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 8: Shangri-La

8. Shangri-La

February 2, 1996
Frontier Junior High School — Moses Lake, Washington

The trenchcoat cost $240. A woman purchased it for her son from Skeen’s Western Wear, an army surplus store in Moses Lake, a town like a tiny grain of sand scattered in the deserts of eastern Washington. It wasn’t even a “trenchcoat,” really: it was a duster, a long jacket like the cowboys used to wear. Everyone saw it as a trenchcoat, though — for some reason, the word just seemed to cast a certain aura in the adolescent mind.

Her son was fourteen years old. Two days after she gave him his trenchcoat, he went to his father’s gun safe (which was unlocked) and retrieved a .30-30 lever-action rifle — a hunting rifle, by any standards. He carried it back to his bedroom, and put a tape in his VCR: A Fistfull of Dollars. It was a Clint Eastwood western — a remake of the Japanese film Yojimbo — about a mysterious lone mercenary in a lawless town. Transformed into a cowboy story, the samurai swords all became guns, and the ronin became “the man with no name,” the iconic wandering badass of the Old West. Fearless, self-sufficient, and always quick on the draw.

The 14-year-old cut out one of the pockets on his new duster, and passed the rifle through the hole, so that he could have his finger on the trigger without taking the long gun out from under the trenchcoat. He then stepped into some black cowboy boots, topped off his costume with a black cowboy hat, and moseyed on down to Frontier Junior High School, where he was late for his 5th-period Algebra class.

Kids saw him in the hall, pausing at the doorway of Classroom 15. He looked silly in his getup, “like a mix between the Lone Ranger and Zorro.” Nobody took him seriously. Really, that was the whole point. He took a deep breath, and made his entrance.

The teacher’s lesson on binomials stopped, and everyone turned to look at the class nerd in his stupid costume. There wasn’t even time to laugh before he took two steps forward, turned to face the jock in the front row who had called him a “dork” and a “faggot” all semester, raised the rifle’s barrel, and fired. Later, the shooter would say that he only intended to hit the one target, but “I guess reflex took over sort of…” because he just kept on shooting. He even turned the gun on his teacher, a 49-year-old woman who had given him an A on his report card that term, wrote that the teen was “a pleasure to have in class.”

The rifle ran empty, and as the shooter reloaded, Act II began: the hostage crisis.

The terrified students in Classroom 15 would all remember the same thing about the way the shooter acted that afternoon, calmly ordering them around at gunpoint: his movements and words seemed “rehearsed,” like he was acting out a script in his head. Mirroring this, the shooter would later say of his having seized control of the classroom, “it’s like I pictured myself doing it or something.” In fact, there was a script inside the gunman that he was working from, a real-life power fantasy assembled from bits of fictional ones. From A Fistfull of Dollars he borrowed the aura of the Man With No Name, but the actual scenario he was going through the motions for was straight from a psychological horror novel, Rage. The book was written in 1977 by “Richard Bachman” — a name Stephen King used when he didn’t want to be seen publishing too many books in a given year — and tells the story of a teenage boy, Charlie, who brings a gun to school, shoots his math teacher, and then holds his classmates hostage while he recounts his life story. The book’s cover blurb calls out in red lettering: “His twisted mind turned a quiet classroom into a dangerous world of terror. The sly voices in his mind whispered their terrible warnings, telling Charlie exactly what he had to do…

In Rage, when the school’s principal asks the gunman “Why? Why are you doing this?” Charlie responds, “I don’t know,” but adds “it sure beats panty raids.” In Moses Lake, the shooter joked as he was corralling his classmates “this sure beats algebra, doesn’t it?” He had a copy of Rage on his nightstand at home, right next to the cut-out pocket from his trenchcoat.

Act III would be the escape.

The Frontier High School shooter had once told a friend that it would be “cool” to kill someone, and that he’d like to travel the country killing people at random, getting away with it like the characters in his favorite film, Natural Born Killers. The bloody, R-rated Oliver Stone movie had barely been out on VHS for six months, but a video store in Moses Lake showed that someone in the shooter’s home had rented the video seven times. “It was the only movie he ever talked about,” said a friend, who remembered him quoting the movie’s heros, proclaiming “murder is pure. People make it unpure.”

The film distilled the shooter’s philosophy. Presented as satire, “NBK” depicts a world in which two psychopaths, Mickey and Mallory, are able to capture the American public’s attention through indiscriminate murder, like Bonnie and Clyde on steroids. When they are eventually caught, Mickey (played by Woody Harrelson) is granted a televised interview, broadcast from his jail cell, a sort of final address to his fans before execution. Based on what his friends remember him quoting, it was the Frontier shooter’s favorite scene; in the film, Mickey tells his interviewer about the supposed “purity” of murder. The tabloid journalist is incredulous, and asks Mickey to explain how he can justify taking another life, but the killer tells him he’ll never understand. “You and me, we’re not even the same species. I used to be you, then I evolved. From where you’re standing you’re a man. From where I’m standing? You’re an ape.”

The mass-murderer concludes the interview with a more focused answer:

Q. “Why this ‘purity’ that you feel about killing?”
A. “I guess, Wayne, you gotta hold that ‘ol shotgun in your hand, and it just becomes clear, like it did for me the first time. That’s when I realized my true calling in life.”
Q. “What’s that, Mickey?”
A. (grinning) “Shit, man… I’m a natural born killer.”

In the film, this appeal to savagery incites a full-scale prison riot, setting the stage for the heroes to escape: outnumbered and surrounded, they duct-tape the barrels of their shotguns to a guard’s head (creating a hostage that would be nigh impossible to rescue) and make him lead the way.

The shooter in Moses Lake had his ending: when a P.E. teacher stormed into Classroom 15 to investigate the shots, the shooter held him at gunpoint, and produced a plastic bag from his trenchcoat. Wrapping it around the barrel of his rifle, he said to the man “I’m going to put this gun in your mouth, and you’re the hostage.”

Then, in a flash, the boy’s bizarre and deadly performance came to an end; the P.E. teacher yanked the gun from the shooter’s hands, and wrestled him to the ground. Police stormed in, and arrested the gunman. One of the officers, noticing the boy in the trenchcoat was “shockingly calm” as they handcuffed him, grumbled “look at what you’ve done.” The shooter responded simply, “I know.”

That night, a message was raised on the flagpole at Frontier Junior High school, a single handwritten word rippling in a dark desert wind: WHY?

February 19, 1997
Bethel Regional High School — Bethel, Alaska

The next school year, it happened again. A 16-year-old boy took a shotgun from the unlocked cabinet of his foster home, and hid it under a black parka, tucking the barrel down the leg of some baggy black pants he had borrowed. He walked stiff-legged to the school bus that morning, and then into the commons of his high school. Strangely, several witnesses described his all-black getup as a “trenchcoat.” Maybe that’s what they were expecting to see, as they watched from the mezzanine overlooking the commons. He had told them to go up there, for a view of what he promised would be an “evil day.” One of them even brought a camera along, to snap a picture of the shooter in action.

They watched as the boy with the stiff leg approached his nemesis — a classmate with whom he had gotten in a fist-fight two years before — and saw him pull out the stolen shotgun, and fire at the boy. He wasn’t trying to hit anyone else at the table, but it was buckshot, and they got hit anyway. The shooter didn’t care. He then turned to stalk the halls, hunting the principal who was next on his list. He found him. Then the police showed up, and the gunman surrendered. Up in the audience, the kid with the camera was so amazed by all of what he had seen, he forgot to take the photo.

For some parents and teachers, the audience was even more troubling than what the lone criminal had done in the commons. It raised disturbing questions about the generation they were raising: if these kids were tipped off to an imminent man-made tragedy, would they be too concerned about missing the show to tell an adult?

October 1, 1997
Pearl High School — Pearl, Mississippi

Another school year came, and the violence returned, this time before the trees were even bare: another white boy in a black trenchcoat, shooting up the commons area of his high school with a gun he had stolen from a family member. He first targeted a girl, one who had dumped him recently, but it was about more than her, if it was about anything at all: he just kept shooting, and shooting, into the crowd of his classmates as they scrambled from their lunch tables. Then, he tried to make a getaway, but he didn’t get far; he drove his mother’s car into a tree, and then was subdued at gunpoint by the school’s Vice Principal, who had gone to the parking lot to retrieve his .45 pistol from his car.

The power fantasy that had first been launched into reality in Classroom 15 was building on its own momentum, incorporating new parts into itself as it passed through each angry, alienated teenage boy. As the phenomenon passed over Pearl, a particularly dark layer was picked up: when the authorities searched the shooter’s home, they found that on the morning of the attack he had stabbed his mother to death, in her bed. The shooter said he had no memory of doing it; he had closed his eyes, and obeyed a demon.

At a memorial in Pearl the day after the attack, another teenage boy in a black trenchcoat appeared, and he spoke like he was the shooter’s apostle. “He did it because society as a whole put down the thinkers and the true geniuses of the world,” he announced to the gathered prayer vigil, and then he handed out pieces of paper, each a photocopy of the note the shooter had given him on the morning of the attack:

“I am not insane, I am angry. I killed because people like me are mistreated every day. I did this to show society, push us and we will push back. … All throughout my life, I was ridiculed, always beaten, always hated. […] It was not a cry for attention, it was not a cry for help. It was a scream in sheer agony saying that if you can’t pry your eyes open, if I can’t do it through pacifism, if I can’t show you through the displaying of intelligence, then I will do it with a bullet.”

The note borrowed some of the language of Friedrich Nietzsche, specifically his 1887 book The Gay Science, containing the philosopher’s famous declaration: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

Like a stage direction, the note then instructed the apostle to recite more Nietzsche to the (presumably aghast) crowd. It ended with shout-out to another of their cohorts, the gunman publicly telling a third teenager “see you in the holding cell!” As it turned out, the shooting at Pearl High School was originally to be part of a larger “occult ritual,” intended to “cast a reign of terror” over the community in Pearl. It was never quite clear just how much of the plan was serious (obviously at least some of it was) but consistent details involved cutting the phone lines to the school, setting off a napalm bomb in the commons, and an escape route to Mexico. The shooter’s attack on Pearl High School was supposed to increase the cult’s powers through fear, and so the note, then, wasn’t so much a motive, as it was part of the act itself: propaganda.

While the Pearl High School shooting did make most front-page headlines, it did not linger there long. For some reason — maybe just chance, or maybe it was that the copycat plots inspired by Moses Lake all took about a year to hatch — the school year of 1997-1998 was when the school-shooter phenomenon spiraled out of control.

December 1, 1997
Heath High School — West Paducah, Kentucky

This time, it happened in the school’s lobby. Right at the front door. Every morning, thirty or so of Heath High School’s most devout Christian students would meet in the lobby and join hands, forming a prayer circle. At the other end of the lobby, another group of teenagers would be meeting to start the school day together: the goths. They all wore black, and some of them wore trenchcoats, but the kid carrying the cloth bundle that Monday morning never did. He was just a nerd. He had been bullied frequently — and publicly. In eighth grade, the middle school newspaper’s “Rumor Has It” column had openly speculated that he might be gay, and in a relationship with another male student (neither were true.) Heath High School had nothing to do with that public shaming, but the rumor and the stigma followed the boy there. Everyone heard him being called a “faggot” in the halls, and saw him getting pushed around.

He had acquired weapons the week before, on Thanksgiving evening. He snuck into his friends house, whose parents own a pistol and several rifles, brought the arsenal home, and hid it under his bed behind some legos. He needed them for a Monday morning that he hoped would change everything. He had already told the goths that “something big is going to happen,” and that that Monday was going to be a “day of reckoning.” He had brought most of the guns for them use, guessing the cooler kids would just join in once he got it started.

Just as the prayer circle at Heath was saying their “amens,” the boy made his approach. He put in earplugs, reached into his backpack, retrieved a .22 Ruger pistol, and opened fire.

The goths ran, just like nearly everyone else. The leader of the school’s prayer group stood his ground. He confronted the shooter, demanding an explanation, but the shooter instead dropped the gun, and begged “please, just shoot me!” The Christian took him to the principal’s office instead, and waited for the police to arrive.

Just down the hall from the crime scene, detectives found a copy of Rage in the shooter’s locker. That was enough for Stephen King; he called his publisher, and ask that they let the story go out of print.

Heath had joined the list of communities with injured souls, the latest, but not the last. The Paducah Sun registered the pain and confusion in a one-word headline the next morning, spelled out in all-caps over a photo of the school’s lobby: WHY?

March 24, 1998
Westside Middle School — Jonesboro, Arkansas

A sixth-grade boy was seen in the school hallway, smashing the glass cover of the fire alarm box, and pulling the switch. He ran out the fire exit, across the playground, and up the hill overlooking the school, where his partner, a seventh grader, was watching through a rifle’s scope. When their classmates and teachers came filing out the doors for roll call, the two boys opened fire from the hillside, raining bullets down onto the playground. They even shot at the construction workers laying shingles on a nearby rooftop. A few minutes later, the police caught the shooters as they emerged from the back of the woods, rifles in hand, trying to make their getaway.

Both boys had been taught how to use guns by their parents, and had even been given .22’s of their own, but the guns they used in the attack were all stolen earlier that morning, from the younger boy’s grandfather, who was a wildlife officer. While the man was away at work, the boys used a crowbar to get inside his house, where there was a wall covered with guns, each secured by a length of cable looped through its trigger guard. The boys found a pair of garden shears in the tool shed, snipped the cable, and had headed for the hillside with their nine new firearms.

President Clinton was on a trip through South Africa when he learned that the tragedy of the season had struck in his home state. From Johannesburg, he a recorded video address, to be played at the memorial in Jonesboro, in which he acknowledged that “like all of you, I do not understand what dark force could have driven young people to do this terrible thing.” The president urged prayers for the people of Arkansas, including the families of the perpetrators — “for their suffering, too, must be grievous” — and he shared the comfort he found in scripture: “Saint Paul reminds us that we all see things in this life through a dark glass, that we only partly understand what is happening to us. But one day, face to face with God, we will see all things, even as He sees us.”

May 20, 1998
Thurston High School— Springfield, Oregon

The freshman boy lived in a house way out in the woods, a subdevelopment so peaceful and remote they called it “Shangri-La.” He was 15 years old, and he had just been expelled from Thurston High School. He was pacing in his bedroom, trying to figure out what he was going to do. He had a gun in his hand.

On the wall, he had printed out and framed the lyrics to his favorite Marilyn Manson song, “The Reflecting God”:

….I went to god just to see,
and I was looking at me
Saw heaven and hell were lies
When I’m god everyone dies…

His parents had been concerned about him. He was getting in fights at school, and at home, he was acting more and more secretive. He had trouble sleeping, and acted nervous. The year before, he and his friends got busted trying to order copies of The Anarchist Cookbook through the school’s computer lab, and his parents took him to a counselor, telling the man about their son’s “extreme interest in explosives and knives,” his gloomy mindset, and his violent temper. The counselor diagnosed the teenager with Major Depressive Disorder, and along with regular visits, prescribed him some Prozac.

Over the next few months, everyone thought the freshman was getting better — so much better that they let him stop taking the pills, and bought him the gun he was always begging for, a 9mm Glock 19. He continued to improve after that, and so they bought him a Ruger 10/22 semiautomatic rifle. The gun’s name came from its standard magazine, holding 10 rounds of .22 ammo, but at some point, the freshman had switched it out for one that held 50.

He bought a third gun himself, a pistol from a friend at school, but it turned out the gun was stolen. The cops found out, and that was how he got expelled. His father had just picked him up from the police station, and taken him for the long, silent ride back to Shangri-La.

His parents had been following the news. They knew about the “zero-tolerance” policies that had become commonplace lately, in the season of the school shooter. This arrest was going to completely alter the course of their son’s life, and probably their reputation along with it.

The freshman had been watching the news, too. A friend remembers being in his company when he heard about the Jonesboro shooting, and how they both agreed that it was “pretty cool”…. except, the boy from Shangri-La had some ideas on how to “improve” it. He wanted to make the formula more lethal: just two weeks before being caught with the gun, he had told another friend that he “wanted to lock the doors except for one, put a bomb in the cafeteria, and then pick people off one-by-one after the bomb exploded and they tried to escape.” He had a surprise exit strategy, too: he would save the last bullet for himself.


Pacing in his bedroom, the freshman could hear his dad downstairs, in the kitchen, talking on the phone about his “out of control” delinquent son. Possibly sending him to military school. Upstairs, the freshman made a choice. When he came down the steps, his father had finished his phone call, and was reading the newspaper, facing away. The freshman shot him in the back of the head, then dragged his body to the bathroom, covered it with a bed sheet, and shut the door.

The phone rang. It was the high school’s English teacher, a man who was also friends with the freshman’s dad. The teacher started to ask questions about the expulsion. The boy said that having the gun at school was a mistake, and that his dad wasn’t home at the moment. He hung up.

The phone rang again. This time, it was the shooter’s friends from school. They also wanted to know what happened, if he was able to talk. The shooter told them the coast was clear; his dad had gone “out to a bar.”

They conference-called another classmate, and the three talked about the stolen gun, and the shooter’s expulsion. The boy didn’t mention anything that had happened since then, he just kept worrying out loud over what everyone would think, and how much of an embarrassment he was, repeating “it’s over, everything’s over.” He was watching the driveway from his upstairs window, and toward the end of the conversation, his friends heard him wondering aloud “when is my mom getting home?”

As her car pulled into the garage, her son was waiting in the shadows. When she reached to take a bag of groceries from her car, the freshman said “I love you, mom,” and shot her in the back of the head. She fell to the ground, and he shot her some more, then dragged her to a corner of the basement, and covered her with a white bed sheet. The shooter wiped his tears, and loaded his weapons. He waited for the sun to rise, and for the last day of his life to begin.


The school’s security cameras captured him crossing the parking lot: a trenchcoated figure walking with purpose, a “Nine Inch Nails” hat on his head. When he got to the commons, the trenchcoat swung open, the rifle came out, and he charged the crowd, emptying his 50-round magazine. Panic erupted, with high schoolers running and screaming every which way. In the mayhem, Jacob Ryker, a varsity wrestler already hit with a chest wound, suddenly tackled the shooter. The rifle fell.

The shooter reached for the Glock in his belt, but so did Jacob, swatting the pistol out of his grasp. It discharged a single shot, through the wrestler’s finger. That would be the last bullet of the day. A half-dozen more students jumped into the fray, and as police and teachers arrived, they could hear the shooter screaming from the bottom of the pile “I just want to die!” One student took the opportunity to punch him in the face.

For the second day in a row, the shooter was taken from Thurston High School in handcuffs, and brought to the police station. In the interview room the day before, he had acted frightened, but the detectives now saw him transformed, like a captive animal. He sobbed hysterically and screamed about how he had “no other choice” but to do it. When they tried to calm him down, the boy (whose hands were cuffed in front) reached down and pulled a knife he had taped to his ankle that morning, one the police had missed in their search, and he charged at them with the blade pointed out. Stunned, the cops lunged back, out of the room, as the shooter screamed “kill me, shoot me!”

They got the door between them and the rampaging freshman, and pushed back him. He immediately gave up, and started to turn the knife on himself. The police charged back in, spraying mace, and subdued the shooter again. They tore off his trenchcoat, looking for any more surprise weapons, and found he had taped two “X” shapes onto his chest: each held a single round in place for one of his guns. He hadn’t planned on leaving the commons alive. The detectives were still trying to get him to calm down, so they changed the subject: “how’s your dad?”

Flashing emergency lights lit up the forest as the police raced toward Shangri-La. They could hear classical music, growing louder as they drew near: Wagner’s Liebestod from the opera Tristan und Isolde, which the shooter had left in the stereo on repeat, the volume turned up full-blast.

The house was dark. One officer peered in the window, and clicked on her flashlight: the living room carpet was covered with loose .22 rounds the shooter had left behind, glittering in the passing beam. On the coffee table, the search team would find a note, written by the shooter shortly after he ambushed his parents:

“I destroy everything I touch. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I didn’t deserve them. They were wonderful people. It’s not their fault or the fault of any person, organization, or television show. My head just doesn’t work right. God damn these VOICES inside my head. I want to die. I want to be gone. But I have to kill people. I don’t know why. I am so sorry!”

It was an apology for an act not yet done, as if the writer were caught up in the terrible gravity of a passing force. But to most, his plotting would suggest will, not fate.

In the days after the shooting, the town’s movie theater would arrange the letters on their marquee to illuminate a message of comfort to the rest of the townspeople:


The New York Times ran a photo of the message, next to a gallery of portraits showing each the school shooters since Moses Lake, all of them smiling white boys. Seen around the country, the marquee’s message was to be interpreted differently:


















“Where Rampages Begin” — New York Times, June 14, 1998

Scarred By Killings, Moses Lake Asks: ”What Has This Town Become?” — Seattle Times, March 22 1997

“‘How Many … Were Shot?’ Boy’s Murder Confession Played At Emotional Evidence Hearing” — Spokesman-Review, Spokane WA Apr 18 1996

“Witnesses Say Loukaitis Vowed To Kill Prosecution Tries To Show Premeditation In Rampage” Spokesman-Review

“Students Recall School Gunfire As Akin To Horror Movie Scene” — Chicago Tribune June 11, 1998

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Jackson Division. Luke WOODHAM, Petitioner v. Michael WILSON and Jim Hood, Respondents. Civil Action No. 3:04cv48-HTW-JCS. Nov. 3, 2006

“Grim details emerge in teen age slaying case” — New York Times, October 15, 1997

“MISSISSIPPI GOTHIC” — Time Magazine, June 2001 —,9171,136736,00.html 

RAMPAGE: The Social Roots of School Shootings – 2004 – Dr. Katherine Newman   

“No Exit: Mental Illness, Marginality, and School Violence in West Paducah, Kentucky” — David Harding, Jal Mehta, and Katherine Newman — National Academies Press 2003

“A boy killer speaks” Arkansas Times December 4 2008

“PUBLIC PAPERS OF THE PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES” — Government Publishing Office – 1996-1998

State of Oregon’s Sentencing Recommendation for Kinkel – FRONTLINE

“Of Arms And The Boy” — John Cloud/Springfield – TIME Magazine June 24, 2001,9171,139492,00.html

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Chapter 7: Dawn

7. Dawn

Colt Industries — West Hartford, Connecticut

Connecticut had a problem, and its name was Colt. The “Constitution State” had long
been the heart of America’s gun industry — home not just to Colt, but to Winchester, Sturm & Ruger, Marlin, Mossberg, and dozens more. But Colt was special. Connecticut was betting on Colt.

The iconic gun maker had been in trouble ever since 1,000 of their workers walked off
the job at their West Hartford plant. It was the factory that made their M-16’s for the military, and the AR-15’s for the civilians. It continued operating throughout the strike, but with cheaper, non-union labor, and at reduced capacity — until 1989, when the Army announced they were dropping Colt as the manufacturer of their M16’s. Colt had relied on revenue from that contract since 1964, and the Pentagon said that their M16s were as good as ever, but a Belgian company, Fabrique Nationale, had simply given the lower bid.

Then, Stockton happened. California’s gun ban singled out Colt’s AR-15 by name, so they
decided to surrender it to the ATF altogether; the writing was on the wall. The strike was in its fourth year by then, the longest labor dispute in state history. Colt’s parent company decided to call it quits, and put their firearms unit up for sale.
That was when Connecticut placed its bet: the state’s treasurer assembled a group of
investors to purchase Colt Firearms, and invested $25 million of Connecticut’s pension fund along with them. “The state’s participation is not a bailout, not a handout and not a subsidy,” the Treasurer told ​The New York Times. “Let me emphasize that this is a carefully thought out, carefully structured, potentially very profitable business venture.” The state legislature was on board, though a few expressed uneasiness about the wave of gun legislation that seemed to be imminent after Stockton. A colleague reassured them: “the state treasurer has made very clear his opposition to the manufacture of assault rifles by companies in which the state has invested, [and] I think the treasurer has in fact been shown to be extremely prudent.”

The state approved the buy, and Colt’s firearms division was reborn as an independent entity, Colt Manufacturing Company Inc. Soon the strike was over, and the UAW workers finally came back to the plant, where all the machine tools had been updated and configured to produce Colt’s brand-new product, the one they all needed to be success: the Colt Sporter. It was a name meant to evoke “sporting purposes.” The Sporter was a black rifle, one that fired the exact same ammunition as Colt’s now-retired AR-15. And when the finished Sporters came down the end of the assembly line, even the workers who had been making AR-15s for decades would have been hard-pressed to tell the difference.

The name was the difference. In California, it had been enough to get the gun past the
post-Stockton ban, filling the empty shelves where Colt’s now-banned AR-15s had sat. The
state’s lawmakers, who had just been praising Colt’s benevolence, were furious. They sued to get Sporter added to the name-ban at the last minute — “the Colt Sporter rifle is a redesigned, renamed and renumbered version of the banned Colt AR-15 assault rifle” — but it didn’t matter. Different name, different gun. It would take them years to get the Sporter name added to the ban list.

June 8, 1993 — Connecticut General Assembly — Hartford

Connecticut was one of the states that resisted the shockwaves from Stockton; an assault
weapons ban came up a few votes short, less than a year after the tragedy in California — an important victory for the NRA. It seemed unlikely that the same bill would fare any better in 1993. But gang violence in America had only gotten worse in four years, and it was plain to see on the city streets. The champions of the assault weapons ban decided the time was right to try again. And they were determined to learn from California’s mistakes: theirs would have a “name ban,” but combined with a “military features” ban, like the ATF did with imports. One of the features they’d ban would be any detachable magazine carrying over 15 rounds, like Bill Ruger suggested — though this only applied to the magazine that came with the gun, from the factory.

Colt’s AR-15 was on Connecticut’s name-ban list, just like it had in California. But then
another of that state’s lessons reared its head: ​what about the Sporter?

The Sporter would make it through the “features” ban, the Colt loyalists said. But a
supporter of the ban headed them off. “There’s a funny thing about the Colt Sporter,” he said. “You take out the clip for five bullets and you stick in a new one, readily available on the market for 30, for 50, for 70 bullets. It’s an assault weapon. Make no doubt about it.” An officer from the state police provided a demonstration, with a Sporter in one hand and a (empty) 30-round magazine from an AR-15 in the other: “it snapped right in. This is basically the same gun.”

The Sporter came to symbolize the debate. Eventually, the opponents of the ban decided
to use the controversy to make a risky maneuver: they added the Sporter to the proposed list of name-banned guns themselves, a “poison amendment.” One of undecided representatives begged them “why in God’s name would you invest in a company, whether you agree with it or not, and then try to restrict their operation by limiting the use of the weapon that they produce? I think we have our priorities a little mixed up here.” His fears were well-founded; the ban’s advocates called their opponents’ bluff, and agreed to add the Sporter to the list. As the now-poisoned ban continued on the path toward becoming law, the exchanges on the assembly floor grew more heated; at one point, a representative challenged a colleague to list his “credentials” when it came to firearms. The man answered back that he owned a piece of Colt, just like everybody else. “I guess all of the taxpayers in the State of Connecticut are now part-owner of a gun factory.”

As time was running out on the legislative session, and the final vote approached, one of
the opponents the ban called attention to the balcony overlooking the Assembly chamber, where a swarm of men and women in signature yellow-on-blue Colt caps — the recently-returned employees from the factory in Hartford — were watching as their jobs hung in the balance once again:

“Do they look like gun-toting maniacs to you? They’re here for one reason. You look in their eyes. When they lose their job if the assault rifle is not made at Colt — and you maybe say one percent [of the workforce] isn’t much — one percent of 1,000 is 100 people. It may be everybody up in that balcony up there. Those are not gun-toting maniacs. Those are people that are wondering if it’s going to be worth shooting themselves in the head with an assault rifle or a pistol if they could or lose their jobs.”

The ban’s advocates insisted that Connecticut needed to do something about assault
weapons before it was too late; a new epidemic of gun violence seemed just around the corner. An assemblyman described visiting the Bridgeport Police Department’s gun locker, and seeing the seized firearms, grouped by year, unfolding across time like a military preparing for war. “There’s a box — one box — for 1978. It’s not even a very big box. And you look for 1979. That box is not a very big box either.” But suddenly, something changed in the 1980’s, and the same trend seen in LA and Oakland took hold. Instead of just one box a year, two or three were needed to hold all the guns seized in Bridgeport. And “not only is the number of boxes growing larger and larger, but the guns in them are changing. They’re bigger. They’re stronger and more and more frequently they are assault weapons.” With the trajectory going the way it was, the senator said, it was “only a matter of time” before tragedy struck.

His vote put it over the top; when the governor signed the ban into law in June of 1993,
he remarked proudly “this is a vote for our children and against the NRA. This New-England state very much has its head screwed on straight, and its priorities in order.”

In the aftermath, one disappointed legislator openly struggled to comprehend the reality:
that after Connecticut “invested $25 million in Colt on a pledge by the former State Treasurer that Colt did not make assault weapons, the legislature has now concluded that that is exactly what the company does.” Indeed, the Colt Sporter had been banned in its home state; but it would still be produced for interstate sales. As a consequence, not only was every Connecticut citizen “part owner of a gun factory,” they were now part owners, officially, of an ​assault rifle factory.

November 30, 1993 — The White House — East Room

James Brady watched from stage, as the bill named in his honor was signed into law. He
was president Reagan’s first White House Press Secretary, and he had been walking next to the president on the morning of March 30, 1981, exiting the Washington Hilton hotel in D.C. when an attempted assassin shot them both. Jim Brady never walked again.
It turned out the shooter had purchased his .22 revolver from a pawn shop in Dallas; he
lied on the paperwork, so it was an illegal sale, but there was no way of knowing that. Not until it was too late. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was a first step toward fixing all that.

The “Brady Bill” would create a permanent 7-day waiting period, and a background
check requirement for all handgun purchases. To process the background checks, the bill also created the National Instant Criminal Background Check system. “NICS” is what the country would be relying on, to tell if a person was allowed to have a handgun or not.
Immediately after the assassination attempt in ‘81, both Reagan and Brady had been
rushed to the hospital at nearby George Washington University. On the tenth anniversary of that day, President Reagan returned to GWU, to accept an honorary doctorate. In his acceptance speech, he thanked the staff for healing him, and saving his friend:

“Speaking of Jim Brady, I want to tell all of you here today something that I’m
not sure you know. You do know that I’m a member of the NRA, and my position on the right to bear arms is well known. But I want you to know something else, and I’m going to say it in clear, unmistakable language: I support the Brady bill, and I urge the Congress to enact it without delay. [To cheering, applause] It’s just common sense to have a waiting period, to allow local law enforcement officials to conduct background checks on those who wish to buy a handgun.”

Reagan reminded everyone that the .22 that shot him was yet another “Saturday-night
special,” a gun practically anyone could get, and that “with the right to bear arms comes a great responsibility to use caution and common sense on handgun purchases.”

Congress didn’t meet his challenge, not then. It took two more years.

Jim said a few words himself at the ceremony. “Twelve years ago, my life was changed
forever by a disturbed young man with a gun. Until that time, I hadn’t thought much about gun control or the need for gun control,” Brady said, struggling audibly to complete each word. He tapped his wheelchair with his cane. “Maybe if I had, I wouldn’t be stuck with these damn wheels.” Turning the ceremony over to the president, Brady promised that “what we are witnessing today is more than a bill signing, it is the end of unchecked madness and the commencement of a heartfelt crusade for a safer and saner country.”

It wasn’t hyperbole. There really was a crusade underway in Washington. The man
signing the bill next to Mr. Brady was not his fellow Reagan-administration veteran George H.W. Bush, as had been planned; instead, the pen was held by a former Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton. There was no question as to the new president’s allegiances to the NRA: he had none. “We all know there is more to be done,” Clinton said to the audience. “I ask you to think about what this means, and what we can all do to keep this going. We cannot stop here.”


Earlier that month, the latest attempt at a federal Assault Weapons Ban had passed the
Senate. With the ban halfway to becoming law, and facing a fierce battle in the House, President Clinton released an “Open Letter to Hunters and Sportsmen.” He wanted the classical gun owners to know that he was on their side; in fact, he needed their help. “I have been a hunter since I was 12. Where I come from, it’s a way of life. And I will not allow the rights of hunters and sportsmen to be infringed upon,” he promised, in language jarringly reminiscent of a gun-lobby mailing. “But I know the difference between a firearm used for hunting and target shooting, and a weapon designed to kill people. The 19 specific types of assault weapons that would be banned by the proposal currently being considered in Congress have no place on a deer hunt, in a duck blind, or on a target range—and they certainly don’t belong on our streets, in our neighborhoods, or on our schoolyards. The president urged these gun owners to call their representatives, and “tell them that you know the difference between a hunting rifle and a weapon that was designed for the battlefield. Tell them you support the proposed ban on assault weapons.”

National Rifle Association Headquarters — Fairfax, Virginia

From the top floor of a glass-and-steel office tower, a man named Wayne R. LaPierre Jr.
watched the crusaders charge, with growing anxiety. Clearly, there was no longer an NRA member in the White House. And as hostile as the environment had been after Stockton, after Clinton, it was even worse.

As the NRA’s Executive Vice-President, Wayne knew his gun lobby had to adapt. Pitted
against the big-government liberal Clinton, he sought natural allies in the survivalist far-right — people who proudly stockpiled the most powerful weaponry they could, as a matter of practice in case of civil war. Accordingly, NRA mailings started to sound like the notorious gun advertisements of the 1980s, when “assault weapons” were first marketed: in 1993, after the FBI (who would be in charge of the NICS system) endorsed the Brady Bill, the NRA paid for multi-page ads in ​Field & Stream and other established gun magazines, asking in the reader in huge type “WHAT’S THE FIRST STEP TO A POLICE STATE?” The dot on the question mark was a scrap of a black-and-white photo, showing the boots of an army formation in mid-goose-step. The answer came on the next page: “WHEN THE FBI STATES THE RULES.” The rest of the ad was a letter from Wayne, signed next to his icy portrait. He implored readers to donate to the NRA, and fight the FBI. “Such abuse of broad investigative powers is the first step toward our Founding Fathers’ worst fear; a federal police force disarming the law-abiding populace.”

When the Brady Bill passed, the rhetoric from the NRA became downright apocalyptic;
in the January 1994 issue of ​American Rifleman — a monthly magazine published by the NRA — the organization wrote that “when Bill Clinton signed the Brady Bill on November 30, a drop of blood dripped from the finger of the sovereign American citizen.” Six months later, the magazine contained a “special report” from Wayne LaPierre himself, titled plainly “The Final War Has Begun.”

Wayne’s “war” was Clinton’s “crusade,” through another lens. The first shots had been
fired at Ruby Ridge, in Idaho, two years before. The ATF had been trying to recruit a man named Randy Weaver (who had illegally sawed off some shotguns) as an informant against the Aryan Nations, but Randy turned them down, went back to his cabin with his family, and waited for his court date. But when the date came, it was a misprint, and the feds thought he had skipped court. Soon, they FBI had Randy’s cabin surrounded. The standoff lasted for 12 days, and ended only after a federal marshal was shot dead, as were Randy’s son and wife. (After Randy surrendered, and the U.S. Government paid him a substantial settlement.)

Around the same time that Randy was coming down the mountain, there was a UPS
driver in Texas who was loading packages into the back of his delivery van. One box snagged, and tore; what fell out looked like a hand grenade. The grenade was inert, as were the dozens more that were boxed the same shipment. Then the driver remembered the other packages he had delivered to the same recipient, out in Waco: some the boxes had been stamped with warnings, something about being careful when handling volatile chemicals. Soon the ATF were on the case, and they discovered that the religious cult who lived in the compound on Mount Carmel, in Waco, had also been ordering
dozens of AR-15s from a manufacturer in Washington State, and part kits from a company in New Jersey that could convert those guns into fully-automatic rifles. AR15s, back into M16s. Which was very, very illegal to do.

Everything that happened at Ruby Ridge happened again at Waco, on a grand scale. An
attempted arrest turned into the the biggest gunfight in American law enforcement history. The feds retreated, beginning a standoff that stretched for 51 days. While the cabin in Idaho only held Randy’s family, in Texas there was a sprawling compound, containing 100 human beings who were members of another kind of family: all united in faith that the man leading them was god. And God would not surrender. Then, on April 19th, 1993, the ATF raided the Mount Carmel compound with tanks and helicopters. The cultists fought back. There was a spark — no one would ever take credit for it — and the Branch Davidians perished on live television, a giant orange fireball enveloping their church. It looked like a war crime.

May 3, 1994 — Senate Chamber — United States Capitol Building

One week after Clinton’s letter to hunters, a group of his predecessors in the Oval Office
sent their own message, addressed to every member of the U.S. House of Representatives. “We are writing to urge your support for a ban on the domestic manufacture of military-style assault weapons,” the presidents wrote, from one branch of government to another. “This is a matter of vital importance to the public safety. We urge you to listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of these weapons. Sincerely, Gerald R. Ford; Jimmy Carter; & Ronald Reagan.

Clinton’s assault weapons ban was essentially the same as Connecticut’s: a name-ban of
19 rifles (including the AK-47 and Colt’s AR15, but not the Sporter) on top of a features-based ban. There was one major difference from Connecticut: the federal ban would also outlaw any ammunition magazine holding more than ten rounds — all magazines, not just the ones the manufacturer included standard. The bill had been put together by a freshman senator from California, who reminded the chamber about her state’s tragic history: the McDonald’s shooting, Stockton, an office building in San Francisco earlier that year. She shared a lesson her state learned the hard way; that “local and state initiatives are meaningless, because gun buyers can simply cross state lines and purchase their weapons of choice.”

In another session, Suzanna Gratia spoke. She told her story from Luby’s — by now,
well-polished — before urging the representatives to reject the new ban. “I hear all this talk about how many bullets can go in a clip,” she said. “I’ve been there. I can tell you, it doesn’t matter. It takes one second to switch out a clip. You can have one bullet, or a hundred bullets. ​It doesn’t matter, guys. He goes—” and Suzanna then demonstrated the motion, ejecting the magazine from her pantomime-pistol, and with the other hand, almost immediately, inserting another — “that’s not enough time to rush a man, I promise you.” She knew. Her father died trying.

The senator from California could see the bill was going to fail. as she set about cutting
provisions from it, weakening it, but desperate just to keep it alive. She agreed to add a ten-year “sunset provision” that would automatically cause the bill to expire when the time was up, if it was not renewed. Another compromise: current owners of banned assault weapons would be allowed to keep them, and sell them. Same for high-capacity magazines. The changes hurt the bill, the Californian thought. But its fate appeared more hopeful. “I was amazed to see the degree to which the National Rifle Association controls this body,” she told reporters. “If this cannot pass the Senate of the United States, I fear for the streets of America.”

It passed, just barely, and on September 13th, 1994, President Clinton signed the the
Federal Assault Weapons Ban into law. He cast the moment as a triumph over chaos: “My fellow Americans, this is about freedom. Without responsibility, without order, without lawfulness, there is no freedom. Today the will of the American people has triumphed over a generation of division and paralysis. We’ve won a chance to work together.” Finally, the shockwaves from Stockton came to a rest.

April 13, 1995

For the NRA, it was the most crushing loss yet. There were only two gun laws in
American history that could compare; when the National Firearms Act act sought to take the gangsters’ tommy guns away in 1934, the NRA’s president at the time openly supported the law, even saying that he “did not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” The executive Vice President, holding the same office that Wayne would assume sixty years later, said that the NRA was “absolutely favorable to reasonable legislation.” In 1968, when the post-assassinations Gun Control Act was passed, creating the ATF, Wayne’s predecessor office gave a measured response; while some of the bill’s provisions “appear unduly restrictive and unjustified in their application to law-abiding citizens,” he wrote to members, “the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.”

He was wrong; the hard-line gun advocates in the NRA grew angry, sensing that their
rights were not being defended. They established the “Institute for Legislative Action” in 1975 to focus on political strategy. Two years later, at the NRA’s annual convention in Cincinnati, a surprise vote suddenly cast out most of the NRA’s leadership team. The association’s 1,100 voting members decided to hand the reins to the hard-liners on that night in Cincinnati, launching the NRA on its modern trajectory, and now almost twenty years later, Wayne feared that the momentum may have finally stalled. He worried that if he didn’t fight back now, the NRA might die. Wayne began saying things he would regret.

On April 13th, 1995, he sent a fundraising letter to all NRA members. It began “I’m not
looking for a fight, but when you consider the facts of our current situation, you too, will see we have no other choice.” He wrote that “the semi-auto ban gives jack-booted government thugs more power to take away our Constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.” He then named the senator from California, as one among a group that would “stop at nothing until they’ve forced you to turn over your guns to the government.”

Plunging into apocalyptic imagery, Wayne painted the current reality as freedom’s
struggle against a tyrannical force, and cast the orange fireball that rose from Mount Carmel as a consequence of government oppression:

“In Clinton’s administration, if you have a badge, you have the government’s go-ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law-abiding citizens. Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge… Waco and the Branch Davidians… Not too long ago, it was unthinkable for Federal agents wearing nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to
attack law-abiding citizens. Not today, not with Clinton.”

When he invoked Waco, Wayne didn’t know that the provocative language he was using
was remarkably similar to that of another gun rights activist — a man who had been seen near the ATF checkpoint on the perimeter of Mount Carmel during the fateful 51-day standoff. The man’s name was Tim, and he was a veteran of the Persian Gulf war. He was there selling homemade bumper stickers that he had spread out on the hood of his car. They were starkly lettered with patriot-movement slogans:​ “Fear the Government that Fears Your Gun” and ​“A Man With a Gun is a Citizen, A Man Without a Gun is a Subject.” A journalism student, visiting the Waco perimeter one day, happened across Tim and asked a few questions about his beliefs. Articulate and polite, Tim told the reporter that “the government is afraid of the guns people have because they have to have control of the people at all times,“ and that “the government is continually growing bigger and more powerful, and the people need to prepare to defend themselves against government control.”

Tim sounded a lot like Wayne’s letter, but then, he sounded like a lot of pissed-off gun
owners at the time. Probably no one would have even noticed the similarity, except that just a week after Wayne had mentioned Waco in his fundraising later, on April 19th, 1995, the second anniversary of the morning Mount Carmel went up in flames, Tim blew up a federal building in Oklahoma.

Timothy McVeigh wasn’t inspired by the letter from the NRA — he had been filling
barrels with racecar fuel and fertilizer weeks before that — but his rationale came from a familiar place, and Wayne’s timing couldn’t have been worse. Still, despite a wave of public pressure in the wake of the bombing, Wayne held firm, and refused to apologize. That was war.

May 10, 1995 — Park Laureate Office Building — Houston, TX

Former President Bush had retired to a small town in Texas shortly after Clinton was
sworn in. But he still kept up his work, revising a manuscript for a book on foreign policy, and drafting letters. But his name had been conspicuously absent from the letter his three predecessors had sent, in support of the assault weapons ban.

Being an NRA member, President Bush received a copy of Wayne’s letter; he had been in office when Ruby Ridge happened, and his feelings about the ATF and other federal agencies were informed by his years as the head of the CIA. He took out a pen, and started a letter of his own, addressed directly to the NRA. He did not mince words:

“…Your broadside against Federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor; and it offends my concept of service to country. It indirectly slanders a wide array of government law enforcement officials, who are out there, day and night, laying their lives on the line for all of us.

You have not repudiated Mr. LaPierre’s unwarranted attack. Therefore, I resign as a
Life Member of N.R.A., said resignation to be effective upon your receipt of this letter. Please remove my name from your membership list.


George Bush”

The next day, Wayne had a change of heart. He told reporters “I really feel bad about the
fact that the words in that letter have been interpreted to apply to all federal law-enforcement officers.” He went on Larry King Live, looked into the camera, and assured the country that the NRA “never meant that letter to broad-brush all of federal law enforcement, all of BATF, or all of law enforcement in general.” He had lost a battle, but held out hope for the war.





“Colt Unit Sold, Connecticut Among Buyers” — New York Times, March 23 1990

“Critics say new Colt gun is an assault weapon” — The Milwaukee Journal April 25 1990

“Roberti Seeks State Ban on ‘Copy Cat’ Assault Rifles” — Los Angeles Times, February 24 1994

“Lundgren Files Suit to Add Semiatomatic Rifle to banned List” — Los Angeles Times, March 28 1991

“Weapons Ban is Approved By Connecticut Senate” — New York Times May 28 1993

“Gun Ban Squeaks Through” — Hartford Courant June 9 1993

“Weicker Signs Bill to Forbid Assault Rifles” — New York Times June 9 1993

“In Connecticut, Gun Ban Just Wouldn’t Die” — New York Times June 10 1993

“Man in the Middle” — Hartford Courant February 1 2009

“Crying Betrayal in Hartford, Colt Faces Uncertain Future” — New York Times June 12 1993

“Colt Unit Sold; Connecticut Among Buyers” — New York Times March 23 1990

“Debut of Colt’s ‘Sporter’ Revives Assault-Rifle Debate” — Los Angeles Times April 19 1990

“Weapons Ban is Approved by Connecticut Senate” — New York Times May 28 1993

“Judge Upholds State Ban on ‘Copycat’ Assault Guns” — Los Angeles Times November 30 1993

“NRA loses shootout in Congress” — The Times-News July 8 1991

“TERROR IN OKLAHOMA: ECHOES OF THE N.R.A.” — New York Times May 8 1995

Field And Stream, October 1993 

“FBI, in shift, proposes backing gun control” — New York Times July 8 1993

“Ford, Carter, Reagan Push for Gun Ban” — Los Angeles Times, May 5 1994

“Feinstein Faces Fight for Diluted Gun Bill” — Los Angeles Times, November 9 1993


“The Secret History of Guns” — The Atlantic September 2011

“Rifle Group ousts Most Leaders in Move to Bolster Stand on Guns.” – New York Times, May 23 1997

[Congressional Record Volume 141, Number 69 (Thursday, April 27, 1995)]
[Senate] [Pages S5745-S5747]


“Letter of Resignation sent by Bush to rifle association”



Posted in Uncategorized

Chapter 6: Frontier

6. Frontier

Late 1995 
Depot Road — Kingston, New Hampshire

Marvin LaFontaine was almost home from work when his cell phone rang. It was his
wife, asking him if he could pick up their son from a play-date on the way. She gave him
directions to the Lanza family home. Minutes later, Marvin was making the turn off Depot Road, down a long and shaded dirt driveway, to the house with the deck, next to the old Champion farm. As he approached the front door, it opened, and then Marvin met Nancy Lanza.

Marvin still remembers the way she smiled, as they shook hands. “Right from there it
was a friendship. I felt it. She felt it, and we were close friends.” They got to chatting as he rounded up his son from his play date with Nancy’s oldest. Marvin found Nancy easy to talk to, and her told her a bit about himself: he was a staff scientist for a company in Boston, but he didn’t want to leave Kingston behind, so had made the long drive every day. Nancy could relate, and told him about her years at John Hancock. She was still getting used to the 24/7-mom role.

The new friends discovered another area of common ground: both had another kid, who
was younger than their sibling by four years. And one of Marvins was “coded” in the state’s special education system, like Adam. Nancy was relieved; finally, she had someone who understood, and with whom she could compare IEP notes, and trade tips on the early-education resources available in the area. She had someone she could talk to

Marvin listened, and learned that Nancy liked wine, and film, just like he did. And even
though they were both married, he knew there was no use trying to ignore it: Nancy was

Lafontaine Home — Kingston, New Hampshire

The LaFontaines were in charge of Kingston’s local boy scout troop. Marvin’s wife
managed the administration, while he was the Den Leader, and they held the weekly meetings at their house in West Kingston. Marvin’s home had a striking cathedral-style living room with a vaulted ceiling, where the boys would work toward their merit badges, assembling crafts or racing pinewood derby cars. In the backyard, Marvin had set up his own shooting range. The scouts loved it there.

Nancy signed up Ryan to join the troop, and the Lanzas were a fixture from then on,
never skipping a meeting. Marvin noticed that Peter was never with them, which Nancy
attributed to her husband’s unbreakable work ethic: he had left PaineWebber to start as a Senior Tax Manager at the accounting firm Ernst & Young, and he was also teaching advanced tax courses at a university in Boston. Marvin had met Peter a few times, but he got the distinct impression that Nancy was taking care of the boys almost entirely by herself.

As the months went by, the two friends grew closer. One day, Nancy let Marvin in on a
family secret: she was filing a lawsuit against her former employer, John Hancock Life
Insurance. Something about a betrayal, and a troubled pregnancy.

In May of 1995, ​Lanza et al v John Hancock Distributors Inc was filed in the Suffolk
County Civil Court, seeking damages for discrimination. The fact that Nancy’s father-in-law still worked for John Hancock was apparently no obstacle to Nancy. And, if Peter S. Lanza felt any conflicting loyalties at her suing his longtime employer, it was kept within the family.

Marvin already knew that anyone who went up against Nancy Lanza in a contest would
have their work cut out for them; she was quick, and she seemed to know something about everything. You had to be careful when telling her a story, because she was a smart listener, too: the kind who was constantly bringing up one’s past statements to contradict them. “She has a memory like a steel trap, and she gets you,” Marvin remembers, and though she went about it playfully with him, he could tell that Nancy was an aggressive, capable person under the disarming exterior. “She was pretty. She was attractive and very well spoken, and she didn’t take any crap from anybody.”


Nancy brought Adam along with her to the scout meeting one week. Marvin got to meet
the shy kid he had heard so much about — the one who, supposedly, didn’t talk. And sure
enough, when Marvin said “hi,” Adam said nothing.

Nancy continued bringing the shy boy to the meetings. A few times, Marvin observed
Adam making an odd “chit-chat” noise. He thought that was cute, but knew it was also a sign that the boy was continuing to speak in his own, secret language. Nancy had mentioned that. They were trying to get him to come out of his shell, but it was proving hard.

Adam wasn’t old enough to officially be a scout at first, but Nancy let him orbit around
his older brother, tagging along, and Nancy herself was never far away, either. The preschool had told her that Adam was not participating in groups, and Nancy thought that bringing him to the scout meetings would present a safe environment, where he could experience a structured social setting, while she still could keep an eye on him. As anyone who met them knew, Nancy was always very protective of Adam.


One day, Nancy took Marvin aside. She had to warn him about something. “I know you
wouldn’t do this, but just so you know, ​don’t touch Adam.”

Marvin, familiar with the old stereotype of the creepy scoutmaster, was a bit offended.
“Well, I wouldn’t touch him.”

“No, no. Not like that.” Nancy explained that even a normal handshake was out of the
question when it came to Adam, just as it was a bad idea go up and pat him on the back, the way a scoutmaster normally might. “He just can’t stand that,” she urged.

Marvin thanked her for the advance warning, and he honored her request, leaving a
buffer around Adam, but the other scouts were a different story; they were too young to have any restraint, and they touched Adam anyway. When they found out he didn’t like it, they did it more. Every once in awhile, Marvin would hear Adam yell at the other boys, angry and with tears in his eyes as he ran over to Nancy for safety. But that was rare. Usually, the scouts just worked on crafts, and Marvin and the other adults would circulate around their tables, offering a helping hand. Adam never asked for help, and if any of them approached him to see if he wanted any, he would not respond. Adam would just stare down at the table. The only exception was with his mom; often Marvin would spy Nancy whispering something in Adam’s ear as he worked, and kissing him on the top of his head. “He didn’t seem to mind that. He didn’t consider that being touched or mothered.”

November 23rd, 1996

The two friends started exchanging emails every day, and talking on the phone at least
once a week. Marvin mentioned that he was looking for activities that would be fun for the scout meetings, and one day, Nancy had a suggestion: why not call her little brother, Jimmie?

Marvin had never met Jim Champion before, but like most everyone in Kingston, he
knew the name well. After returning from the Green Berets in 1983, Nancy’s kid brother came back to his small hometown, and took a job as one of the local police officers. There were never more than two or three on the whole force, so if you had an emergency in Kingston, there was a good chance you were about to meet Officer Champion. When the town’s Chief of Police retired in 1994, his partner and good friend ran for the spot unopposed; there were just a few write-in votes in opposition, and all were for James Champion. He still got a promotion, to Lieutenant, recognizing his ten years of loyalty to the town.

Nancy suggested that her brother — Uncle Jimmie, as her boys always knew him — could
bring his various police gear over to Marvin’s for one of the meetings, to show the kids and tell them about life as a cop, and as a soldier.

It happened the weekend before Thanksgiving. Marvin had his video camera recording
as the police Suburban rolled up his driveway, and Lt. Champion hopped out, moustached and in uniform, his badge gleaming in the morning sun. In the footage, a small den of cub scouts can be seen milling around, excited to take a gander at the inside of a police vehicle. Nancy is there, too, in jeans and a dark jacket, her hair cut to neck-length. She has Adam close by her side. He is still dwarfed by the older boys, and he flinches as they shove past, crowding around the SUV.

Nearby, a K-9 officer removes the leash from a german shepherd who was pawing at a
discarded bottle in the driveway. The freed animal runs off into the woods, the camera swinging over to catch the gleam of Uncle Jimmy’s police badge, reflecting from further in the wilderness. The boys run after the dog. Adam follows last, wobbly and losing ground. Nancy’s voice shouts from off-screen: “Adam, do your doggie bark!” He doesn’t make a sound. Nancy swears he sounds just like a dog when he does it.

Heading off into the woods, Adam slows to a stop. He turns away from the informal
hunting party, and goes back toward his mother.

“It wasn’t just the kids that enjoyed it, I was thrilled,” Marvin remembers of his
excitement that day. Nancy liked bringing her little brother around. That was another of the things would stay in the memories of everyone who knew her during her years in her hometown: she loved and admired her baby brother, and especially, she praised his military service. He was a strong, respected, male figure, both within the family and in their small town. Adam was just four and a half years old as he stumbled through the woods that morning, and like surely many boys in Kingston, he wanted to be just like James Champion. Nancy knew that, and she encouraged it. “She allowed him to believe that yeah, you’re gonna be like your uncle,” Marvin would recall to journalists from ​The Hartford Courant, then carefully adding “…depending on how he turned out.” That was a caveat that Nancy did not share with Adam, hopeful for her son and his dreams.

April 1997 
Sanborn Regional School District — Kingston, New Hampshire

By the end of preschool, Adam was drifting further off-track in his development. His
teachers observed that he was still engaging in a several different “repetitive behaviors,” was sensitive to smells — or “sometimes smelled things that weren’t there,” according to his father — and he would not tolerate certain textures, to the degree where Nancy had to cut the tags off of his clothes before he would wear anything. While his articulation had improved, he was still very quiet, and in fact had started relying on a classmate to speak for him. Like his mother did.

Some teachers would document that they saw Adam “sit and hit his head repeatedly.” But like his expression delays, his repetitive behaviors were went addressed in his IEP — or at least, there is no record of any change to account for them. Instead, the next time Adam’s plan shows a change, it is when the school district suddenly cancels all of his speech and language services late in preschool, “due to a perception that his challenges were not impeding his ability to learn.”

His parents did not agree. But at the heart of the issue was a scarcity of funds: the federal
government would only reimburse the district for a portion of the cost associated with Adam’s “free and public” education, which was mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). When the act passed in 1990, it was with the recommendation that the federal government cover 40% of the cost. But the real federal contribution never came even close to that. To direct what little funding there was, the government relied on the school districts to identify each student’s primary disability, specifically looking at how it impacted their ability to learn. In Adam’s case, the problem had been identified — delayed speech articulation — and by the end of preschool it appeared to have been fixed. It is not surprising that the school district would look to shuffle him out of special education once he passed such a milestone: New Hampshire was not rich, and there was certain to be another kid that needed help, waiting in
line after Adam. They couldn’t wait forever.

Years later, the State of Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate would sift through
New Hampshire’s records, with the benefit of hindsight on their side, and with a team of doctors supporting them. Looking back at Adam’s upbringing, the Child Advocate would determine that the district’s identification of Adam’s (relatively minor) speech problems had actually “masked the fact that expressive language was extremely delayed in his early education years, and particularly delayed compared to his ability to understand language.”

Nancy was saw it too: her son, slipping through the cracks. It stirred a change in her. She had already been a mother for four years before Adam came, but it was his arrival in her life, and the challenges he faced, that gave her new purpose. She would do whatever was necessary to protect him, the most vulnerable of her tribe.






Connecticut State Police — Sandy Hook Shooting Official Report (File 00196017)

“Raising Adam Lanza” — PBS Frontline & The Hartford Courant, 2013

Suffolk County Court records: 9584CV02884 Lanza et al v John Hancock Distributors Inc & 9601CV044533 Lanza, Peter vs. John Hancock Distributors Inc.

“Conn. killer’s NH kin express sorrow” — New Hampshire Union Leader December 15 2012

Annual Report of the town of Kingston — 1983 & 1995

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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 worry.

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, and as she told friends, any dip her stats would be 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 more. 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 she decided she could never bear children again.


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

When the day came, Peter drove Nancy to the hospital for a planned Cesarean section, and 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 rushing Adam back to the hospital in a panic, telling the staff that her baby had stopped breathing. It 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 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 six 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. When she had filed for her medical leave 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, there was a letter in mailbox on Depot Road from John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance, 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 for years. 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 her response would have to wait. 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 he was “making up his own language.”

Nancy would pick up some her son’s unique vocabulary 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 was needed to prepare the child for entering the public school system. In early 1995, as this window of time was about to close for Nancy’s young son, 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, 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, all looked treatable.


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

Nancy brought Adam in for the state’s “birth to three” assessment, which would determine the level of supports the state would approve 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.” The conclusions the doctors drew from this evaluation would echo those from Adam’s pediatrician, and expand on them — that the child, as he was 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 one, to plot out their special education needs, and in each child’s plan, the school was required to specify their 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. Adam’s evaluators prescribed him 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, his speech therapy was geared almost exclusively toward improving articulation: strengthening his mechanics in forming recognizable words. As the “Planning and Placement Team” (PPT) saw it, Adam was sending out scrambled messages. Their task was 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 retreat 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 articulation. The underlying problem was left largely unaddressed: that whatever was inside, 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 spoke 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 coming from the 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 at Luby’s, 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 the 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.”












Posted in Uncategorized

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 restaurant’s big floor-to-ceiling windows: a bright-blue Ford Ranger pickup, speeding across the restaurant front 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 truck’s windshield, the ones who would survive the day all remember the same thing: the driver’s eyes were wide, wide open.

One diner 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 the 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, 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 then be outlawed, if the bill passed.  

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 warned the chamber “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 rose, and framed the tragedy at Luby’s — and the weapons utilized by the shooter, as compared to “assault” guns — as reason not to ban the 13 rifles. “These are not assault weapons,” he emphasized. “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.” Of the Glock, he was most certainly correct.

A representative from California, where the memory of Stockton was still most acute, directed attention back to magazine size as the key issue. “It is that huge capacity ammunition clip that allows an insane person to shoot and shoot and keep shooting,” he explained. “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 the 13 rifles, and all high-capacity magazines, was stricken 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


Posted in Uncategorized

Chapter 3: Assault Rifle

3. Assault Rifle

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 on the tarmac, 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.”

The man they all had come 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, 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 a waiting 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 16, 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—

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

The President. What do you mean by semi?

Q. 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. […] I’m not about to propose a ban on service .45’s or something like that.

Q: 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, California

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 deals like “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, he 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. 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 enough 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 to 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.

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. When he went to to renew his license in 1974, 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.” The ATF settled, agreeing to renewed Tony’s 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 just too weak.

Traders was in the clear, and some normalcy returned to Tony’s life after that. 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 now would apply 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

A who’s-who of California’s law enforcement brass crowded into the meeting room: there was the Attorney General, the Sheriff of Los Angeles County, the District Attorney from Oakland, and 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, 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 suspects in another speeding car, and then found themselves in a rolling shootout with the gang members inside. Suddenly, one of the suspects 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 piercing holes through the cruiser, just overhead. Sure enough, when the chase resumed and they finally ran the suspects off the road, they found a smoking semi-automatic AK-47 in the car, next to 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, the task force’s goals changed. “The 15-day waiting period, in our opinion, can be easily circumvented,” a spokesman for 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 California State Capitol Building

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 was holding a series of public hearings about the ban, and as the controversy built, the crowds grew. 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 initially gave authority over gun sales 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 foreign gun to be imported into the United States; the law says that they are only to approve the import if the firearm is of a “type” that is “generally recognized as particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes.” The ATF has been making the call between “good guns” and “bad guns” ever since.

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 wording intentionally leaves a great deal of room for Treasury to interpret just what “type” of gun was supposed to be let through. To guide future interpretations of the law, the Treasury Secretary set up a “Firearms Evaluation Panel” in 1968; 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” simply required no clarification.

In 1984, the ATF first 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.

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 the gun was explicitly designed for riot control, responded that it “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 ATF rejected their application.

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.” But this time, the importer fought back, and sued the ATF; at trial, the feds explained their reasoning: the USAS-12 was not a sporting weapon, because it was too heavy to be practical for hunting, and too cumbersome for target shooting. Further, the gun “contains detachable magazines which permit more rapid reloading,” and “a large magazine capacity and rapid reloading are military features.” And finally, there was still 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, the ATF would have to change too. When California called, the bureau said they would help in any way they could.

Task Force on Assault Weapons — Los Angeles

A senior ATF official was present task force’s next meeting in LA, their first since the high-profile tragedy in Stockton. Immediately, he was concerned by what he saw: “as it became clear that the NRA was in retreat,” he wrote back to headquarters, “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 names off just as haphazardly. The Oakland Police Department, in particular, was aggressively changing the list to suit their needs, trying to tailor state law to specifically target Traders Sporting Goods.

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 [in the ban,] 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 ATF 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.” When they asked him what he thought of their progress, he didn’t hold back: their ban had serious problems. There were simply way too many versions of the “bad” guns out there 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.

The task force didn’t have much of anything to say in response. They would keep working on the bill.

By the time the California gun ban made it to the senate floor, it was not a pretty sight. The state’s 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 task force’s ATF representative wrote, “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 even 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 explained how 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 both the public and the gun industry at large. But the feds had the president’s blessing; Bush had initiated it himself, calling his new drug czar and asking “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 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 in 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 AR-15 in one hand” as he surveyed 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 sufficient 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 the marketers thought would sell. 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; as Baltimore’s Chief of Police put it, “given today’s ‘make a buck’ mentality, their decision was wonderfully refreshing.”  


March 28, 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 him 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, along with his legal team, when he caught wind that the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Trade would be 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 of the subcommittee; 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, the head of Ruger’s legal counsel, Stephen Sanetti, 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’s announcement, some figures within the industry interpreted Bill’s letter more cynically, 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, D.C.

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. People like Tony were “obviously not the kind of small businessman you want to keep going within the community,” the senator acknowledged, “but 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.”  

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 the 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 15, 1989 — United States Capitol Building — Washington D.C.

The rain was coming down in sheets, as an audience of law enforcement officers and congressmen gathered on the capitol’s western steps for a presidential ceremony, 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 1990 crime bill that impacted guns did not make it far inside the House chamber. A representative from Washington State, endorsed by the NRA, took up a pen, and narrowed the ban’s language, so that it applied only to weapons assembled “from imported parts.” She explained “those three little words make all the difference in the world,” as they “prevent this section of the bill from circumventing the intent of our Founding Fathers.” She added that she was just trying to protect “legitimate” sporting rifles — including, specifically, the Ruger Mini-14.

In response, loyalists to the president argued that such an amendment rendered the legislation worthless — “”the American who is about to be killed or who is killed does not know the difference between imported parts and not imported parts” — but it was no use.

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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