By Kevin Baker
“What a wonder is a gun!
What a versatile invention!
First of all, when you’ve a gun—
Everybody pays attention.”
—Stephen Sondheim, Assassins
Last year I had the opportunity to review Candice Millard’s excellent history of the Garfield assassination, Destiny of the Republic. President Garfield’s killer, Charles J. Guiteau, has generally been characterized as “a disgruntled office-seeker,” but as Millard makes clear, he was barking mad. His own family was terrified of him and had been for years, but it proved impossible to find him any effective mental health care.
Finding a cheap handgun in the nation’s capital, on the other hand, proved very easy. One murdered president later, attention was paid.
That was 131 years ago. Little has changed. Getting effective, affordable mental health care is nearly as difficult for many Americans as it was in Garfield’s time, while guns are more ubiquitous and deadly than ever.
Nor will the situation change any time soon, regardless of the terrible tragedy at Newtown. A popular sentiment has arisen that this time it will be different, that at long last we can “start a conversation” about gun violence in the United States.
But gun owners and manufacturers, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and most of the Republican party have already had that conversation. Their conclusion was that they like guns, all sorts of guns, with as few restrictions on their purchase or lethality as possible.
Republican legislators have had their conversation. They’ve spent the last couple years passing legislation that allows individuals to carry guns on trains and in national parks, in our schools and our churches, and in our bars—thereby accelerating an arms race of fear and paranoia.
Republican congressman Louie Gohmert of Texas has had this conversation. He’s been on television fervently wishing that the principal at Sandy Hook Elementary School had had her own automatic weapon, locked and loaded and ready to blow the head off the bad guy.
Fox commentator Mike Huckabee’s had this conversation. He concluded that “we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools become a place of carnage?”
The town of Newtown’s had this conversation. Some residents tried to regulate the growing tendency of their neighbors to fire automatic weapons at propane tanks and targets loaded with Tannerite—a mixture of ammonium nitrate and aluminum powder—until they blew up, resulting in shocks large enough to shake nearby houses.
Newtown’s saner citizens wanted to at least ensure that these homemade target ranges were moved away from other people’s homes, but something called the National Shooting Sports Foundation insisted that there was a greater danger of people being injured in swimming accidents, and that “No safety concerns exist.” As one local woman put it, “Teach your kids to hunt, you will never have to hunt your kids.”
“If you’re good old boys like we are, they are exciting,” one Scott Ostrosky said of his personal blowin’-up-things-real-good range. Mr. Ostrosky insisted, “Guns are why we’re free in this country, and people lose sight of that when tragedies like this happen. A gun didn’t kill all those children, a disturbed man killed all those children.”
And most pertinently, the family of Adam Lanza, the Connecticut shooter, had that conversation. The late Nancy Lanza, his mother and first victim, was reportedly a gun obsessive who kept some three or four or five rapid-
firing weapons in her house and enjoyed taking her boys to the shooting range. She told a friend that “she liked the single-mindedness of shooting.”
Nancy Lanza was also waiting for the end of the world, as a survival fetishist who belonged to the “Doomsday Preppers” movement, and, according to her former sister-in-law Marsha Lanza, had turned her home “into a fortress,” where she was stockpiling not only guns but food. It is perhaps ironic that in preparing for doomsday, Nancy helped hasten it not only for her neighbors but for herself.Her outlook may have accounted for Adam Lanza’s possession of ammunition that, according to the chief medical examiner of Connecticut, was “designed in such a fashion [that] the energy is deposited in the tissue so the bullet stays in”—and does as much damage as possible.
Not that Marsha Lanza finds anything particularly wrong with this: “Just pray for peace. Do I think gun laws need to be changed? No. It’s the person that does the killing, not the gun.”
So far, the Lanza family has been much more reticent about Adam Lanza’s mental illness, unwilling or unable to say that they knew anything was wrong with him. Marsha Lanza did recall that Nancy “had issues with [the local] school[s],” and ended up at least partially home-schooling her son.
“If he had needed consulting, she would have gotten it,” added Marsha. “Nancy wasn’t one to deny reality.”
But friends and neighbors have reported a son who rarely seemed to go outside, and a home that was almost never opened to others. The media has reported in its own ignorance that Adam had Asperger’s syndrome—about as relevant to what happened last Friday as a corn is to a case of lung cancer.
So go on and have your conversation with these individuals. They are people who believe that a schoolteacher, taken by surprise, can always outdraw a practiced shooter, and that nothing bad will come from keeping her loaded automatics around a school full of young children.
They worship an almighty, all-merciful, omnipresent God—who will withdraw His grace from said school if the exact right incantation isn’t chanted in it every morning. They think guns don’t kill people, swimming kills people, and that guns aren’t responsible for mass murder, but that they are responsible for our freedom, and can save us from the zombies and the black helicopters come the post-apocalypse. They believe it is their constitutional right to set off deadly explosives until their neighbors’ homes spin on their foundations. They think they know better than teachers how to educate their children, and they don’t see how their children’s state of mind is anybody else’s business, even after they’ve committed atrocities.
They are people devoid of logic or maturity, who want what they want when they want it. They are supremely afraid of almost everything and everyone around them—and supremely confident of their invincibility as long as they have their finger on a trigger.
There are tens of millions of them, and they elected a majority of the House of Representatives and our state governments. They won’t be swayed, no matter how many tears President Obama sheds, nor how many eloquent eulogies he delivers. They won’t care if you hold a big march in Washington, or sign lots of Internet petitions. They will block whatever bill the president or Sen. Dianne Feinstein or Rep. Carolyn McCarthy proposes, and they will do their damnedest to end the political careers of anyone who supports such legislation.
They don’t want to have a conversation. They just want to shout slogans at you and wave their guns in your face until you go away. And they will keep doing that until all of us who consider ourselves “liberal” or “progressive,” or simply “opposed to having our neighbors blow up propane tanks in their backyards” form a political organization every bit as well-organized and tireless and determined as theirs, and vote their representatives out of office.