This story is about a woman named Nancy Lanza. Mostly, it will be about the last fourteen years of Nancy’s life: the time during which she shepherded her youngest son through the school system of Newtown, Connecticut.

It is no secret that Nancy’s efforts end in tragedy. The Sandy Hook shooting was a nightmare come to life, and its impact is still reverberating in American society. And yet, part of what made the event so tragic was that if it seemed unprecedented, that was only for lack of memory: there was another disturbed young man who came before, who got his hands on a big gun, and brought it to his old elementary school. It was in 1989, in Stockton, California, and much like Sandy Hook, the Stockton shooting truly shocked the country.

There were 21 years, 2 months, and 12 days that passed between that moment in Stockton, and the moment Nancy Lanza brought home an AR-15 for her youngest son, in March of 2010. During that span of time, our society made concerted efforts to prevent the violent spectacle from repeating: four presidents passed through the Oval Office, and each of their administrations confronted the threat of mass violence in different ways. Congress, and the courts, oversaw a continued, gradual collapse of the national mental health care system, and the emergence of prisons as our modern-day asylums. All the while, huge leaps in technology were changing society in fundamental ways, and ultimately connecting individuals, and information, that likely would never have intersected in any other age.

All of these were factors in how the phenomenon of the mass shooting continued to evolve and spread during this time, through American society and beyond. For that reason, this story will also pause in a handful of places: once each for the story of a town, a hospital, and a prison. And, early in the telling, we will spend some time in a small village in Scotland, to see how another society responded when faced with the same deadly phenomenon.

By following the events in this manner, one can see the Sandy Hook shooting for what it truly was: a man-made disaster.

This is a true story. Some names have been changed, and a few locations of scenes are presumed. In one instance, some witnesses that cover the same territory have been condensed into one semi-fictionalized character. And, as is true of any non-fiction story, some artistic license has been sparingly employed throughout, in an attempt to simplify and/or dramatize events that might otherwise fail to muster attention. But nothing you are about to read is made up; it all really happened.

Where available evidence conflicts, or where gaps exist in official records, I have taken care to point this out in the narrative, and to present reasonable scenarios for explaining these imperfections, as well as to clearly announce when I am doing so. However, I know that I will surely not please everyone in this regard. (For more information on sources, and the researching and writing of this book, refer to the “Notes & Sources” section.)

One last thing: although this is a story primarily about mass shootings, I have taken efforts to avoid some of the familiar conventions that have developed for narratives of such events: there are no tallies of victims here, and unless necessary to explain a sequence of events, no detailed depictions of innocent people being harmed. I also do not use the names of any of the shooters — with just one exception. And that single one, purely out of fairness to Nancy Lanza. Because this story is an effort, as much as possible, to see the situation through her eyes.

It all comes back to Nancy in the end.