: some serial numbers corresponded to guns with dates-of-sale from before NICS had given a “PROCEED”, while others weapons had been stolen, and not reported so until months later.

But none of the serial numbers were L534858, the digits stamped on the barrel of a Bushmaster XM15-E2S purchased three years before. That sale had been completely above board — and apparently, even if it hadn’t been, there was a decent chance it would have gone through anyway.

Fall 2013

Newtown, Connecticut

A father from Dunblane came down Church Hill Road in a rented car, passing before the stone facade of Trinity Church. He was going to visit some families in town. They were strangers — and yet, this man from across the Atlantic was one of the most qualified on earth to comprehend just what they were going through.

When he first got the news of Sandy Hook, he was in a grocery store parking lot in Scotland, with the radio on in his car. The bulletin came in: America. An elementary school. A gunman. He turned it off. He had decided to retire from gun reform advocacy just the year before, and immediately knew this one was bad. But eventually, despite his best efforts, he heard what happened in Newtown. “I had this immediate fellow feeling with the people who were suffering.”

He attended a “Summit on Reducing Gun Violence in America” at Johns Hopkins University, in Maryland, a few weeks after it happened. More than 20 of the world’s leading experts on gun policy were there, too. He gave them some advice, and wished the Americans all the best in making meaningful changes to their gun laws; but, as similar as the two tragedies were, he couldn’t help but notice how much more modest the Americans were in their approach to preventing the next one. Their recommendations — expanding background checks, longer waiting periods, banning “assault weapons” — seemed ineffectual, and, “I gradually felt that the discussion and the arguments were all being hampered by having to say at the beginning of every speech, ‘Of course I believe in the Second Amendment.’ That was restricting what anyone would say.”

Plus, there were 300 million guns in the country by that point. It wasn’t like the UK in 1996. It wasn’t even like the US in 1996. The culture had changed.

He later went on CNN, not long after Wayne LaPierre gave his “good guy with a gun” speech at the hotel. The father from Dunblane wasn’t impressed. He said he didn’t see the logic in that approach. “The idea that because the problem is guns, the answer is more guns, is simply ridiculous,” he said. “And I think it reflects more that some people take every opportunity to expand the gun trade.”

September 16, 2013

Washington Navy Yard — Washington, D.C.

At 7:44am, the security gate at the front entrance raised, and a contractor drove his car to his spot in the parking garage. Stepping out, he had a backpack over his shoulder, and a security badge slung around his neck, with which he entered the secure Building 197. He went up to the fourth floor, ducked into the men’s room, and took a sawed-off Remington 870 shotgun from his bag. When he came back out, he opened fire on everyone he saw; eventually, he was killed by police gunfire. They found that the shotgun in his hands had messages scratched into the stock: “End to the torment!” and “My ELF weapon!” — but none of it made any sense. He had purchased the shotgun legally.

President Obama spoke at a memorial service, at the Marine Barracks the following week. “Alongside the accumulated outrage so many of us feel, sometimes I fear there’s a creeping resignation that these tragedies are just somehow the way it is, that this is somehow the new normal,” he said. “We can’t accept this.”

October-December 2013

Sandy Hook, Connecticut

The demolition of Sandy Hook Elementary School began on October 25, 2013. It was paid for by Connecticut. The erasing process was gradual, with the rubble carried away in waves over a number of days, to be pulverized into dust.

* * *

On the first anniversary of the tragedy, there would be a great blizzard falling as firefighters went out to lower the flag at the crossroads to half-mast, in recognition of the most difficult year in the village’s history. Across town, where once a school had stood, one would see nothing but a blank, white, plane, where a layer of snowflakes covered the ground.

December 13, 2013

Arapahoe High School — Centennial, Colorado

At approximately 12:33pm, an 18-year-old senior came running through the high school’s lobby, wearing a black sweatshirt and carrying a Savage Arms 320 shotgun. He had a bandolier of shotgun shells strapped across his chest, another around his waist, more shells in his backpack, and a molotov cocktail in his other hand. He opened fire on the students in the lobby, made his way into the library, and threw the lit firebomb at a shelf full of books. Then he turned the shotgun on himself. He had purchased it legally, one week before. The first responders found he had written a message on his left forearm in black marker: Alea Iacta Est. “The die has been cast.”

The school knew he had problems. They had even done a “threat assessment” on him, but he was found to warrant only a “low level of concern.” Now, when the police searched his computer at his home, they found he had googled Columbine extensively, as well as Sandy Hook. (He apparently wanted to do it on the one-year anniversary, but December 14th fell on a Saturday that year.) There was a file entitled “diary of a madman.doc” on the hard drive, in which he had finalized his plans — “I thought about shooting up the asylum or whatever the fuck it was that my mother took me [to] for that psych evaluation” — plus some photos of him posing with the gun and bandoliers. The whole attack lasted maybe a minute and a half; he died a murderer in a burning school library just outside of Littleton, and that was close enough to Columbine for him.

January 4, 2014

Honolulu, Hawaii

President Obama was on holiday vacation when he announced the new “executive actions” he’d be taking on guns. He had already issued 25 such edicts, and the two new ones were designed to improve background checks: the Department of Justice was to propose a clarification of the phrase “committed to a mental institution,” to include involuntary outpatient commitments, and various agencies would make changes to provide information about mental illness to NICS more readily.

January 17, 2014

Cleveland Elementary School — Stockton, California

Some of the facilities around it were newer, fancier, but the old school still stood, with the same basketball and tether-ball courts painted on the playground’s aging pavement. It was the 25th anniversary of the Cleveland Elementary School Shooting, and some of the surviving staff and students were returning to the site of the tragedy, so distant and yet still so clear in their memories. One man — who had been just a child playing at recess that day — expressed his belief that, “These crazy people targeted Cleveland School, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and other places because schools are gun-free zones…. I firmly believe that if there had been a police officer on my campus that day or if there was somebody else trained to use a firearm, that a lot of my classmates could have been saved because that incident could have ended quickly.” He still had a bullet in his chest, from the Norinco that the thin man fired down on them from the tree line. Now 31, he had become a policeman himself.

Meanwhile, the state senator who had championed the post-Stockton bill that banned assault weapons in California, and spread the concept to more states in the years after, now reflected on the California legacy: “It has significantly reduced gun violence, but obviously it hasn’t eliminated it all.”

February 2, 2014

Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office — Golden, Colorado

The sheriff was still getting the occasional disclosure request: when are you going to release the footage? He had flatly stated that the “basement tapes” were never going to escape Jeffco’s evidence locker, back when he released the Columbine journals in 2006. But people just kept asking.

Finally, he decided to tell the whole story: that the basement tapes were no more. Every copy of the toxic footage had already been destroyed. He told the Colorado weekly newspaper Westword that he had simply decided to do all that he could to “ensure the tapes don’t end up on YouTube.”

May 23, 2014

University of California — Santa Barbara

Another clip appeared on YouTube: “Well, this is my last video. It all has to come to this. Tomorrow is the day of retribution, the day I will have my revenge against humanity, against all of you.” The young man promised to invade “the hottest sorority house at UCSB” and kill every college girl there.

He laughed, envisioning it. But the laughter came off as forced; it was all a performance. The video itself was really part of the attack.

He had posted disturbing videos before, if not quite like this one. Just a month earlier, his mother had seen one and called police, who came to his apartment for a wellness check. But he had told the deputies that he just “made the videos as a way to express himself because he was lonely and did not have any friends.” He was calm, and polite, and the deputies determined that he did not meet the criteria for an involuntary 72-hour hold.

This “last video” he uploaded was different. He had actually recorded it the day before, having planned the events carefully: he had waited for his roommates to come home that morning, separately, and then stabbed each of them to death, in their bedrooms. (It didn’t require any prowess as a warrior on his part, of course; an organism as pathetic as he was always had the element of surprise.) He then uploaded his video to YouTube from his laptop, with the title “My Retribution.” Then he took his 9mm Glock 34 and Sig Sauer P226R pistols (both purchased legally) and drove to a sorority house near the campus of UCSB.

Sorority members heard him pounding on the door, but they didn’t open it; after a few seconds, they heard gunfire outside — him shooting at just whoever happened to be around, totally impotent when faced with a simple, deadbolted door. The shooter then gave up, and got in the BMW his parents had bought for him, and sped through Isla Vista, periodically stopping to shoot at pedestrians, or to swerve into bicyclists. The police gave chase, and he lost control, and crashed his car. Then he took his own life.

Online, the shooter had been floating around the “Pick Up Artist” scene, traveling much the same path that the “How to Date Young Women” software engineer had in 2009, before he drove to LA Fitness with his Glock. The Santa Barbara shooter had even frequented the same bodybuilding forum, and he had his own lengthy “manifesto” online, too — “Women are vicious, evil, barbaric animals, and they need to be treated as such” — a document which ABC News then re-published, in its entirety.

It might not have even mattered anymore, that a national news service held an unfiltered bullhorn up to a mass murderer; it was 2014, and the internet would never forget anything again, and so anyone could access the data the shooter left behind, anytime they wanted. Sure enough, before the sun had even set on Santa Barbara, the creature had a growing community of fans: online, angry, and always alone.

June 10, 2014

The White House — State Dining Room

President Obama hosted a special Q&A session on student loan debt: the host was David Karp, the CEO of Tumblr, and he was reading questions for the president that were submitted by Tumblr users. One of them turned out to be an RA from the building where the Santa Barbara shooter had lived; he was friends with the roommates there, the first victims. “What are you going to do?” he asked the president. “What can we all do?”

Obama nodded, grimly. “People often ask me, how has it been being President, and what are my — what am I proudest of and what are my biggest disappointments,” he said. “And I’ve got 2½ years left. My biggest frustration so far is the fact that this society has not been willing to take some basic steps to keep guns out of the hands of people who can do just unbelievable damage. We’re the only developed country on Earth where this happens, and it happens now once a week. And it’s a 1-day story. There’s no place else like this.”

He talked about some of the things he had tried to do, and would continue trying to do with guns. “A lot of people will say that, well, this is a mental health problem, it’s not a gun problem… the United States does not have a monopoly on crazy people.” The crowd chuckled. “It’s not the only country that has psychosis. And yet we kill each other in these mass shootings at rates that are exponentially higher than anyplace else. Well, what’s the difference? The difference is, is that these guys can stack up a bunch of ammunition in their houses, and that’s sort of par for the course.”

August 5, 2014

Centralia, Illinois

That summer, James Brady, the press secretary injured in the attempt on President Ronald Reagan’s life in 1981, and the namesake of the Brady Bill that created NICS, died at his home at the age of 73. When the coroner’s report came out, it listed the cause of death as “homicide.”

Two years later, his killer would be released from Saint Elizabeths Hospital. He is no longer considered a danger to society.

October 24, 2014

Marysville-Pilchuck High School — Marysville, Washington State

Five of the 15-year-old’s closest friends had gotten text messages from him that morning, telling them to meet him in the cafeteria. When he walked in, they were all seated there, at a circular table. Suddenly, he drew a .40-caliber Beretta PX4 Storm handgun, and shot everyone at the table.

A social studies teacher heard the shots, and ran toward the gunman as he was reloading, but before they could reach him, he turned the weapon on himself. (It was his father’s gun; the man would tell police he usually kept it in his truck.)

The gunman was not an outcast, or a loner — he had been nominated homecoming prince just weeks before — and he left a note behind, explaining that he was not even angry with his friends. “I didn’t want to go alone. I needed them on the other side.”

The school reopened, a week-and-a-half later. News stories had reported on how the school was located near tribal land, and that the victims were members of the region’s Tulalip tribe; after the school day was over, a short ceremony was held at the school district’s headquarters, highlighted by a performance of drummers and singers from the Red Lake Indian Reservation, all the way in Minnesota. They joined hands with the town’s leaders, and danced in a circle. Then, a teacher from Newtown Middle School came forward, with a special gift that some of the older representatives from Red Lake surely recognized: the dreamcatcher that had come to them from Columbine, and that they had in turn given to Newtown. Now passing it on to Marysville, the teacher from Newtown told them, “It’s our hope that you should never need to pass it on to another community.” The same hope had been communicated to them, from Red Lake. But it didn’t come true.

December 15, 2014

State Capitol Complex — Hartford, Connecticut

Two years after the Sandy Hook shooting, just as the statute of limitations for such actions was passing, a group of families from Newtown filed their lawsuit: against Bushmaster Firearms, Remington Arms, Freedom Group, Camfour, and Riverview Gun Sales. Though the AR-15 used in the Sandy Hook shooting had been purchased legally by the shooter’s mother, and though the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act was in place to protect all of the defendants from such liability actions, the families were suing under two of the six exceptions in the law.

The first was “negligent entrustment”: Such an exception typically applies in a scenario where a gun buyer was known to be dangerous, to the person or business involved in the sale, but the sale went through anyway. In this case, the families would be arguing that it was negligent for each of the businesses to take a weapon designed for the military, and entrust it to the public at large. The AR-15 was irresponsible to sell, to any civilian.

The families were also suing under a second exception in the shield law, for cases where a manufacturer or seller commits a violation “applicable to the sale or marketing of the product, and the violation was a proximate cause of the harm for which relief is sought.” They wanted to hold Bushmaster responsible for the way they sold the AR-15: all the talk of a “man card” one can only secure by owning one of their ARs, or their advertising slogan, “Forces of opposition, bow down. You are single-handedly outnumbered.” These and other examples, the families argued, showed that the weapon was marketed “in an unethical, oppressive, immoral, and unscrupulous manner by extolling the militaristic and assaultive qualities of the rifle and reinforcing the image of the rifle as a combat weapon that is intended to be used for the purposes of waging war and killing human beings.”

Immediately, the NSSF got to work on a legal brief — urging the court to dismiss the case, and raising their shield to protect the businesses who profited from the sale of L534858.

January 12, 2015

National Shooting Sports Foundation — Newtown, Connecticut

The crowd had grown. Two hundred people stood outside of NSSF headquarters, holding signs and cheering at passing cars, who honked their horns back to show support — but for which side, exactly, it was difficult to tell.

On one end of the street, the signs read “PROTECT KIDS NOT GUNS” and “NOT ONE MORE!”

The signs on the other end of the street looked identical in style, but bore countervailing messages: “SHALL NOT BE INFRINGED” and “BEEP IF YOU LOVE GUNS.”

The organizer of the anti-NSSF side, a local political leader, was there. She had been in Newtown a long time; when the townspeople assembled to consider the purchase of the Fairfield Hills campus, fourteen years before, she had been the one to step from the crowd, and finally call for the vote to be counted: “We don’t want to be here all night.” Now, she wanted to spur another, much larger crowd, to take much bigger actions. She knew it was going to take time. Two years had already passed since Sandy Hook, and she wasn’t giving up. When the sun set, and the crowd thinned, she was still at her post.

Behind her, most of the windows in the small office building were dark; she had scheduled the protest to coincide with the NSSF’s annual SHOT show, then going on in Las Vegas. The trade organization was busy; gun sales had fallen back down from the post-Sandy Hook peak, but they would remain high under Obama. There were deals to be made, and new guns and accessories to unveil.

Still, the woman holding the sign was determined. She had sent a letter to the Newtown Bee that week: “The conversation has changed since the Sandy Hook tragedy. We are on the right side of history.”

A car passed by. Their horn sounded.

* * *

Just around the corner, and at the end of a long meadow, there was an oval shape that had been cleared from the farmland many years before. It had once been the campus of a mental hospital, and now, it was mostly empty buildings, and empty space — but at the east end of the property, still new and green, a baseball diamond was groomed, and ready. Sign-up sheets had just been posted for the coming season, and soon, the townspeople would be listening for an old, familiar sound: the crack of the bat, and the start of another game.