Status of this blog

For new readers: This used to be a blog about the Sandy Hook shooter, focusing on his online activities. I’m no longer updating it, but I’m leaving the information online for people who are interested in the case.

While researching the case myself over the last few years, I’ve also been writing a book about the Sandy Hook shooter, and the phenomenon of mass shootings. Sometimes I post excerpts from the book here, as you’ll see below. But aside from that, I won’t be posting any new content.  

(So regarding today’s news: Yes I’m aware that the FBI released their files on the Sandy Hook shooter. I’ve browsed the documents and have many thoughts, noticed many things, but I’m just not blogging anymore. Cheers.)

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Chapter 5: Earth Day

5. Earth Day

October 1991: John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance — Boston, Massachusetts

There was something wrong in Nancy Lanza’s womb.

She knew how it was supposed to go; two years before, with her first son, she had kept working right up to her third trimester. She had gotten morning sickness, and mood swings. The usual. No problem. But now, three months pregnant with her second child, something was definitely wrong. She was starting to get worried.

Every day it got worse. Without warning, Nancy’s blood sugar would plummet, throwing her off-balance. Then she’d get hit by waves of nausea, increasing in frequency and intensity the more she tried to power through. It was as if the force growing inside her belly wanted something that its mother could not provide, and so it just took, and took, and took from her, sapping her strength.

The complications lingered, their ebb even surfacing in Nancy’s work performance. That wasn’t good; the downward trend in her stats, Nancy told friends, was something that her supervisors at John Hancock would not hesitate to bring to her attention. Even when she was with child.  The fear compounded her stress.

She could feel the baby growing in her, and yet, she noticed it moving less and less. The fear grew. By November, her own symptoms would spiral into a list that included “episodes of physical pain, distress, headaches, insomnia, crying spells, nausea and increased nervousness.” That month, she took a medical leave of absence from John Hancock, seeking refuge at the Lanza family home in Kingston for the remaining five months of her term. She would weather the storm, but its intensity was such that Nancy decided she would never bear children again.

April 22nd, 1992: Exeter Hospital — Exeter, New Hampshire

The day came, and Peter drove Nancy to the hospital, for a planned Cesarean section. There, she gave birth to her second son: Adam Peter Lanza.

A local paper, the Exeter News-Letter, would run a photo of the newborn boy along with a birth announcement, one amongst a collection that recorded all of the children brought into the world at Exeter Hospital that year. Adam’s birth weight was listed at precisely eight pounds, and he appeared no different from the other babies in the maternity ward that day. His mother, relieved that the troubled pregnancy was finally over, brought him home to Kingston, a “healthy baby boy.”

Soon, Nancy was soon rushing Adam back to the hospital, herself in a panic, telling the staff that her baby had stopped breathing. This turned out to be a false alarm: Adam woke back up, his breath returned, and the doctors recorded that it had likely been nothing more than a simple episode of apnea. This marked the first instance in Adam Lanza’s life when his parents were concerned for his health. He was eight days old.


Kingston, New Hampshire

With the hardship finally gone from her belly, Nancy soon regained her strength. The Lanzas were seeing the returns from Peter’s years of hard work by then; he had finished his masters in taxation at Bentley University, and then accepted a position as Vice President of Tax for an asset management firm. It was a respected, and lucrative role. The family’s financial concerns began to fade.

Nancy had been at John Hancock for more than eight years by this point, and her plan was to go back to work after her maternity leave ended — dropping Adam off at daycare on her way to Hancock Tower, just as she had with her first son, Ryan, for the previous four years — but it didn’t work out that way; when Nancy had filed for her medical leave of absence late in 1991, she knew that the firm was planning to restructure her department. That meant cutting costs, which meant cutting jobs, but Nancy told family that her bosses had promised her she would still have her spot waiting for her when she was ready to come back.

Then, one day, the Lanza family’s mailbox on Depot Road had its red flag raised, and a letter from John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance was inside, bearing the bad news: Nancy had been laid off, after all.

She was deeply offended, taking it as both a personal betrayal and a professional slight. But then again, the Lanzas had been overdue to shift to the “long-term” phase of their plans already. As Nancy would later write of this juncture in her family’s history, “it was a decision that I made to take more responsibility for the house and the children, and to allow [Peter] to concentrate on his career.” But the knife twisted all the same; her bosses had cited her sinking job performance in the dismissal, and so Nancy felt that in a way, she was being faulted for the suffering she had endured while bearing Adam into the world. She made up her mind not to let the firing go unanswered… but she filed that grievance away, off in a corner of her mind, to deal with later. She had more immediate concerns, at home.


For the first three years of Adam Lanza’s life, he did not speak. He would babble, making noises that sounded like words, but not words that anyone else could understand. Within the family, it became accepted that Adam was “making up his own language.”

Nancy would pick up some her son’s unique language by the time he was a toddler — enough to interpret what he wanted, and what he wanted to say. So, as long as his mother was around, Adam was normal enough to get by. It wasn’t quite that he was failing to learn English, either, since it was evident that he was able to understand what adults were saying most of the time. He could follow commands, if somewhat clumsily. But the total absence of any intelligible speech at all could not be ignored.

New Hampshire’s “early intervention” system — intended to spot any developmental issues in young children — includes a phase of “transition planning” when a  child is between 27 and 32 months, to determine if preschool special education would be needed as part of preparation for the child entering the public school system. In early 1995, as this window of time was about to close for Adam, someone contacted the state, and an evaluation was scheduled.

Most likely, it was a pediatrician that wrote the referral; he or she was the first doctor to regularly evaluate Adam Lanza, and they recorded that the toddler presented with “several developmental challenges,” the foremost being his significant speech and language delays. The doctor had concerns about Adam’s physical movements as well, noting repetitive behaviors, as well as both fine and gross “motor difficulties.” The good news was, it should all be treatable.


Late 1994: Office of Child Health Services— Manchester, New Hampshire

Nancy brought Adam in for the state’s “birth to three” assessment. This was a necessary step, in order to qualify for the supports that the state could offer toward his development. During the testing session, the state’s evaluators made note that they could not understand any of Adam’s speech at all; they needed his mother to act as interpreter. However, there were positive signs noted as well, as they observed that two-year-old Adam demonstrated “a good attention span,” coupled with “creative play skills.” They confirmed that he could follow verbal direction, but they also noticed some motor difficulties as he was completing the physical tasks laid out before him. The conclusions the doctors drew from this evaluation would echo those from Adam’s pediatrician, and expand on them — the evaluators wrote that Adam, when entering preschool, “fell well below expectations in social-personal development,” and presented with “significantly delayed development of articulation and expressive language skills.”

Adam was going to need help, and that meant an IEP: Individualized Education Plan. Every incoming student with a disability would need an IEP in order to plot out their special education needs, and in each child’s plan, the school was required to specify the student’s primary learning disability.

On his very first IEP, Adam was listed as having “Oral Expression Disability.”

It is not always easy for a parent to accept that their child has a learning disability. To the family or student impacted, the stigma can make it feel as though a weakness has been exposed. In fact, the very New Hampshire government organisation that managed Adam’s transition to public schooling in 1995 also underwent a name change that same year; they switched from “Family Centered Early Intervention” to “Family-Centered Early Supports and Services,” with the state explaining in a statement that the change “came about as a result of a group of parents talking to their legislators about the negative connotation associated with the term ‘Early Intervention,’ as the term implied that they and their children needed to have their lives intervened with simply because the children had developmental issues.”

Indeed, as would have been explained to Nancy at the time, Adam’s having qualified for special education supports merely meant that her son’s development was atypical. He had different needs than other children, and it was best that his learning curriculum be tailored accordingly. In Adam’s case, given his specific developmental delays, his evaluators prescribed regular speech supports and occupational therapy sessions. Beyond this, their only recommendation was for Adam to begin regular preschool attendance, in order to “stimulate development in all domains.”


Nancy took Adam to a preschool in Kingston for the next two years. Initially, he received speech therapy that was geared almost exclusively toward improving his articulation: strengthening the mechanics of forming recognizable words; as the “Planning and Placement Team” (PPT) saw it, Adam was sending out scrambled messages. It was their task to unscramble them.

At the same time, the preschool reported that Adam “appeared to be beginning to understand that others could not understand him.” Until this point, the child apparently thought that the words he was using were not just his own. As a result of this shortfall, part of his speech therapy was meant to teach him “strategies” to help “compensate for the limited intelligibility of his speech when talking with unfamiliar listeners,” with the hope that he would start speaking to someone, anyone, beyond his mother. But reports from his preschool over the months that followed indicate that Adam instead fell back on a more simple strategy: when he realized that he was talking differently than everyone else, he stopped talking altogether. The signals from his interior world, scrambled before, suddenly went silent.

According to doctors who would review Adam’s pediatric records in later years, his retreating into muteness should have been recognized as a delay in the development of his expressive language — a facet which is distinct from articulation. It is the ability to demonstrate “communicative intent,” i.e. the will to communicate. Yet, despite this branching in his development,  it appears that his education plan continued unchanged, still focusing on improving his ability to properly articulate words. The underlying problem was left largely unaddressed: that whatever was inside Adam, it no longer wanted to come out.


Texas State Capitol Building — Austin, Texas

The doors to the State Senate chambers opened, and a woman named Suzanna entered. Legislators were seated at a long, rectangular table, listening to witnesses they had invited to comment on a proposed gun bill.

Suzanna was there to tell her story. When her turn came at the microphone, she told the gathering in the chamber about the day she had gone for lunch at Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen a few years before — when the blue truck had come crashing through the front window. Recounting the events for the state’s subcommittee, she described the initial fear and confusion she felt, as she took cover with her family, and listened to the seemingly endless gunfire emanating from man with the giant eyes. She described how it had dawned on her, exactly what the gunman was there to do. And what she had to do.

“I got him!” she thought in that moment, her mind’s eye jumping to the pistol she kept in her purse. “I had a perfect place to prop my hand. Everyone else in the restaurant was down, he was up, perhaps fifteen feet from me, and I have hit much smaller targets at much greater distances.” She reached for her purse, and then, just as suddenly as her hopes were raised, they came crashing back down: she remembered a seemingly-minor decision she had made a month or two before, when she had taken the .38 revolver from her purse, and left it in her car. “In the State of Texas, it is a felony offense to carry a concealed firearm anywhere where wine or beer or any alcohol is served,” she reminded her audience, and she had been worried it could cost her her chiropractor’s license if she was caught. So there, in her car, the .38 pistol sat, “a hundred yards away, completely useless to me.” There was nothing she could do but hide, and wait for police. Or the end.

Suddenly, the circumstances changed. A customer at the far end of the restaurant from the blue truck had been throwing himself against a window, and when it finally broke, Suzanna was among the terrified survivors that came pouring through the hole, into the alley behind Luby’s. She thought that her mother was following her to the makeshift exit, but Suzanna later found out that she had stayed behind, with her husband of 47 years, Al Gratia, who lay mortally wounded after trying to rush the shooter. Suzanna’s mother had had been the last victim at Luby’s, shot in a moment that signalled to police who the bad guy with the gun was. Her sacrifice brought an end to the bloodshed.

Midway through telling her story, Suzanna Gratia asked for permission to stand, and then she gave a demonstration of what it was like to be in the cafeteria that day: she placed her hands together, forming a “gun” sign, and narrated the scene as she paced down the row of lawmakers, miming “shooting” each of them. She came to a stop when one senator — a vocal opponent of the bill they were discussing that day — snapped at her “get that finger out of my face!”

Suzanna did, but then she posed a question, nodding to the next man seated at the table: “Tell me, senator: would you like him to have a concealed weapon at this point, or not?”

The subcommittee’s hearings that day were for a bill that would establish a “license to carry” system for Texans, and their handguns. As Suzanna expected, footage of her tense confrontation in the chamber made every evening news broadcast in the state that night. It was just the boost that the bill needed.

The Concealed-Carry Law passed. Within the year, any Texan over age 21, who did not have a criminal record, and was not “chemically dependent” or “of unsound mind,” could get a permit; they would have to pay a $140 fee, and complete a ten-hour class on gun safety and the use of force.  The bill Suzanna championed was signed into law by Governor George W. Bush, the son of the president, who proclaimed that the new legislation would make his state “a better and safer place to live.”












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Chapter 4: Human Animal

4. Human Animal

October 16, 1991: Luby’s Cafeteria — Killeen, Texas

Patrons at Luby’s Cafeteria were just sitting down for lunch on a Wednesday afternoon, to plates heaped high with fried chicken and mashed potatoes, when they heard the roar of a truck engine approaching outside. Looking up from their trays, they saw it come into view through the big floor-to-ceiling front windows: a bright-blue Ford Ranger pickup, speeding across the restaurant parking lot. Suddenly, the driver made a hard turn, straight toward them, hit the gas, and in an instant, the sparkling blue pickup truck came crashing through the glass.

A wave of splintered wood and broken dishes crested into Luby’s dining area, and then scattered. The resulting silence was filled with the pleasant melodies of the restaurant’s muzac station, and a few hesitant voices — did the driver have a heart attack? Was the gas pedal stuck? — as the diners crowded cautiously around the truck that was somehow, despite all reason, now parked fully inside the restaurant, its shock absorbers lurching back and forth to a halt. Of those who peered through the windshield, the ones who would survive the day all remember the same thing: the driver’s eyes were wide, wide open.

One man broke from the crowd, and approached the driver’s door. Then, two gunshots rang out; he suddenly stopped, and fell backward. The truck’s door opened, and a man in jeans and a cowboy shirt, his eyeballs bright and bulging, hopped from the truck’s cab, carrying two handguns. He announced to the crowd “this is for the women of Belton!” Then he opened fire.

The crowd quickly scattered, in a mad rush for the rear of the restaurant as the gunshots thundered behind them. Some hid under tables, or flipped theirs over to form a wall, but there was no path to escape. For the next five minutes, the gunman traveled in a circuit around the dining area, attacking customers where they sat in their chairs, frozen in fear.  They were trapped in there with the shooter, his truck and his position blocking access to the only exits. Confusion clouded the scenario again: was this a robbery? A terrorist attack? What the hell was going on?

Pausing in between bursts of gunfire, the shooter ranted to his captive audience, forceful but not quite with anger in his voice — “Wait ‘til those fucking women in Belton see this! I wonder if they’ll think it was worth it!” — except that nothing the shooter said made any sense. And he just kept on like that, pacing around the dining area, shooting, and asking his victims “was it worth it? Was it worth it?”

One woman, hiding behind an upturned table as the gunman passed by, thought to herself “it’s a McDonald’s,” remembering the news stories that came from California back in ‘84. She was even more right that she could have known.

Some of the captives did make a run for the side exit, when the shooter’s attention was diverted. Not all of them made it. Then, as the shooter came by on his second loop around the dining hall, a man in his seventies named Al Gratia, who had been eating lunch with his family that afternoon, suddenly stood from cover and charged at the gunman, unarmed. The shooter, a physically healthy 35-year-old man, saw Al coming, and shot him.

The police arrived soon after that, about five minutes from when the glass first shattered, but as they approached the jagged hole in the window that the shooter’s truck had left behind, it was a struggle to make out exactly who inside the restaurant was the one doing the shooting.

Then, in a single moment, they saw the silhouette of a man turn, raise a gun to Al Gratia’s wife as she sat cradling her husband, and pull the trigger. Then, they knew.

The police immediately opened fire on the shooter, and a seven-minute gun battle ensued. Outgunned, the shooter retreated to an alcove where the entrances to the restrooms met. He started shooting “blind” around the corner, at the cops, unconcerned that he might run out of ammunition before they did.

During a pause in the gunplay, an attempt was made to end it peacefully.

“Police! Drop your weapon and come out with your hands up!”

“Fuck you!” the shooter barked from around the corner.

“Fuck us? Fuck you!”

Another long exchange of gunfire. Shards of porcelain and clouds of drywall filled the air. Then, another lull as everyone reloaded, the cheerful muzak audible again.

The shooter remained defiant, but his voice was wavering now, whining like an injured animal. “I’m going to kill more fucking people!”

“You’re not going to shoot anybody else!” the lawmen yelled back, and after a few more maneuvers and advances, the shooter had sustained four gunshot wounds over his body, and was crawling for a dropped clip. As the police closed in on his position, the shooter rolled onto his back, put the barrel of his pistol to his right temple, and pulled the trigger. His eyes stayed wide open.


Clearing the building, police searched the gunman’s body, and found that he been armed with a Glock 17 and a Ruger P-89, both of them 9mm semi-automatic pistols. When the shooter had aimed his truck through the window of Luby’s Cafeteria that afternoon, he came with extra magazines for each gun, separated into his shirt pockets: the glock magazines held 17 rounds, and the Ruger held 15, so with a gun in each hand, he was able to fire a total of 32 rounds at a time before having to reload.

He had purchased both guns legally — the Glock for $420 and the Ruger for $345 — from a gun dealer in Nevada, six months before his truck came through the glass. At the gun shop, the shooter had filled out his required paperwork: a registration sheet with the Las Vegas PD (who asked only for contact info and a description of the weapon) and then a Firearms Transaction Record for the ATF. This form asked the buyer if they had ever been convicted of a crime punishable by up to one year in prison (he answered no, which was true) and if he was a drug user, including marijuana, and he wrote no (which was a lie; he had lost his job with the merchant marines when they found him with weed in his bunk, and he had been arrested with a joint ten years before) as well as if he was a fugitive, an illegal alien, or if he had ever been dishonorably discharged from the armed forces (no, no, and no; all answered truthfully.) Then, he left with his guns — there was no waiting period in Nevada, and there was no way to verify any of his answers anyway.

Part of what made the Luby’s shooter’s mid-massacre tirades so bizarre was that he kept damning “the women of Belton,” a place three towns away from Killeen. Once the police identified him, though, they discovered that he had a Belton address; he lived alone, in a majestic brick home that belonged to his mother. Neighbors called their conspicuously ritzy private landmark “the mansion,” and inside, it was just as neat and well-maintained as shooter’s sparkling blue truck. Yet, a closer look yielded signs of disorder, clues to the doomed trajectory of the life that had lived there: in a bedroom closet, there was a collection of VHS tapes, crime documentaries that the shooter had taped off television They featured famous serial killers, the attempted assassination of President Reagan, and most of all, the 1984 mass shooting at the McDonald’s in San Ysidro. According to his acquaintances, the shooter was obsessed with that incident, and had memorized every detail.

In the stereo, there was a well-worn copy of the Steely Dan album The Royal Scam, cued to the shooter’s favorite song, its lyrics depicting an outlaw gunman going out in a blaze of glory: “Don’t Take Me Alive.”  

On a wall calendar, the shooter had circled his birthday, and inside the circle he wrote “I am not an animal nor am I a number. I am a human being with feelings and emotions.

The next day — the day he would attack Luby’s — he had drawn another circle, and inside it wrote “Life has become a stalemate. There is simply no hope and not a prayer.


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

All while the shooting was unfolding at Luby’s, the congress was debating another crime bill in Washington. This time, the bill included a provision that would outlaw 13 specific “assault rifles,” identified with much the same criteria that the ATF had used for their import ban two years before. The bill also would have determined any ammunition magazine that holds more than 7 rounds — for any gun, included pistols — to be considered “large capacity,” a category that would be outlawed if the bill passed.  

The news of the Luby’s shooting broke in mid-session, and a grim statistic became clear: the bloodshed in Killeen was even worse than it had been at the McDonald’s in 1984. Never before in American history had there been so many victims claimed by a single mass shooting. The man who represented Texas’s 17th district (home to both Killeen and the nation’s largest military base, Fort Hood) stood solemnly to put the loss in perspective: “in this one incident — less than a half an hour — more citizens lost their lives than in the month the 25,000 soldiers from Killeen fought for their country in Desert Storm.” Another representative, from New York, set the stakes clearly: “this House will decide today whether they died in vain.”

During the next day’s sessions, a representative from Missouri offered an amendment that would completely gut all of the proposed firearms restrictions from the crime bill. No magazine cap, no assault weapons ban. “Everyone in this House wants to stop what occurred in Killeen yesterday,” the congressman began:

“That is not the question, but rather how do we stop it? In this specific case, I simply have no answer. When someone loses their mind, as the man who caused this tragedy yesterday obviously did, I do not believe it can be stopped. It was not the pistol that caused those deaths. If it was not a pistol, it could easily have been a rifle, if not a rifle a shotgun. If not a gun, a can of gasoline thrown into the restaurant would have caused as much or more tragedy. If the truck had been loaded with dynamite and the man is willing to die, as in this case he was, how do you stop it?”

As it had been after Stockton, the weak point in the crime bill that year was the ambiguity of the term “assault weapon.” The Missouri representative produced a series of charts, and argued that two guns pictured on one small wedge of a pie chart would lead to the remaining 113 guns on the display being banned along with them, because they had “similar features” under the ATF’s philosophy. He warned “make no mistake about it, failure to support my amendments will result in millions of semiautomatic firearms, owned by millions of law-abiding citizens, [being] left to the whim of the ATF for possible inclusion in the list to be banned.”

A congressman from New Mexico then stood, and used the tragedy at Luby’s — and the weapons utilized by the shooter as compared to “assault” guns — as a demonstration against banning the 13 rifles, hammering the point “these are not assault weapons. They are semiautomatic weapons. They are the same all over. That was proven in Texas. The Glock is not on the list to be banned.” About the Glock, he was most certainly correct.

A representative from California, where the memory of Stockton was still most acute, directed attention to the arithmetic that the mass shooters were beholden to. “The most important part of this bill is not the specific semiautomatic assault weapons, but what we do to ban the huge capacity ammunition clip,” he said. “Here is why: It is that huge capacity ammunition clip that allows an insane person to shoot and shoot and keep shooting. It is when the person has to stop to change the clip that a police officer or someone sane has the chance to stop them.” At the end of his minute at the podium, the Californian concluded “when I first came to Congress, Stockton happened. I have complained in the well of this floor after every event of mass killing. Please, I do not wish to come here again.”

The Californian didn’t get what he wanted. The Amendment passed, and the ban on  13 rifles and all high-capacity magazines was removed from the bill.  

Later, President Bush granted a radio interview to NBC, and the reporter asked him if he could comment on the Luby’s shooting. Surrender was palpable in his voice. “Obviously, when you see somebody go berserk and get a weapon and go in and murder people it troubles me,” the president said. “But what I don’t happen to have the answer to is, can you legislate that behavior away?”  






  • Anatomy of a Massacre — Jason & Elinor Karpf
  • From Luby’s to the Legislature: One Woman’s Fight Against Gun Control —   Suzanna Gratia-Hupp
  • ANNOUNCEMENT OF TRAGEDY IN KILLEEN, TX (House of Representatives – October 16, 1991) [Page: H7970]
  • House Daily Record, October 17 1991 [Page H8023] OMNIBUS CRIME CONTROL ACT OF 1991
  • S.1241 – Biden-Thurmond Violent Crime Control Act of 1991
  • “Post-mortem on Killeen killings” — Bangor Daily News, October 25 1991

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Chapter 3: Assault Rifle

3. Assault Rifle

January 20th, 1989: Los Angeles International Airport

Excitement spread through the crowd when they saw the plane descend from the overcast sky, and smoothly touch down on the runway. As the jet taxied to a stop, there were over 700 Californians waiting below, all of them cheering, ready to welcome their hero back home after an eight-year quest. Some brought signs: one read “Happy Trails Again.” Another: “The King and Queen Return.” This was the moment they had been waiting for.

The door to the jet swung open, and Ronald Reagan appeared, waving to the crowd and flashing his Hollywood smile, his wife at his side. The crowd roared as they descended the staircase, over the brass tones of the Salvation Army’s “Tournament of Roses” Band, performing “California, Here I Come” on the tarmac. The man they came to see was used to thinking of the aircraft behind him as Air Force One, but this had been his first time aboard when that designation would no longer apply; earlier that morning, he had passed the country’s reins to his successor, Vice President George HW Bush. Reagan had been a movie star, the governor of California, and the president, but now, he was just a citizen.

Stepping to the microphone, he thanked his fellow Californians, and told them that his eight years away had left him “in a perpetual state of homesickness.” Asked what his plans were, he joked that he might have a new movie deal in the works — a sequel to Bedtime for Bonzo, the 1951 film in which he had played a psychology professor trying to teach morals to a chimpanzee —  “only this time, they wanted me to play Bonzo.”

A few weeks later, the University of Southern California would host Reagan’s 78th birthday celebration, and it was at this black-tie affair where he gave his first public comments on the tragedy that had unfolded in Stockton, just three days before he left the Oval Office. His immediate focus was on the murder weapon: “I do not believe in taking away the right of the citizen to own guns for sport — hunting and so forth — or for home defense,” the former president told the assembled students and faculty. “But I do believe that an AK-47, a machine gun, is not a sporting weapon.”  

The former president’s remarks were met with applause, but in using the term “machine gun,” Reagan seemed to have drifted from the facts of the Stockton case, since the Norinco rifle that the thin man had fired at the Cleveland school’s playground was not technically a “machine gun.” This was a very common point of confusion (and may have been the result of the many journalists who got the same detail wrong in their early reports from Stockton) but it left open the question of what, exactly, the former president’s stance was on ownership of civilian, semi-automatic versions of military rifles. Ultimately, it would be a problem for the next president to address.

February 16th, 1989: The White House — Oval Office

President Bush was wrapping up a Q&A session with reporters. Most of their inquiries had focused on how the new administration would respond to the developing Soviet withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, and he was just thanking the press for coming, when a persistent reporter snuck in one final question. He asked what the White House was going to do about Stockton. In his reply, President Bush immediately fell into the same confusion that Reagan had:

The President: You already had laws that prohibit the import of fully automated AK-47’s. That law is on the books. So, are we talking about law enforcement? Are we talking about– 

Question: We’re talking about semiautomatic AK-47’s, sir. We’re talking about semiautomatic guns.

The President. What do you mean by semi?

Question: I mean no cocking, pull the trigger, the gun fires each time I pull the trigger.

The President: Look, if you’re suggesting that every pistol that can do that or every rifle should be banned, I would strongly oppose that. I would strongly go after the criminals who use these guns. I’m not about to suggest that a semi-automated hunting rifle be banned. Absolutely not. [But] am I opposed to AK-47’s, fully automated? Am I in favor of supporting the law that says they shouldn’t come in here? Yes.

Question: So, you think it’s okay for people to have guns?

The President: To have guns? Yes, I do. […] I’m not about to propose a ban on service .45’s or something like that.

Question: On semiautomatics — right?

The President: No, I’m not about to do that. And I think the answer is the criminal. Do more with the criminal. Look, the States have a lot of laws on these things. Let them enforce them. It’s hard, very hard, to do. But that’s my position, and I’m not going to change it.

January 1989: Traders Sporting Goods  — San Leandro, CA

Return customers knew the place by its tacky storefront, painted to look like stone, and its convenient location. Just south of Oakland. But most citizens of the Bay Area recognized “Trader’s” from the ads in their daily newspaper, the ones shamelessly hawking cut-rate AK-47 knockoffs and “1,000 rounds of ammunition for $120.” It was the most notorious gun store on the west coast, and with good reason: they sold thousands and thousands of guns every year. So many, that whenever there was a shot heard on the streets of Oakland, the police knew there was a very good chance that the gun that fired it came from Traders.

The bell over the door jingled. A customer walked in with a few hundred dollars, and minutes later, they walked back out with a brand new Uzi carbine. Traders collected another healthy profit.

The sales clerk turned and marked the now-empty shelf space behind the counter: SOLD OUT. He stopped again at the slot for semi-automatic AK-47s. Only a few left. The price tag read $399. He marked it up, to $895.

“The guns are moving very, very good because of the current publicity,” said the store’s proprietor, Tony Cucchiara, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. It was all because of Stockton; before the shooting, he sold maybe a half-dozen AK-47s a week. But ever since the attack on the playground, those sales had increased fivefold. No matter how fast he ordered them, he just couldn’t keep the big guns in stock, thanks to all panic-buyers: California tried to pass an assault weapons ban the year before, and it failed, but everyone could tell that this time, things were different. All the political arithmetic had changed. And for now, nobody was better positioned to profit from it than Tony. Still, he didn’t like the prospect of new gun laws actually passing; he was having trouble just obeying the ones already on the books.

It wasn’t always crazy like this. When Tony first opened Traders Sporting Goods in 1958, the only real gun laws he had to worry about were from the 1930’s, and they pertained to the sale of fully-automatic machine guns — not a problem for Traders, which at that time mostly sold shotguns and hunting rifles, along with a few revolvers, for target-shooting or self defense. But things started to change in the late 1960’s. Violent crime rates began to increase dramatically, and a series of high-profile political assassinations brought the Gun Control Act of 1968, which imposed stricter record-keeping standards for gun dealers, and prohibited selling guns felons. It also banned all interstate firearms transfers, except between dealers with a valid Federal Firearms License (FFL). Four years later, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was officially created, and tasked with enforcing the new gun control act, as well as managing all the FFL licenses.

And that was when Tony’s problems started: the ATF would audit his records, and send him “irregularities statements,” saying there were hundreds of guns shipped to his store that his records couldn’t account for, and many documented sales that they determined were made to “ineligible purchasers.” These including obvious “straw buyers” — people purchasing a gun for someone else, who could not make the purchase for themselves. Under the rules of the 1968 act, these violations could only get Traders shut down if they were found to be “willful,” but due to the sheer number of guns going missing from Traders or ending up in the wrong hands, it was getting hard for the ATF to give Tony the benefit of the doubt. In 1973, they warned him: any more violations, and they would automatically consider them “willful.” He had been given enough chances.

When the ATF did a follow-up investigation, they found that despite their warnings, Traders had continued to engage in “additional sales to ineligible purchasers, unreported multiple handgun sales,” and a failure to record transactions that resulted in “a loss without reasonable explanation of 200 firearms.” So when Tony went to renew his Federal Firearms License that year, the ATF rejected his application, citing his “gross disregard of or indifference to legal requirements.” They were putting Traders out of business.

Tony fought back. He sued the ATF for five million dollars, claiming that the bureau was violating his civil rights, and engaging in a conspiracy “to vex, annoy and harass [him] in his sporting goods business and individual capacity.” In 1983, much to the dismay of community members who were hoping to see Traders finally closed (the store had remained open during the entire appeals process, as the law dictated) the ATF decided to settle with Tony. They would renew his license, provided he signed an agreement stating that Traders would “fully comply with all recordkeeping requirements imposed by law and regulation” In addition, they made Traders agree to shut down… for thirty days. The federal attorneys figured that was the best they could get. The laws were too weak.

Traders was in the clear, and some normalcy returned to Tony’s life. Society continued to change around him; on July 18th, 1984, California experienced a terrifying new phenomenon, as a man in San Ysidro walked into a McDonald’s restaurant, in broad daylight, carrying a long-barreled Uzi, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a 9mm pistol, and just started shooting. The human beings in the restaurant were just random people, nobody the gunman had ever even met before. The oldest was 74 years. The youngest was an infant. The gunman didn’t care. He kept on shooting for over an hour, until finally a police sniper caught him in his crosshairs, and ended his life.

The McDonald’s attack was a shock to the system for many Californians, but politically, it passed with little consequence.

In 1986, the Firearms Owners Protection Act was passed, which significantly weakened the ATF’s authority. Most significantly to Tony, it narrowed the definition of what qualified as a “willful” rule violation, so that it applied only to gun dealers that “knew of a legal duty, and engaged in the conduct knowingly and in intentional disregard of the duty.” This was good news; if a store “lost” a gun, it would be practically impossible to prove they did anything with it on purpose. Tony’s had some room to operate.

But now, just when the federal pressure was easing off, the California lawmakers were talking gun control again: either taking certain guns off the streets, or adding a 15-day waiting period, or making the owners register their guns. “I don’t know why they should have to register them,” Tony said. “They bought them legally. They’re law abiding citizens. The criminals won’t register them.”

Once, someone asked Tony who was to blame when a criminal got their hands on a gun that came from Traders. He responded “it’s the mother and father, or people on welfare that aren’t keeping their guns locked.”

State Task Force on Assault Weapons — Sacramento, CA

A who’s-who of California’s law enforcement brass crowded into a meeting room: there was  the Attorney General, the Sheriff of Los Angeles County, the District Attorney from Oakland, representatives from a dozen city police forces. Everyone had assembled there to help draft legislation: a new law that would deal with “the proliferation of military-type semi-automatic firearms among street gangs and drug dealers.” It would be their Plan B for banning assault weapons in the state, after last year’s bill had fizzled out.

The LAPD spoke first: things hadn’t improved since last year. In September, an undercover officer had witnessed a drive-by shooting in Hyde Park, and when he gave chase, the suspects drove to a parking lot, stopped, and opened fire on him with 30 rounds from a Colt AR-15 rifle. He was the first LAPD officer to have fallen to a drive-by gang shooting, but not the last. Then, three months later and just a few blocks down Crenshaw Boulevard,  two officers were chasing a suspects in another speeding car, and then found themselves in a rolling shootout with the gang members inside. Suddenly, one of them leaned out the passenger window with what looked like AK-47; the cops, armed only with pistols, hit the brakes and ducked down under the dash. They saw the bullets pierce holes through the cruiser, all around them. Sure enough, when the chase resumed and they finally ran the suspects off the road, there found a smoking semi-automatic AK-47 inside, with several spent 30-round magazines.

The D.A. from Oakland said he had witnessed the same trend. In all of 1986, the Oakland PD had picked up a total of 56 assault rifles from the various crime scenes around the city. By 1988, the number tripled. And as the guns got bigger, it seemed, so did the crimes: one of the recovered guns was an AK-47 that two teenage gang members brought onto a county bus that year, to settle some grudge they had against the bus driver. They shot their target — but then they just kept right on shooting, spraying bullets at the passengers. Total strangers, in broad daylight, apparently for no better reason than because they had ammo to spare. Meanwhile, much to the Oakland PD’s frustration, any 18-year-old with an ID could just walk into Traders Sporting Goods and buy a semi-auto AK-47, over the counter. The 15-day waiting period was only for handguns.

Initially, the “Task Force On Assault Weapons” wanted just to shore up that discrepancy: expand the waiting period to cover assault rifles, too. But as the high-profile gang shootings mounted, their goals changed. “The 15-day waiting period, in our opinion, can be easily circumvented,” a spokesman for the task force told the LA Times in December of 1988. “If law enforcement doesn’t attempt to do something about it now, we are just going to have a whole higher level of arms race in California, and it is going to be extremely dangerous for innocent people.” The task force decided they needed to ban the big guns entirely, before things got totally out of control.

Then, they ran into the problem. A riddle, almost: if an “assault rifle” had always referred to a fully automatic rifle —  like Reagan and Bush had interpreted the situation— then what exactly was a “semi-automatic assault rifle?”

The same guns were often called “military style”rifles; accordingly, the task force first drew up a short list of guns, which focused on the semi-automatic versions of rifles used in major foreign armies, like the Soviet AK-47, or Israel’s Uzi carbine. But even this short list proved far more complicated than they expected: guns like the Norinco, that the Stockton shooter carried, were variants of the original arms, made in different countries and with different model names, and often slightly different features. Furthermore, there were other guns on the market that were just as powerful, and that would remain legal if they only banned the short list. So the task force returned to the riddle: what exactly made something an “assault rifle,” if not fully-automatic fire? What was it they wanted to stop?

As 1988 drew to a close, the state’s Attorney General asked for a briefing on the status of the task force’s work. He was not impressed; the numbers from Oakland notwithstanding, he did  not see these supposed “assault weapons” as an urgent problem. Judging by the stats, the real scourge of the streets was still the simple, cheap, handgun — “Saturday Night Specials.” The military-style weapons were something new, but that didn’t make it a priority.

As of January 16th, 1989, California’s assault weapons bill was going nowhere in the state assembly, just as it had the year before. Then, the Stockton shooting happened.

February 13, 1989: State Capitol Building —  Sacramento, California

The Attorney General entered the assembly chamber carrying an AK-47. He stepped to the podium, and gestured with the unloaded weapon, showing it to the crowd — all 120 members of both houses, a rare “Assembly of the Whole” — and trying to make each of them feel a fraction what the teachers and schoolchildren in Stockton had felt. “You are lucky that I am the attorney general and not a nut. Because, if I had the ammunition, I could shoot every member of the Assembly by the time I finish this sentence — about 20 seconds.”

The Stockton outrage was felt on the streets, and on the editorial pages. “Assault Rifles Assault Common Sense,” read one headline, while the Sacramento Bee ran a political cartoon depicting a thoughtful politician scratching his chin, pondering the gun bill, with the faces of the child victims of Stockton projected above him, each counted as a “good reason to outlaw assault weapons.”

Hearings continued through to the spring. Deferential statements from the White House added more wind behind the sails of the still-unwritten gun ban: one of the champions of California’s Assault Weapons Act urged his deeply divided colleagues to help “change the culture of violence” in the state, and — having heard the president’s remarks on state power, assured them that “the Bush Administration has made this safe to do.”


Across the capitol mall, the state senate held a number of public hearings about the ban, and as the controversy built, the crowds grew. During the proceedings, one citizen testified to the state’s lawmakers about his belief that the Stockton shooter “has a smile on his face right now… from the grave, he has the ability to rob us all of our Second Amendment rights.” This was lockstep with the National Rifle Association’s talking points; in fact, they had invited the man there to say it.

As one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in American politics, the National Rifle Association was the one group everyone expected would fight the California Assault Weapons Ban. They had just demonstrated their power in getting the Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986 passed, their proudest legislative victory to date. No one was sure, though, how strong their influence would be after Stockton. The whole atmosphere had changed.

At first, the NRA tried to shift the public focus away from guns, and more to the shooter; particularly, California’s failure to stop him. The lobbying group began airing an ad featuring the shooter’s many mugshots, fading over a lengthy, scrolling criminal record. “Seven times, he faced serious criminal charges, and the courts dropped or plea-bargained away federal charges,” a narrator intoned. “Honest Americans didn’t let this maniac roam free. The criminal justice system did.” When this approach proved ineffective, the lobbyists instead seized on the ambiguity of the ban — and especially its provision to add more guns to the prohibited list on a regular basis going forward — in their mailings to association members, writing unequivocally that the bill’s supporters “want to create an unelected, uncontrolled, and unimpeachable commission [with] the power to ban all semi-auto hunting firearms.”

The riddle of the semi-auto assault rifle was never going to be solved, in other words, and so the new law could be exploited to restrict far more guns than the voters intended, or even to disarm California completely. It would be up to the Task Force on Assault Weapons to design a bill that would prove these fears wrong.

By now, California’s task force recognized that they weren’t going to solve the riddle by themselves. So they called in the feds.


Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — Los Angeles Field Office

When the big gun control act of 1968 became law, it was initially up to a special branch of the Internal Revenue Service, known as the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division. This is why, even after the ATF was established as its own individual bureau in 1972, it is still up to the Secretary of Treasury to authorize a gun for import into the United States. The law says that they are only to approve it if the firearm is of a “type” that is “generally recognized as particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes.”

As this 1968 language was explained in congress at the time, “sporting purposes” was put there to “curb the flow of surplus military weapons and other firearms being brought into the United States which are not particularly suitable for target shooting or hunting.” This left a great deal of room to interpret just what “type” of gun was supposed to be let through (something that the Senate’s 1968 report shows was intentional, as they recognized that “the difficulty of defining weapons characteristics to meet this target without discriminating against sporting quality firearms [is] a major reason why the Secretary of the Treasury has been given fairly broad discretion.”

To guide future interpretations of the 1968 law, the Secretary of Treasury had set up a “Firearms Evaluation Panel” that year, but at that time the department’s focus was almost entirely on handguns: making sure that pistols being imported were designed for accuracy (with hefty construction and long barrels) and not concealability. The panel barely even mentioned rifles. And indeed, for almost twenty years after, when it came to long guns, the standard of “sporting purposes” required no clarification.

In 1984, the ATF encountered what they considered “a new breed of imported shotgun” — the Striker-12. The gun was a “military/law enforcement weapon,” initially designed and manufactured in South Africa for riot control. It fired the same shells that fit in every 12-gauge shotgun barrel, but unlike all the shotguns that had come before it, which required some manual operation by the shooter to load the next round, such as a pump or lever, the Striker operated with a large spring-loaded cylinder, that automatically chambered the next round after each shot. This meant a much faster firing rate, and a magazine capacity that swelled to twelve rounds (though it was a “fixed” magazine — you would have to partially take the gun apart to reload it.)

The ATF asked the Striker’s importer why they believed this bulky weapon was appropriate for bringing into the country, under the “sporting purposes” standard. The importer, knowing it was explicitly designed for riot control, responded that the gun “was also suitable for police combat-style competitions.” Not a popular sport, maybe, but as they argued, it was still a sport, and thus justified “sporting purposes.”

The bureau was skeptical. They brought a Striker to their firing range, and gave the new super-shotgun a spin. The only noteworthy thing the ATF agents noticed about it was that they could fire all 12 shells in less than three seconds — not a feature useful in any shooting sport. They weren’t impressed with the “police competitions” argument, either. They determined that “this type of competition did not constitute ;sporting purposes’ under the law,” and so, “and the gun was not permitted for import.”

But the Striker was just the beginning. Soon, the ATF started getting applications to import another “new breed” of shotgun, the USAS-12. This one one was manufactured in South Korea, and worked with a detachable magazine —  no different from the Stockton shooter’s box/drum setup, except loaded with shotgun shells instead of bullets. Again, the importer said their shotgun would be useful for police-style shooting competitions, and again the ATF said “no.” This time, the importer fought back, and sued the ATF.

When the case came to trial, the ATF would explain how they reached their judgment on the USAS-12 — essentially, what made a gun not a sporting weapon: it weighed 12.4 pounds when unloaded, “and this weight makes the gun extremely awkward to carry for extended periods, as used in hunting, and cumbersome to lift repeatedly to fire at multiple small moving targets, as used in skeet and trap shooting.” Further, the gun “contains detachable magazines which permit more rapid reloading,” and “a large magazine capacity and rapid reloading are military features.” Also,  once again, the ATF explained that there was no recognized “sport” that the gun was associated with.

The court sided with the ATF, and the USAS-12 stayed blocked. But the problem wasn’t going to go away.  “It was clear that the assumption that all shotguns were sporting was no longer viable,” the ATF would write. Guns were changing, and as gatekeepers to the American market, they would have to confront that sooner or later.

Task Force on Assault Weapons — Los Angeles, California

When California called for help, the ATF dispatched one of their senior officials to attend the Task Force on Assault Weapons’ meeting in LA, their first since the high-profile tragedy in Stockton. Immediately, the official was concerned by what he saw. “As it became clear that the NRA was in retreat,” he wrote to his superiors, “we experienced what I would describe as a feeding frenzy.” Staffers from each of the task force’s various invitees were feverishly adding guns to the draft bill’s “banned” list, and taking them off just as haphazardly. The Oakland Police Department, in particular, was aggressively changing the list to suit their needs, trying to tailor the law to take down Traders Sporting Goods, specifically.

At the same time, the task force asked the ATF official to help draft a second list, of “good” guns, which they believed “probably had too large constituency to ever be worth the risk of including, i.e., Ruger Mini 14, M1 Carbine, M1 Garand, etc.” (all three examples were semi-automatic military rifles, or in the Ruger’s case, a “mini” version of the U.S. military’s M-14 rifle.)

As the session dragged on, the official couldn’t help but notice that “most if not all of the principal players in crafting the legislation had absolutely no knowledge of firearms.” It was a bad omen. When they asked him what he thought of their progress, he broke the bad news: he wanted to help. The ATF knew how tough it was to shut down Traders, having years of experience trying to get anything to stick to Tony. But their ban had serious problems. There were simply way too many versions of the “bad” guns for them to name every single one, and even if they could, there was practically no difference between the guns they wanted to ban and the ones that were off-limits. With a “name ban” approach, they were putting themselves in a position to identify every single “semi-automatic assault rifle” in existence, and to continue naming each one that would ever exist going forward. Yet, they still couldn’t define that pesky term. They did not have much of anything to say in response. But they kept working on the bill.

By the time the California gun ban made it to the senate floor, it was not a pretty sight. Their response to Stockton ultimately amounted to a list of some sixty banned guns, and their corresponding “types.” Some of the guns on the list were so random, barely any Californians had even heard of them, let alone wanted to purchase one. “As no specifically defined problem drove our efforts,” the ATF representative wrote of his time on the task force, “such an odd collection should not be surprising. How the average cop on the beat or Joe ‘Six Pack’ who owns one of the weapons will ever figure it all out escapes me.” But with the legislative momentum from Stockton, the time had come for California to do something.

The Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989 passed with a single vote to spare, and the Golden State became the first in the union to ban assault rifles. “January 17th was a day that nobody counted on,” an NRA representative lamented to the Los Angeles Times. “You have the media barraging the American public on a daily basis that this is a solution to the Stockton tragedy,” another rep told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Meanwhile, many of the bill’s supporters expressed hope that its passage would set a precedent, stirring change on a broader scale. “As it was on tax reform and insurance regulation, California will be watched as a trend-setting state,” read an editorial in the Times. “What we do here will help chart the course of life — and death — for Americans far beyond these violent times.”


The limitations of California’s gun ban became apparent before the system even went into effect. The NRA, still stinging from their defeat, pointed out that the Norinco 56S — the very gun that the Stockton shooter had used, and which had symbolically been the target of the entire banning effort — was not banned under the new law.

California’s task force practically scoffed in response, explaining that the Norinco was “clearly” covered under the list’s entry for “Avtomat Kalashnikovs (AK) series,” which included guns with “slight” modifications from the starting point of the AK. Settling the dispute, a lawyer for the state legislature issued a ruling, and sided with the NRA; an appeals court summarized the quandary: “how is the ordinary consumer to determine which changes may be considered slight?” The gun ban’s advocates, embarrassed in court, had to hurry to amend their list, and specifically named the Norinco 56S in the 1991 update.


March 14, 1989: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — Washington, D.C.

The Director of the Treasury Department, spectacled and owlish in a dark suit, stood at a podium above the ATF seal, and held a semi-automatic rifle over his head. It was a Galil, recently imported from a factory in Israel. “Most of these are not even being advertised or marketed for sporting use,” he told reporters. He went on to explain that the Galil was a perfect example of the kind of gun that importers, effectively immediately, would be suspended from bringing into the United States, “because of the dramatic increase in the number of these weapons being imported, and police reports of their use in violent crimes.”

Learning from California’s frustrations, the ATF were determined to avoid a purely “name ban,” and so they explained that each of the 43 guns on their list had “military” features, which made the weapons distinct from those designed for “sporting purposes.” Such features included:

  • Detachable magazine (enables much faster reloading, and — if one obtains a high-capacity aftermarket magazine — longer firing intervals between having to reload.)
  • Pistol grip (helps keeps the rapidly jolting gun under control, and enables it to be fired one-handed with much more ease. Hunters and target shooters, focused on accuracy more than anything else, and generally using both hands, should have no need.)
  • Telescoping stock (collapsing the stock significantly reduces the gun’s overall length. Serves no sporting purpose.)
  • Flash suppressor (dampens the burst of light and flame that emits from the end of the barrel when the rifle is fired, “to help conceal the shooter’s position, especially at night.” Also suppresses “muzzle climb,” a recoil effect that reduces accuracy — and compounds itself during rapid fire.)   
  • Night sights (“To facilitate sight alignment and target acquisition in poor light or darkness. […] not usually found on sporting firearms since it is generally illegal to hunt at night.”)
  • Barrel shroud (sustained rapid fire causes a gun’s barrel to heat up; a shroud fitted around the barrel protects the shooter’s hand from burns, and allows them to continue steadying the weapon.)

The ATF’s announcement came as a surprise, to the both the public and the gun industry at large. But the feds had the president’s blessing; Bush had initiated it himself, shortly after his conversation with the reporters in the Oval Office. He had called his new drug czar, and asked “what can be worked out with finality on AK-47’s? What can be done and still, you know, do what’s right by the legitimate sportsman?” The ATF’s new “import ban,” as it came to be known, was their answer.

The ban was announced as temporary at first — to last ninety days, while the ATF assembled its own working group, who would then finalize their solution to the “semi-automatic assault rifle” riddle.

When the working group met to discuss assault weapons that spring, the ATF first acknowledged the fractured etymology of the term, writing “true assault rifles are selective fire weapons that will fire in a fully automatic mode. […] Since we are only concerned with semiautomatic rifles, it is somewhat of a misnomer to refer to these weapons as ‘assault rifles.’” They cited a weapons manual from 1967 that stated as much. Then turned to the riddle.

They knew that the gun lobbyists frequently said that the term “assault rifle” is meaningless when applied to semi-autos —  just an invention by the anti-gun lobby so that they could ban more weapons. However, this was only partly true; while the “assault” category had at one time correlated to “select fire,” and while the anti-gun lobby did indeed want to ban more semi-automatic rifles, they were not the ones who had blurred the distinction between the two. That had been the gun industry, trying to sell more guns to more people.

As far back as 1982, advertisers of semi-auto versions of military rifles were using the term “assault rifle” to cultivate a new strain of gun consumer. Converting weapons of war for civilian use, the manufacturers had removed the illegal feature — the very trait that supposedly qualified the weapon as an assault rifle — but continued to market the legal-version guns using those words, blurring the technical term into a marketing buzzword. The contradiction was plainly visible in various gun-industry publications throughout the 1980s: the civilian-targeted magazine Guns & Ammo published a book in 1982 entitled “Assault Rifles”, which it promoted as having “Complete Data On The Best Semi-Automatics.” Similarly, gun-maker Colt had produced a flyer 1985 that became known as the “handsome rancher ad”: a rugged-looking male with “leather patches on the elbows of his flannel shirt,” posing with “an AR15A2 in one hand” as he surveys his cattle. The photo’s caption read “survival means different things to different people… For a rugged individual in the wilderness, it means being prepared for any eventuality.”

Further down on the newsstand, the more base advertisements summoned a vague spectre of deadliness, masculine and pseudo-militarized: “In a survival situation, you want the most uncompromising weapon that money can buy. The HK91 Semi-Automatic Assault Rifle.” The words were printed hovering over a grease-painted and camouflaged man, wading across a dark river with a sleek, black rifle in his hands. Selling a commando identity, the messages appeared like commercial interpretations of the same visions experienced more vividly by the Stockton shooter in his hotel room, as he carved “FREEDOM” into the buttstock of his neutered AK-47.

The “semi-automatic assault rifle” had been nothing more than marketing hype all along. It wasn’t a type of rifle, but a type of consumer: one who was not a hunter, nor a sportsman, and for whom the existing market of self-defense weaponry had, for whatever reason, not yet been enough to compel a purchase. The word “assault rifle” was what appealed to this new customer, and so its definition was whatever made the gun look more like the lifestyle that their target customer really wanted to buy. As a result, anyone trying to “ban” this porous category of weapon would find themselves starting their work from scratch.  The “good” guns fired the same bullets as the “bad” guns, and nearly as fast, and even if the ATF somehow named every “bad” import, the next shooter could simply buy a domestic, one that was just as dangerous.  And that was the ATF’s biggest weakness. “This is just a bonus to domestic companies because obviously they can raise their prices now,” a congressman from California observed. “They won’t be faced with cheaper imports, and their demand should go up.”

The White House’s press secretary could only concede the point. “Unfortunately, it is not something that we can do anything about,” he told reporters. “To do anything about domestically manufactured weapons would require a change in the [federal] law.” But as California had just demonstrated, that was a more realistic possibility than ever before.

March 15, 1989: Colt Industries — West Hartford, Connecticut

Some domestic firearms manufacturers, sensing the rumblings in the distance, began taking proactive measures. The very next day after the import ban was put in place, Colt Industries announced that it would be voluntarily halting the manufacture of its AR-15 rifle for civilian markets. The gun-maker explained that it was taking this step “to comply with the spirit” of the import ban, even though it was not subject to those rules. The move was an acknowledgement that their gun was a semi-auto version of the U.S. military’s M-16, and thus, was an assault rifle.

The forces behind the import ban were elated with Colt’s announcement. The nation’s drug czar called it “an act of civic responsibility,” and in a session of the ATF working group, many speakers expressed the same sentiment, exemplified by a police chief from Baltimore who commended Colt as “the first and only domestic firearms manufacturer to suspend commercial sales of their line of assault weapons,” adding “given today’s ‘make a buck’ mentality, their decision was wonderfully refreshing.”  

March 28th, 1989: Sturm, Ruger & Company, Inc. — Southport, Connecticut

Just sixty miles away, at another of Connecticut’s gun manufacturers, Bill Ruger had different tactics in mind. His company didn’t make any military-issue weapons, and so it had no semi-auto versions of them to worry about, as Colt did. But the list of “military features” the ATF was circulating had them worried; if those standards were to ever apply for domestic manufacturers, Ruger’s popular Mini-14 rifle might disappear.

The danger crystallized in Bill Ruger’s mind when he got a letter, sent by a U.S. Senator, that referred to the popular gun as a “Mini-14 assault weapon.” The senator had challenged Bill — the company’s co-founder, president and chairman — to live up to the example that Colt had just set, “while the Bush Administration and Congress work on a more comprehensive solution.” The senator went on to stress that rather than waiting, “you can do something to save lives; immediately suspend the sale of these weapons of war to civilians.”

Bill started crafting his response, when he caught wind that the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Trade was conducting hearings on the import ban in the coming weeks. Their conclusions were sure to factor heavily in any federal gun legislation in the near future, so he decided to send a letter of his own to each member. In three pages, under the gun maker’s phoenix-emblazoned corporate masthead, Ruger laid out a 12-point argument. He explained that if firearms regulations were to ever be effective, they should not be targeting guns at all — instead, they should be focusing their attention on high-capacity magazines. “The concern today as it relates to illegal misuse of firearms should be viewed as one of firepower,” he emphasized, “rather than trying to define the type of firearm from which the bullets emanate.” Further, he warned that “to do otherwise is to risk confusion and ensnaring many legitimate firearms in an attempt to separate ‘good’ from ‘bad’ in a most arcane area.” The letter’s conclusion read:

“By a simple, complete and unequivocal ban on large capacity magazines, all the difficulty in defining “assault rifles” and ‘semi-automatic rifles’ is eliminated. The large capacity magazine itself, separate or attached to the firearm, becomes the prohibited item. A single amendment to Federal firearms laws could prohibit their possession or sale and would effectively implement these objectives.”

Meanwhile, Ruger’s legal counsel told reporters that the company would  “absolutely not” be following Colt’s example. “We’re proud of these weapons. We have no plans to pull them from the market.”

As they had with Colt, some figures within the industry held more cynical interpretations of Bill’s letter, observing that Ruger did not make any high-capacity magazines for their guns, and so would have little to lose if their recommendations were adopted. In response to the critics, Ruger’s legal counsel insisted that the letters were actually sent because the company “felt that a substitute had to be offered which respected the right of all law abiding citizens to own all firearms of their choice, yet which responded to the public outcry concerning the highly visible shootings involving dozens of shots being fired from so-called ‘assault weapons.’”

April 10, 1989: Rayburn House Office Building, Room B-318 — Washington, DC

The subcommittee’s chairman called their meeting to order. He began by explaining how the import ban had all started with one gun store: Traders, in San Leandro. “This came up to us through trying, last year, to find a way to help some local law enforcement people put a gun dealer out of business who was found or determined to be the source of about 75 percent of the weapons in felony arrests in the city of Oakland over a 1-year period, obviously not the kind of small businessman you want to keep going within the community.”

“But,” the senator confessed about Tony, the notorious gun merchant, “he was operating within the law.”

As the hearing progressed, a congressman representing Oakland’s district argued that “banning importation is important, but it does not address the problem of domestic manufacture of assault weapons.” He called for a national ban on the same guns that the ATF had named, as well as any other rifles “designed to handle clips with more than ten rounds.” His words fulfilled the hopes of his constituents who foresaw their state’s ban as lighting the path for federal efforts. It also spoke to Bill Ruger’s fears, that the “features” approach to banning guns could apply to his domestically-produced weapons.

Another congressman from California stood to oppose his colleague, and he had clearly read Bill’s letter. He argued that banning guns based on the size of magazine they came packaged with would never work, because “the [aftermarket] magazine is identical in its insertion point. It is simply an extension,” and furthermore, he explained, a ten-round clip might be too much to afford an attacker anyway, as a simple roll of duct tape could be used to bind two magazines together, for even faster reloading: “If you tape two magazines together and you allow 10, that’s 20. That begins to be a fairly high number.” He even observed that a higher ammo capacity made for a physically longer attachment, as a ten-round mag created “a decent handle,” whereas with half that length, “it is a little more difficult in terms of taping them together.”

One law enforcement representative, a sheriff from Littleton, Colorado, also urged a federal ban on weapons with military features. He cited the logic of a 1939 Supreme Court decision, which ruled that sawed-off shotguns were not protected by the Second Amendment, because they did not have “some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia.”

May 15th, 1989: United States Capitol Building 

The rain came down in sheets, as an audience of law enforcement officers and congressmen gathered on the capitol’s western steps for a presidential speech, in observation of Police Officers’ Memorial Day.  President Bush chose the occasion to introduce his first crime bill, which would contain the sum of the federal response to the Stockton shooting. He began by invoking FDR’s famous “Four Freedoms” address — that after freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and freedom from want, “the last, often forgotten, but arguably the most fundamental of those freedoms was simply this: freedom from fear.” He acknowledged that coming up with a clear definition of “assault weapon” was proving difficult, and in searching for common ground, echoed the sentiments of Bill Ruger:

“…one thing that we do know about these assault weapons is that they are invariably equipped with unjustifiably large magazines. The notorious AKS-47, for example, comes with a magazine that pumps off 30 explosive bullets without reloading. And that is why [we] stand on the steps here in front of the Capitol and ask its support for legislation prohibiting the importation, manufacture, sale, or transfer of these insidious gun magazines of more than 15 rounds.”

As a lifelong NRA member, Bush knew he was about to navigate some tricky political waters. Anticipating that the crime bill would be interpreted as an attack on the 2nd amendment, he cited a section higher up in the same founding document, urging that “our sworn duty to ‘insure domestic Tranquility’ is as old as the Republic, placed in the Constitution’s preamble even before the common defense and the general welfare.” He hoped that would be enough.

On that same rainy day, the President announced that the import ban on assault weapons would indeed be made permanent; in all, 43 weapons would stay on the list, now officially identified as “semi-automatic assault rifles,” and as a consequence, never to be allowed into the country again. The Norinco 56S topped the list.


The year 1989 had had started with a shockwave, emanating from a traumatized playground in Stockton. But then, as summer gave way to fall, the waves began to slow. Several states — who until then had been considering gun bans — quietly dropped the issue. America’s domestic focus shifted to an alarming federal budget deficit.  Meanwhile, across the world, the Berlin Wall fell, and the next summer, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The ripples from Stockton finally fell quiet.

The provisions of the crime bill that impacted guns did not make it far inside the House chamber. One sentence, in particular, would have prohibited anyone from assembling guns that were on the banned list, as well as any guns that were deemed “identical” to a banned gun. A representative from Washington State took up a pen, and added three words to the end: “from imported parts.”

“Let me suggest to Members that those three little words make all the difference in the world,” a supporter of the amendment said. “They prevent this section of the bill from circumventing the intent of our Founding Fathers.” If the “three little words” were not added, she said, many legitimate sporting rifles — including, specifically, the Ruger Mini-14 — could be subject to the ban.

In response, loyalists to the president argued that such an amendment rendered the legislation worthless:

I think there are three other little words involved in this debate, and that is, `Don’t kill Americans.’ That is exactly what is involved here. The American who is about to be killed or who is killed does not know the difference between imported parts and not imported parts. Certainly, what the spirit of this bill before this Congress is, is to try to preserve the opportunity for life, for some Americans who would otherwise be blown away by these assault weapons.”

The opposition also pointed out that the representative from Washington who first sponsored the “three little words” amendment had accepted substantial campaign contributions from the NRA, but the rep steadfastly denied that the NRA had played any role in their amendment. With time running out for the now-compromised crime bill, and no consensus in sight, all of the firearms-related provisions were stripped from the act.  

The president had failed. The act that would limit the capacity of ammunition magazines to 15 rounds, the sum of his response to the Stockton attack, did not become law.



  1. “State’s Fight Over Assault Guns May Set Trend in U.S” — Los Angeles Times, February 12, 1989

  1. President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime — Lou Cannon, Simon & Schuster, 1991
  2. “Citizen Reagans Are Home After Bittersweet Farewell” — Los Angeles Times, January 21, 1989

  1. “700 Welcome a Nostalgic Reagan Home to California” — Los Angeles Times, January 22, 1989

  1. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States — George Bush, 1989 (USGPO)
  2. “Gun Ban Bill Brings Panic Shopping, Hoarding” — Los Angeles Times, May 20, 1989

  1. A Merchant of Menace: The Story of a California Gun Dealer — Aura Bland, PBS 1995

  1. Bill to Outlaw Military-Type Guns Nears Completion — Los Angeles Times January 13, 1989

  1. Bullets Fired at Brother of Officer Killed in Shooting — Los Angeles Times September 20, 1990

  1. “Assault Weapons: Outrage Is Ammo in the War on Guns” — Los Angeles Times Deember 28, 1988

  1. “Normal Political Patterns Melt in Heat of Gun Control Conflict“ — Los Angeles Times March 27, 1989

  1. “Assembly Caught in Crossfire of Testimony on Assault Weapons” — Los Angeles Times February 14. 1989

  1. “Assault Gun Ban Wins Final Vote : Deukmejian’s Promised Approval Would Make It 1st Such U.S. Law“ — Los Angeles Times May 19, 1989

  1. “Tougher of 2 Bills to Outlaw Assault Rifles Is Weakened by Panel” — Los Angeles Times April 5, 1989

  1. The Gun Rights War — Knox, Neal (note: full text of ATF memo available online)
  3. Gilbert Equipment Co., Inc. v. Higgins, 709 F.Supp. 1071 (S.D.Ala. 1989).

  1. The Gun Digest Book of Assault Weapons, pg 16 — Lewis, Jack P. & Steele, David E.
  2. “Assault rifle issue wounding NRA” — Pittsburgh Post-Gazette February 20, 1989
  3. “The Big Gunfight at the Sacramento Corral” — Los Angeles Times March 12, 1989

  1. “Republicans call gun ban ineffective” — Lodi News-Sentinel, June 2, 1989  
  2. Assault-rifle Imports Temporarily Stopped” — Philadelphia Inquirer March 15, 1989
  3. “PERMANENT IMPORT BAN ON ASSAULT RIFLES” — The Washington Post July 8, 1989

  1. The President’s News Conference: March 7, 1989 (American Presidency Project)

  1. “Assault Gun Ban Made Permanent: U.S. Embargoes 43 Military-Style Weapons, Including AK-47s and Uzis” — Los Angeles Times July 9, 1989

  1. “Many assault weapons banned by government” — The Telegraph July 8, 1989
  2. “Gun Experts Say There is No Such Thing as a Civilian Assault Weapon” and “Bullet Hoses”— Violence Policy Center 2003

  1. “COLT STOPS PUBLIC SALE OF RIFLE” — The Washington Post March 16, 1989

  1. “Weapon Import Ban Expanded” — The Day April 6, 1989
  2. “Colt Will Halt Sales of AR-15 Assault Rifle” — Los Angeles Times March 16, 1989

  1. BANNING THE IMPORTATION OF ASSAULT WEAPONS AND CERTAIN ACCESSORIES INTO THE UNITED STATES – Hearing before the Subcommittee on Trade of the Committee on Ways and Means, House of Representatives – HR 1154 – April 10,1989
  2. H.R.2709 – Comprehensive Violent Crime Control Act of 1989
  3. A CLASH OF ARMS: THE  GREAT AMERICAN GUN DEBATE — State of Hawaii Office of Legislative Reference Bureau, January 1991
  4. “Wave of gun legislation begun — But slowed to a ripple” — Ellensburg Daily Record January 2 1990
  5. United States House of Representatives daily record, October 4 1990 (page H8865)
  6. “Unsoeld Expected To Draw Fire — Amendment On Assault-Rifle Issue Is Likely To Trigger Liberals’ Anger” — The Seattle Times September 27, 1990
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Chapter 02: Nancy

2. Nancy

Spring 1978: Sanborn Regional High School — Kingston, New Hampshire

She stood outside, looking up into the clear New Hampshire sky, and she smiled.

The whole graduating class was out there in the parking lot that afternoon. Several dozen teenagers, dressed in their bellbottoms and denim jackets, bordered by a row of parked Volkswagen beetles. Like Nancy, the class was all trying to stand perfectly still; up on the school’s roof, there was a man with a camera, capturing a bird’s-eye-view of for their yearbook: the seniors, on the precipice of official adulthood, all standing arranged in the shape of a giant “78.”  

When the yearbooks came out, Nancy found herself pictured a few more times, scattered around the “Class Favorites” section: reading a worn paperback at some gathering, or taking a big bite from a slice of cheese pizza. In her senior portrait, she grins warmly, her face distinguished by high smile lines, and dark brown eyes, her hair parted in the middle and coming down in long, honey-blonde waves. She carries an aura of serenity, and confidence.

Nancy’s classmates knew her as “Beanie,” and when each student left a quote for the yearbook — in the form of a tongue-in-cheek prediction of what they were “leaving” Sanborn High for — Beanie’s entry read: “Nancy Champion leaves to join the Hobbits in Rivendell.”

She did like fantasies. But in truth, Nancy had more practical plans: she wasn’t going far. She had already met the man she was going to marry, and one day, they were going to start a family, right there in Kingston.


Nancy Jean Champion had spent her whole life in that town. She was born on September 6th, 1960, to Donald Champion, a pilot for TWA, and Dorothy, a nurse at DJ Bakie Elementary School. Nancy would attend there herself as a little girl, just a mile up from the Champion family farmhouse on Depot Road.

The homestead had been in the family for decades. But the farmhouse on Depot Road went back much further, a relic from the 1740s. Older than America. It had even been recognized as a historical site by the town, to be preserved as “a fine example of a center-chimney vernacular Federal style farmhouse.” Nancy was raised under its gabled roof along with her older brother, Donald Jr., and sister Carol. And a few years after Nancy, their parents brought them home a new baby brother, James.

The Champion upbringing was typical of a rural New England town in the 1960’s: they were taught to always address adults as Mr. and Mrs., and they attended services every Sunday at the town’s First Congregational Church. Donald taught the children how to safely use firearms, and like practically everyone in Kinston, Nancy grew up shooting at varmints that strayed onto their farmland. Often, she joined her father and siblings on family hunting trips. “She was comfortable with raising livestock and then butchering them,” a friend of Nancy’s that lived in the area explains. “That’s what they ate. It wasn’t for sport, it wasn’t fun; it was their food.”

She loved to tend to the farm animals as  a little girl, and she was known in the family for giving the best nicknames to the dozens of sheep, chickens, cows and barn cats that lived with the Champions on their six acres. The kittens, in particular, she was protective of: once, Carol went to their mom to report that Nancy was about to “taste-test” the kittens’ food. Dorothy, a savvy mom and a school nurse, assured Nancy’s sister that she’d be fine.

Nancy joined the town’s 4-H youth club as soon as she was old enough, and never missed the annual circus and agricultural fair: the only event in Kingston that brought a live elephant to town. The Champion kids liked to sneak extra hay to feed the captive animal when its handlers weren’t looking, but Nancy took the rebellion a step further, at least in fantasy: “She would plot these extravagant plans,” her sister says, remembering how, year after year, Nancy would whisper of her plot to help the domesticated elephant escape from the circus, and of her dream to let the gentle beast roam the New Hampshire countryside, wild and free.


Peter Lanza was older than Nancy by two years. He came from a few towns over, just across the state border with Massachusetts, and had already graduated from Haverhill High School with the Class of ‘76. Peter had thin features, wore large spectacles, and carried a reputation as a shy young man who was blessed academically, especially in math and the sciences. These stereotype traits had helped earn him the nickname “Mousey” at school, but he fit in at Haverhill High nonetheless; one of his classmates remembers that “he was just one of us, a regular kid.”

Nancy saw more in Peter. She saw potential. They dated for another two years after her graduation, and the high school sweethearts were then married, on June 6th, 1981. Nancy sewed her own wedding dress, and the reception was held at the old Champion home on Depot Road, where the newlywed Lanza couple were delivered by horse-drawn carriage, the fields around them ripe for harvest. A scene straight from a postcard.

Peter was accepted into the University of Massachusetts Lowell as an undergraduate, majoring in accounting, while Nancy attended the University of New Hampshire for a time, but the pragmatic couple knew that they couldn’t afford both, and it soon came time to make a choice. The Lanzas ultimately decided to place their long-term bets on Peter’s career, while Nancy paid the bills in the meantime. She dropped out of college without completing a degree, never to return; of the few regrets she would carry with her throughout her life, this was one of Nancy’s biggest.


John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance hired Nancy soon after she dropped out of college. She had an edge in the hiring process: her new father-in-law, Peter S. Lanza, was already a legendary salesman and investment broker with the company, having won many prestigious achievement awards during his decades in the office. His word carried weight.

Starting her new job, Nancy had a twice-daily 50-mile commute to Boston’s financial district, where the company’s 60-story glass-and-steel headquarters loomed, the tallest skyscraper in New England. But she would find that she enjoyed the long, solitary drives back and forth from Kingston. It gave her time to herself.

A vivacious and fit blonde in her 20’s, Nancy attracted no shortage of attention from men during her trips to the big city. Sometimes, they couldn’t take a hint. She told her friends about a period when she had to be escorted to her car by security at the end of every work day, after a New England Telephone executive began “stalking” her. She had only exchanged small talk with the middle-aged man while sharing an elevator a few times, and was taken aback at the level of obsession that grew from those few, innocent social pleasantries. “What was I wearing?” she asked herself years later, when writing an e-mail. She answer herself: “VERY conservative business suit…I worked in a financial department of a mutual fund company. As far as I am concerned, some men are just egocentric idiot pigs, and those kind need no encouragement.”

Law enforcement officials in Kingston recall Nancy telling them of an even more serious incident: one that unfolded in the shadow of Hancock tower, on the Boston Common. Details are hazy, but apparently Nancy had been “assaulted,” in a manner described only as “a daytime attack in front of onlookers.” The Kingston Police Department were made aware of it when Nancy came to tell them that she was afraid that the attacker would come for her where she lived. Apparently, no charges arose from the incident, and it is unclear if she ever identified her assailant.

Nancy’s little brother, Jimmy, had since grown up and joined the United States Army. He taught his big sister some self-defense moves, and though Nancy never had any occassion to use them, from then on, she remained confident that she could take a man’s life if she needed to; Jim Champion had joined an elite special forces unit while in the Army, the Green Berets. Their exploits were the stuff of battlefield legend, the unit having acted with deadly precision in conflicts from Vietnam to Central America. “I don’t know if there is a name for the kind of training the Green Berets get,” Nancy would explain, “they are simply trained to kill.”


In June of 1986, Nancy’s father Donald passed away. His widow, Dorothy, stayed on at the farm — now its sole owner, and sharing it with the rest of the Champion tribe.

Then, one day in 1987, Nancy found out she was pregnant.

Nancy’s mother sectioned off the westernmost 2.5 acres of the Depot Road lot, dividing the heirloom territory in two. Dorothy granted that portion to the Lanzas, and the soon-to-be parents quickly began construction on what would be their family home. It was to be a 3-bedroom, 2.5-bath Cape Cod-style house, with a steeply-slanted roof and an expansive front deck that wrapped around to face the now-reduced Champion homestead to the east, and the rolling hills of New Hampshire wilderness to the north. Their home was finished early in 1988, in time for the arrival, that April, of the Lanza family’s first-born son.





  1. Land Records — Kingston Assessing Office
  2. “Historic Preservation Assistance Project” Survey #105 (Champion House) — Rockingham Regional Council 03/19/1980
  3. Connecticut gunman had New Hampshire ties — New Hampshire Union Leader
  4. For Lanza family, son Adam’s difficulties dominated Washington Post
  5. Solid Upbringings for Lanza Parents — Wall Street Journal
  6. Nancy Lanza Remembered as Bubbly Caring Person — New Hampshire/Mass Eagle Tribune
  7. Nancy Lanza Recalled with Kind Words — Connecticut Post
  8. Raising Adam LanzaHartford Courant/PBS Frontline







Posted in Uncategorized

Chapter 01: The Shooter

1. The Shooter

January 17th, 1989: Cleveland Elementary School — Stockton, California

A young man parked his car behind the elementary school, next to the playground. As he got out, the sound of 300+ children running and playing rose over the chain-link fence, classes having just been let out for recess. Teachers watched from the chalked sidelines, vigilant against the skinned knees and hurt feelings that were the hazards they had been prepared to deal with. None of them noticed the thin, white man approaching from the south.

He was dressed as if he was in the army, but he hadn’t been a soldier a day in his life. The rifle in his hands looked like something taken from a battlefield, but it wasn’t. Not exactly.

The thin man emerged from behind a set of portable classrooms, stepped to the tree-line facing the playground, aimed the rifle, and opened fire. The targets he saw in his crosshairs were the same age he had been, when he himself had attended the same school, seventeen years before. He squeezed the trigger as fast as he could.

The wannabe-soldier’s rifle had an abnormally generous ammunition magazine attached to it — a cylindrical “drum mag” that held 75 rounds. He kept up his assault until that ran dry, and then he ducked back behind the portables to reload, switching to 30-round “box” magazine. Over his shoulder, his parked station wagon exploded into flames, the detonation of a pipe bomb that he had left burning on the passenger seat, certain that he would never drive the car again.  

He then resumed his assault on the schoolyard, emptying the second clip. He went to reload once again, but this time, during the pause in gunfire, and over his earplugs, he heard it: the sound of police sirens. They were getting louder, closing in fast. Time for the next phase of his plan.   

The shooter immediately dropped the rifle on the pavement, drew a 9mm pistol from his waistband, and took his own life. The Cleveland Elementary School shooting was over.


The police later estimated the assault to have lasted only two minutes, possibly less. During that time, the thin man fired 106 shots, including the one that he used on himself.  They also found a black cloth pouch tied to his belt. Inside were three more 30-round magazines for his rifle, each fully loaded. The attack would likely have continued for some time longer, if not for their arrival.

The first officers on the scene found the gunman twitching on the pavement, and kicked the rifle away from his reach. The weapon that skidded across the pavement, with a wooden stock and distinctive profile, would soon become an object of debate all over the nation. It looked like an AK-47, and was widely reported to be a Kalashnikov, but that was a military weapon, capable of fully automatic fire: bullets would spew from the barrel at a constant, high rate of fire, as long as the shooter held the trigger down — and there was ammo in the magazine.

Automatic weapons like that had been tightly regulated in the United States since the prohibition era, and then all but outlawed in 1986. They were quite difficult to obtain, even for someone willing to break the law. This gun was not an AK-47, no matter what the news reports said. In truth, the gun used at the Stockton schoolyard was a Norinco 56S: a cheap knockoff of the AK, manufactured in China. It was a semi-automatic rifle, and so for each round that the shooter fired at the schoolyard that afternoon, he had to pull and release the trigger once.

The Norinco was perfectly legal for civilians to own. And the Trading Post Store in Sandy, Oregon was in full compliance with federal and state laws when they put the gun on display in their store, bearing a price tag of $349.95. When the shooter walked through the door, four months before his attack, they had no way of knowing what he was going to do, much less that he was on probation, or that he had a criminal record; all of his crimes — of which there were many,  from drugs to prostitution to vandalism — were misdemeanors. And even if they had been felonies, they happened in the state of California. They wouldn’t have shown up on Oregon’s radar.

He bought the Norinco “over the counter,” and left with his new mass-murder weapon that same day. Then he drifted south again, back home. There was no waiting period.

Later, in California, the shooter’s probation status still did not prevented him from purchasing a 9mm pistol: he bought it from Hunter Loan & Jewelry in Stockton in December of 1988, and that store was across the county line from where the arrest associated with his probation occurred. “As the California criminal justice system now works,” the state Attorney General’s Office would write in their final report on the Stockton shooting, “there was no way that any person outside of El Dorado County could have known that the shooter was prohibited from acquiring or possessing firearms.”

For the pistol, California had a 15-day waiting period, and that applied to everyone. If the shooter really wanted that gun, he would have no choice but to wait it out.

During those two weeks, the shooter was spotted at the Cleveland Elementary School playground at least once: sitting in his car, parked in the same spot where he would soon torch it. Staking out his target. Employees at the local middle school and high school would swear they saw him lurking around their campuses, too.

Then, on January 3rd, with ten days to go on his waiting period, witnesses saw the shooter drinking beers at a tavern in Stockton. The bartender there would tell police that the thin man had strolled in wearing a camo-green army jacket, and after a few drinks, he started bragging about an AK-47 rifle he owned. One with a huge magazine.

When the bartender tried to burst the shooter’s bubble by explaining that the AK “wouldn’t be much good” for hunting deer, the shooter brushed that off, expressing that he had no intention of going hunting. He went on running his mouth, boasting about how quickly he could spray bullets in a wide arc. Then, mysteriously, he told the bartender: “you’re going to read about me in the papers.”

As the strange, thin man spun from his barstool, heading for the exit, the bartender caught a clearer view of his army jacket: there was black lettering written all over it in permanent marker, words that seemed to have crossed over from a different version of reality, one in which the man wearing the jacket was some sort of elite commando, pitted against forces that were vague and ever-shifting: “Libya”, “PLO”, “Death to the Great Satan” (misspelled “satin”) and “Earthman.” On his flak vest he had written a single word, echoing down its front:








The waiting period ended on a Friday, and the shooter immediately picked up his brand new semi-auto, a 9mm Taurus. He had purchased it to fire one shot, and one shot only. He then drove back to his hotel room, and carved “VICTORY” into the new pistol’s wooden grip.

He would spend that weekend cleaning, oiling, and loading his weapons. He launched his attack on the playground on the next school day.

When it was over, the police would trace the shooter’s path, from the burning station wagon back to this rented room. Inside, even more ammunition, plus another pistol. And then, they noticed the army men; in every section of the shooter’s hotel room, on just about every surface, including perches atop the shower rod and in the freezer, he had arranged a collection of little, green, plastic army men toys.


The California authorities began constructing a history of the shooter’s life. What he had done was inexplicable, forever unjustifiable — but if it had happened once, it could happen again. So, if there was any specific event in the shooter’s life that could have predicted that a tragedy was coming, or any set of circumstances that had set him on this path, the investigators had a responsibility to bring that to light.

The shooter had been a 25-year-old man, and a transient for most of his life, never holding down a job for longer than a month or two. When homeless, he resorted to petty crime, and sometimes prostitution. His father had been a diagnosed schizophrenic, who frequently beat the shooter’s mother. The couple separated, and then the shooter, in his early teens, ping-ponged back and forth between their custodies. That came to an end one night, when his father had been walking barefoot on the side of the road, apparently disoriented, and a passing car struck and killed him.

From then on, the shooter’s mother controlled her ex-husband death benefits, a fact that her teenage son resented with extreme intensity. He grew more and more disobedient, and soon the woman was informing her local authorities that she could not control her son anymore at all. She had kicked him out on the street.

At age twenty, the shooter qualified for disability payments of his own; the Social Security Administration determined that he had a “substance-induced personality disorder,” and that he would have “difficulty relating to employers and employees, difficulty in following even simple, repetitive tasks, and difficulty in handling the stresses of any ordinary job.”

SSA benefits meant that the shooter had to check in periodically with the state, so that his disability could be verified. These records, from his visits over the years, document a troubled mind in the steady process of collapse: in 1984, the shooter told California that he “never fit in with everyone else,” and that he “does not feel comfortable around people.” Three years later, he would indicate that he “can’t handle people at all,” and “doesn’t have any friends.” He confirmed, voluntarily, that he was “getting worse as time goes by.”

One night in 1986, two years and three months before his assault on the Stockton schoolyard, the shooter had sought treatment at Sacramento Mental Health Center. He told the staff “I’m not thinking the way I should be thinking,” and made reference to a high-profile incident that had unfolded several weeks before, in Oklahoma, where a postal employee had shot a number of co-workers and then took his own life. The Stockton shooter admitted that he “strongly identified” with this gunman, and then said that he was hearing voices telling him “to do things,” and admitted to experiencing both homicidal and suicidal thoughts in the past. Documenting the shooter’s visit, the staff wrote that he was “struggling to resist actions on thoughts which are destructive in nature,” and diagnosed the young man as having “an antisocial personality.” Then, they turned him away; beds at the mental health center were very scarce, and his condition did not warrant in-patient care.

This was just one of at least eight instances in the shooter’s life when his mental state had been assessed. As the years passed, the doctors examining him would change, and so would the shooter’s diagnosis: from “Drug Dependency Disorder, borderline intellectual functioning and a Mixed Personality Disorder” diagnosed by a Dr. Adams in 1984, to “emotionally and sexually immature and suffering from depression” as diagnosed by a Dr. Clement in 1988. At times, he was prescribed tranquilizers (Thorazine) or antidepressants (Amitriptyline), neither of which he took for very long. His toxicology report would show that the only active substances in his bloodstream, at the time of the shooting, were small amounts of caffeine and nicotine.

Of all the shooter’s contacts with law enforcement over the years, only one ever involved a gun, and it was the same incident that had earned him probation. He was arrested for firing a pistol in a prohibited area — El Dorado National Forest — near Lake Tahoe, in a scene that apparently amounted to a drunken session of target practice. The gunplay was treated as a misdemeanor rather than a felony, because “there was no indication that his actions were directly endangering anybody.” He was also intoxicated in public, another misdemeanor. These were relatively light transgressions, except that when the sheriff’s deputy arrived on the scene, the shooter refused to identify himself, and quickly became belligerent.

The deputy handcuffed the thin man, and was placing him in the back seat of his cruiser, when suddenly his prisoner stopped cooperating, and declared his “duty as a citizen to resist.” He tried to kick and bite the deputy, until the lawman managed to get the door shut. THen, during the ride to the jail, the shooter was thrashing and ranting that he would “kill anyone who pushed him around,” and he managed to kick out the cruiser’s side window. Beyond his obvious intoxication, there was concern for his mental state: arriving at the jail, he whimpered that he was “hearing his mother’s voice yelling his name,” and once put in his cell, he cut his wrists using his fingernails, wrote on the walls with his blood, and was found trying to hang himself with his t-shirt.    

The shooter was taken to Placerville Psychiatric Health Facility on a 72-hour detention hold, where his intake form recorded that he was “suicidal and homicidal,” and had “thoughts of killing himself and others with a gun/bomb.” After interviewing the shooter, another counselor wrote that they “would consider him a risk, albeit ambiguous, to harm himself. He does however appear to be a greater risk to others. That is, he would probably hurt someone else before he hurt himself.”

However, the shooter had not actually hurt anyone else, and so the charges were not enough to keep him in jail for long; California sheriff’s deputies brought in “drunk and disorderlies” all the time, and frequently the arrestee made threats, or struggled ineptly, like the shooter had. The jails were not big enough to hold all of them for lengthy terms. The shooter was deemed competent to stand trial, accepted a reduced sentence, paid a $84.88 fine for the broken window, and was released from jail after serving 45 days.


One year later, the shooter called his SSA office to inform them he had been fired from another welding job. He was drunk, and depressed. His case worker called the Stockton Police Department to his hotel room for a wellness check, and the officers determined that the thin man was “able to care for himself.”

Two days later, the fire department was called to the same hotel room, where the shooter had locked himself in the bathroom, and was refusing to come out. The firemen broke down the door, and narrowly saved him from committing suicide.

None of this information — not his misdemeanor arrests, his diagnosis, his drug history, nor his expressed desire to harm himself or others — would ever have turned up on a background check for a firearms purchase. There are, however, signs that the shooter may have believed otherwise; five days before his arrest in the woods, the mental health center in Stockton documented a phone call they received from the shooter, writing on their log sheet that the caller was “concerned about the content of his previous records,” and specifically those at the center in Sacramento, where he had talked about the mass shooting at the post office. Then, less than a year before his assault on the elementary school, the shooter arrived at the center for a scheduled appointment, when he suddenly snatched away the folder containing his patient records, ran out to the parking lot, and began tearing the pages to shreds, with the staff running after him, pleading for him to stop. He then fled the scene.

The staff tried to piece the files back together from the remaining fragments. Some were damaged beyond repair, but one scrap documented his saying that he “preferred living under bridges, eating off of garbage dumpsters, and prostituting myself to living with the slave driver mother dearest,” whom he described as a “bitch, liar, thief, asshole, witch, cruel, torturer,” and on, and on. None of it made any real sense, and as far as anyone could tell from the damaged file, he had never spoken a word about what he was planning.

The shooter did not leave a note, beyond the non-sequitur mantras he scribbled on his jacket, and carved into his guns. While some knew that he was likely to hurt or kill others, he never said anything about attacking a school. The closest anyone could come up with for a motive was derived from his last known words, spoken to another hotel patron on the morning of the shooting, as they were both checking out. The other man was complaining of the early check-out time enforced by the hotel’s owner, when the shooter, referring to the owner’s Indian heritage, replied “the damn Hindus and boat people own everything.” While they talked, the witness noticed that the shooter was loading several cloth-wrapped bundles into his car, but he didn’t ask what they were. Then, the shooter got in his car, and drove off to Cleveland Elementary School.

The California State Department of Justice appointed a doctor specializing in forensic psychiatry to put together a “best guess” as to why the shooter had done what he did, and what factors contributed to the event. This doctor observed that Stockton had one of the highest proportions of immigrants from Southeast Asian of any city in California, and that (due to the school district’s need to concentrate bilingual resources) the Cleveland School that the shooter had attended as a child in the early 1970’s had since shifted demographically to an enrollment that was over 70 percent Southeast Asian. As an adult, the shooter had complained that all non-white races — but especially Southeast Asians — had an unfair advantage in the unskilled labor market, and that they “took” an unfair proportion of government assistance: in both instances, drawing from the same stream of support that he counted on to survive. Furthermore, one former friend recalled that the shooter had told him that “the rich kids in school used to tease him; the Asian kids had good clothes and he didn’t.”

The state’s doctor postulated that these facts, combined with the shooter’s racist comment about “boat people” just before his attack, suggested that he chose his old school because it was, from his perspective, more territory that he had since lost to immigrants. “It is likely that some final straw acted as a triggering mechanism for an event which had already been planned,” the psychiatrist wrote in his forensic evaluation, adding “perhaps, and this is only speculation, seeing a group of happy children at play in the schoolyard of a school he had attended during a difficult period in his life may have provided such a trigger.”

Turning to the capacity for violence, the doctor wrote that the shooter had been “a man isolated by mental and social disabilities from his own society,” and both warped by this isolation and resentful of it, he coped by becoming “preoccupied with fantasies that promoted a powerful, vengeful, and self important image, and then played these out against an identifiable target.” However, the doctor stressed, these were ultimately just theories, due to the “less than optimal” documentation of the shooter’s life, and because he was not alive to be interviewed.

The Attorney General of California, on the other hand, speculated that the shooter had simply targeted children because he was weak, and they were the most vulnerable targets he could attack. He was an evil person that had done an evil thing; what was there to learn?

The local cops had even fewer answers. “Obviously, he had a military hangup,” said Stockton PD’s Captain of Investigations at a press conference; spread out on the table in front of him were the shooter’s make-believe army men, alongside his very real guns. The pieces of the puzzle, unsolved, and unveiled for all to see. Pausing for flashbulbs, Captain Perry held aloft a scrap of the shooter’s camouflage jacket, upon which “FREEDOM” was scrawled in black. He tried to temper expectations. “We’ll never know everything because he didn’t leave us a message or a note. In a way, he beat us, because we’ll never know why.”

That left California very little to apply toward prevention. In his recommendations, the forensic psychiatrist lamented the budget cuts that had gutted the state’s preventative mental health care, twenty years before — measures that had still not been restored. He also expressed frustration at the restrictions blocking involuntary commitment, noting that while the infamous “bedlam” abuses of the national mental health care system seen in the 1940s and 50s were not something anyone wanted to repeat, “the pendulum may have swung too far in a direction that has left society bereft of sufficient means to protect both itself and patients who are out of control.”

Finally, the doctor suggested that the Kalashnikov-inspired murder weapon, itself, could have played a role in the shooter’s decision, arguing that “such weapons afford their users a sense of power and, in fact, enhance the dangerousness of such persons,” and that “providing him with access to such weapons was totally inappropriate.”  

The police would agree with both conclusions, arguing that “it appears certain that once [the shooter] had decided to die and to take as many others as possible with him, only major restrictions on the firepower he could bring to bear on his intended victims would have made a difference in the outcome.” The police endorsed gun control measures that were then pending in the California legislature, but they were careful to point out that the Norinco had been purchased out-of-state, beyond their grasp. The city of Stockton was blunt in their recommendations, soberly concluding that “national bans should be enacted on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.”

The magnitude of the Stockton tragedy caused a shockwave, its ripples expanding outward from the playground of Cleveland Elementary School, and soon to be felt all over the country. After all, it was a purely man-made disaster — the sort of thing that just wasn’t supposed to happen — and so it was inescapable that somehow, somewhere, some fundamental piece of civilization had fallen loose. The shocking spectacle gave rise to questions about the society in which it occurred: How could anyone reach a point in their lives where they would choose to do something like this? Why didn’t anyone stop them? And most urgent of all: how on earth could they have let someone so dangerous get their hands on that gun?



    1. State of California: A Report to Attorney General John K. Van de Kamp on Patrick Purdy and the Cleveland School Killings OCTOBER 1989 (prepared by Nelson Jempsky, Chief Deputy Attorney General, et al)
    2. “After Shooting, Horror But Few Answers” — The New York Times ; Reinhold, Robert  01/19/1989
    3. “Escalating Hate Reportedly Consumed Gunman” — Los Angeles Times DAN MORAIN and LOUIS SAHAGUN 01/19/1989
    4. “A Military hang-up” — Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Jan 19, 1989 





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0. Friday


There was a young man who never wanted to leave his his room. In the room, with him, were two things: a computer, and a safe full of guns.

The computer was partially disassembled. He had taken the hard drive out, removed the tray cover, smashed the disc repeatedly with a 5lb dumbbell, and gouged its surface with a pair of keys. Its contents would be impossible to access, even for the FBI.

The safe was unlocked. He chose a gun.

The rifle’s ejection port opened, and a single bullet arced through the air, unfired, its lead tip still attached as it tumbled to a rest on the room’s white-carpeted floor.  A wasted round. That was okay. Ammunition was not going to be a problem for him. Certainty was what he really needed; the ejected round gave him proof that he had properly inserted the magazine, which in turn assured him that a bullet would fire when next the trigger was pulled. He needed certainty, because if the rifle jammed on that first shot, then all of his plans would be ruined.

Carrying the rifle, he exited the room, and crept down the hall, headed for his mother’s bedroom.

The door was unlocked.

Nancy was asleep in her bed, the covers pulled up to her chest. Her head rested on a striped bath towel that she had draped over her pillow, from a shower the night before, and she had left a water bottle and a pair of reading glasses on the nightstand. Her satin slippers were on the floor beside her, and next to them, she had dropped her bedtime reading: a worn copy of the self-help book Train Your Brain to Get Happy.

Nancy kept childhood photos of her son all around her bedroom, perched on the various pieces of a polished-wood furniture set that lined the walls: on the dresser, framed in porcelain, there was a portrait of him as a toddler; she had dressed him in overalls and a red choo-choo train sweater that day, and seated him in front of a painting of a bridge. The faded picture captures him smiling at something, just out of frame. Next to that, in a photo taken sometime during his elementary school years, he stands proudly next to a canoe on a rock-strewn shore, wearing trunks and a life preserver. He is holding an oar like a walking stick that is twice his own height, and he grins wide, squinting into the summer sun.

Standing over his mother, his own eyes stared back at him now from these moments, anchored in happier times. Before the fear came. If Nancy woke up then, she would have seen her son standing there, next to the beach photo: the same boy now fully grown, but gaunt, dressed in black, and pointing a rifle at her face.

He pulled the trigger. One.

The sound of the explosion immediately filled the room, echoing through the walls of their colonial home and beyond, out into the neighborhood’s quiet and cold morning air. He had planned for that: the rifle in his hands was not the most powerful one he could have chosen from the gun safe, but it was the quietest, the most inconspicuous. It sounded just like the shots frequently heard echoing from the surrounding woods during deer season. The neighbors were unlikely to take notice.

He grasped the bolt handle and lifted it, pushing the gun’s mechanism forward and ejecting a single, empty, brass cylinder, arcing to the bedroom floor.

Pulling the bolt back into position, the next round was chambered, and he took aim again. Two.

Later that day, Nancy’s DNA would be found in droplets on the nightstand, and on the headboard, and on the wall behind the headboard, and soaked into the towel over her pillow, and stuck to the ceiling high overhead. She felt no pain.

He grasped the bolt handle again, chambered another round, and aimed into the open wound. Three.

If a person knew nothing about Nancy, and they were to look just at the photos arranged around her bedroom, they would likely get the impression that her son was much younger than he really was. The same was true all over the house, showing an age progression that stopped just after elementary school, as if the boy in the picture frame never grew up, or had simply disappeared. Four.

He was now certain that his mother was dead, and so this phase of his plan was complete. A success.

He left the rifle on the floor, with the fourth empty cartridge still in the chamber, next to Nancy’s black satin slippers and her carefully bookmarked copy of  Train Your Brain to Get Happy. He turned from her, and went back down to the end of the hall, to the computer room, and the unlocked safe within.

A few minutes later, he went down the stairs, carrying the rest of what he would need. There was the sound of a car starting, and then the automatic garage door closing after it. He turned left out of the driveway, onto Yogananda Street, and then headed west. He never came back.

Thirty minutes later, a fuel truck backed up the driveway. The driver was making his regularly scheduled deliveries to the customers on his route, which included Nancy’s house, and so — totally oblivious to the scene upstairs — the driver began pumping heating oil into the 275-gallon tank in the home’s basement, through the above-ground intake nozzle, next to the garage. He would recall that the garage doors were closed, the lights in the house were turned off, and that he did not see any movement inside. Then again, he had been making deliveries to the yellow house with the forest-green shutters at 36 Yogananda Street for the last five years, and never once had he seen anyone inside.

Most of the neighbors knew there was a middle-aged woman who lived in the yellow house. Only a few had faint memories of another resident: a young man, thin and pale, who never spoke. It seemed like no one had seen him in years.

The driver completed his delivery and headed back the way he came, pausing to leave an invoice in the mailbox at the end of the driveway. He signed it, and scribbled the date: 12-14-12.

For the next two hours, Nancy’s body lay alone, still tucked under the covers, as if sleeping peacefully in her bed. All was still in the house, and all was quiet. Periodically, the silence was broken by the sound of police sirens passing by in the distance, in the town at the bottom of the hill. Once, a helicopter passed low overhead, travelling west.

At 11:47am, the phone rang in the downstairs study. The machine picked up, and Nancy’s voice answered: “Hi, you have reached the Lanza residence. Please leave a message, and we will get back to you as soon as possible.” *BEEP*

Through the answering machine’s speaker, a man’s voice filled the empty house. He identified himself as a Lieutenant Brown with the Newtown Police Department, and advised that if there were anyone inside, they should pick up the phone.

The house went silent again. Then the S.W.A.T. team broke through the front door with a battering ram.

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