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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Chapter 02: Nancy

2. Nancy

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Lanzas got their first apartment together in Peter’s hometown of Haverhill. He was accepted into the University of Massachusetts Lowell as an undergraduate, majoring in accounting, while Nancy attended the University of New Hampshire for a time, but the pragmatic couple knew that they couldn’t afford both, and it soon came time to make a choice.

The Lanzas ultimately decided to place their long-term bets on Peter’s career, while Nancy paid the bills in the meantime. She dropped out of college without completing a degree, never to return; of the few regrets she would carry with her throughout her life, this was one of Nancy’s biggest.


Nancy started her own business in 1982, in Exeter; town records show her signature on leases for commercial washing machines, billed to “Front Street Laundry.” Family would remember her as a hard worker during these years, who also took shifts as a hostess at a fine restaurant back in Kingston to help cover the bills.

Sometime in the mid-1980s, Nancy sold the laundromat, and got an office job with John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance, in Boston. She had an edge in the hiring process: her father-in-law, Peter S. Lanza, was already a legendary salesman and investment broker with the company, having won many prestigious achievement awards during his decades in the office. His word carried weight.

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

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

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

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


In June of 1986, Nancy’s father Donald passed away. His widow, Dorothy, stayed on at the farm — now its sole owner.

Then, one day in 1987, Nancy found out she was going to be a mother. And there was no place where she would want to start a family more than back in Kingston, where she grew up.

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







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







Posted in Uncategorized

Chapter 01: The Shooter

1. The Shooter

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

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

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

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

    The wannabe-soldier’s rifle had an abnormally generous ammunition magazine attached to it — a cylindrical “drum mag” that held 75 rounds. He kept up his assault until that ran dry, and then he ducked back behind the portables to reload, switching to 30-round “box” magazine. Over his shoulder, his parked station wagon exploded into flames, the detonation of a pipe bomb that he had left burning on the passenger seat, certain that he would never drive the car again. He then resumed his assault on the schoolyard, emptying the second clip. He went to reload once again, but this time, during the pause in gunfire, and over his earplugs, he heard it: the sound of police sirens. They were getting louder, closing in fast. Time for the next phase of his plan.   

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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








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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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





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0. Friday


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

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

The safe was unlocked. He chose a gun.

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

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

The door was unlocked.

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

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

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

He pulled the trigger. One.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Sandy Hook shooter’s GPS data (and other notes before moving on)


It turns out I had more to say about the GPS unit the shooter used than I thought, so that’s most of what I have to share today, but there are few other assorted items afterwards. This also represents a closing of the Sandy Hook case for this blog; I’ll be sharing portions of my book here in the near future, but I am now officially done researching the event.

(And as a quick update on the book: I’m done writing it, but I do not know when it will be released or in what form [e-book vs. traditional publisher.] So from here on I’ll be keeping quiet about that until I have a firm date to share. Sorry. When I know, you’ll know.)

The 19 GPS trips

The Sandy Hook shooter got his driver’s license in July 2010, three months after his 18th birthday. He did not want to start driving (a fact that frustrated his mother, who did pretty much everything for him until then) but his parents’ divorce settlement mandated that his father buy him a car. His father also gave him driving lessons, and at some point, gave him his old GPS unit. The shooter eventually did start driving on his own, and would use the GPS unit frequently; each time, the unit recorded the route he programmed, and how he followed it.

The data starts in April 2012. To briefly give an idea of the domestic situation at this time: the father had been moved out for more than ten years. Te Bushmaster XM15-E2S was already in the house at 36 Yogananda, and unbeknownst to either parent, their youngest son had been studying mass shootings, and especially school shootings, very closely for more than three years. He had been out of school for about one year, and had not seen a psychiatrist since probably July 2007. He had, however, been meeting with a friend that he met while playing Dance Dance Revolution at the movie theater in Danbury, starting sometime in 2011.

The GPS Unit itself was a Garmin Nuvi 550 (some of the investigative files call it a model 200, but 550 appears to be accurate) and it was eventually recovered by investigators at 36 Yogananda, in the hours after the shooting, tucked in a white plastic bag in the family’s gun safe, along with “handwritten notes regarding addresses of local gun shops”:



The GPS unit was in this white bag on the floor of the gun safe, along with other stuff from the shooter’s car.

Now, the transfer of ownership of this GPS unit, from Peter to his son, presumably occurred sometime before April of 2012, since the shooter’s father never saw him again after an argument over college plans in September 2010. But for whatever reason, April of 2012 is when the data recovered by the Connecticut State Police begins.

There were a total of 19 trips logged by the Garmin unit, taking place between April 23rd 2012 and December 13th 2012 (the day before the Sandy Hook shooting.) Most of the trips the unit logged are not very remarkable, but I’ll go through the whole list. It should also be noted that the times I quote here are adjusted from the official report, which mistakenly used UTC time zone data rather than Eastern Standard Time (UTC -5hrs) as I originally reported here.

(Also I assume that by this point someone out there has already gone through this data and shared their findings online, but I haven’t, and I like to check this stuff myself. So here goes.)

The first trip happened on April 23rd, 2012, from 4:54pm to 5:37pm. This was the day after the shooter’s 20th and final birthday. The starting point is in Westport, a town 20 miles away from the shooter’s home in Sandy Hook. What was he doing?

Note that the shooter’s mother had indicated that one of the purposes he would ever used his vehicle was to pick up groceries (quoted further down): this appears to be a return trip, driving  from the Whole Foods market in Westport that was just a bit down the road from the coordinates shown on the GPS, which I submit as the most likely answer (these images are from the CSP report, I just added the red labels, sorry it’s a little blurry):


(There is also a “Bow Tie Cinema” movie theater just a bit down the street, which could also plausibly have been where he was coming from, but later trips are more clearly to/from the Whole Foods. Probably the gap is due to waiting for a satellite signal.)

I was curious about the “note regarding the addresses of gun shops” and looked around the map of the surrounding area just to see if there were any gun stores he might have been going to. It doesn’t appear so. Though that’s not the case with at least one later trip.

Moving on, the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth trips all begin from the shooter’s home at 36 Yogananda, and end at the AMC Loews Danbury 16 movie theater — on April 24th, April 27th-28th, May 9th, May 11th, and May 18th. In the lobby of this theater is “Dance Dance Revolution” video game cabinet, where the shooter was observed very frequently playing marathon sessions, during this same time period. All of the trips from 36 Yogananda to the theater look like this:


The April 24th trip (the first to the theater) is worth noting because it shows the shooter arriving at the theater at 10:00pm, and because of a film playing in theater at that time: the Disney-produced nature film Chimpanzee:


Archived snapshot of a page showing that when the film was playing on the evening before

The friend he played DDR with in the lobby noted that they sometimes watched movies that were playing at the theater, and it is well established that the Sandy Hook shooter had a fixation on chimpanzees. However I don’t think there’s any direct confirmation that they watched this film. I’d just be very surprised if he didn’t see it at some point (or at the aforementioned Bow Tie Cinemas in Westport, which was also showing Chimpanzee.)

The seventh trip occurred on the morning of May 22nd 2012. It’s a significant one. In a break from the pattern, this trip took the shooter from his home in the hills of Sandy Hook, down into the heart of Newtown proper, where he appears to have stopped at or near St. Rose of Lima (a Catholic church and also a parochial school where had had briefly been a student in the 7th grade.)

When the official report summarizes this trip, the police note “(Between sequences drove past Sandy Hook School)” — and when I first read this, I did not know as much about the layout of the town, and assumed this was just because Sandy Hook Elementary School was along the way. But it’s not:


Here, it appears that even the appendix to the CSP report made an error in the timing of this trip; it is recorded as occuring at 8:09am:


…that is a difference of five hours from the UTC time of 1:09pm; however, because Daylight Savings is in effect in Connecticut between March and November, the correct conversion should be four hours — this trip thus took place at 9:09am, the exact same time in the morning as the shooter’s more well-known trip on December 13th (so I would guess that while the officer did think to set the time zone, he forgot to check the box for Daylight Savings.)

Additionally, exactly like the 12/13 trip, the shooter did not actually turn off Riverside Road onto to Dickinson Drive, which is the long driveway to SHES. He drove past it, continuing almost a mile along Riverside Road to Chimney Swift Drive, where he turned around and went home.

It was a Tuesday morning, and school was in session; whatever the exact purpose was of the trip, the path and the timing is stark evidence that he was already planning the specifics of his attack, seven months before he did it. In addition, it appears likely (though not definite) that he was also considering St. Rose of Lima for the same plan, at this time. This trip, and whatever he observed about the two locations, may even have been what made up his mind.

Trip Eight came two days later on May 24th at 9:19am, and is just another one going to Westport. (This time the data shows him driving right up to the Whole Foods):


Trip Nine happens on May 27th at 3:37pm, and takes the shooter to “Wooster Mt. State Park“ in Danbury.


It should be noted, however, that Wooster Mountain Shooting Range is located in the same spot. And, the shooter’s father told police that the shooter had been there with him before:


….however, that can’t have been this trip, because again, Peter never saw his son after September 2010. Another reason is, for this 2012 trip, the shooter was only at the location for a total of nine minutes, before he got back in his car and drove home. That being the case, I don’t know quite what to make of it; perhaps he was buying ammunition, or maybe the range was just too crowded when he got there, or maybe he just went to the park. Could be anything.

Trip ten occurs on June 1st, and is unusual because it appears the shooter simply drove to the main intersection at Sandy Hook. He stopped short of driving past the elementary school, and just turned around and went home. It was 5:35pm in the afternoon.


This is a very old part of town (it’s actually the spot where the first mill was built in the 1700s) but in 2012, as far as I can tell it’s just a liquor store and a Subway sandwich shop. Your guess is as good as mine.

Trip eleven is yet another trip the Danbury theater, on the afternoon of June 2nd. This is the trip when he was recorded playing Dance Dance Revolution by another person who happened to be in the theater, and who posted the video to facebook (covered previously here [note, however, that I made the same Daylight Savings error as the CSP did when I wrote that post — the shooter actually got there at 8pm, not 7pm. Though that timing is still consistent with the facts that supported that the video was the shooter])

Trip twelve is puzzling. It came on June 13th, just before noon, and shows the shooter driving from a location in Monroe (about six miles south of his home in Sandy Hook) to Westport, where the Whole Foods is located. It’s the departure location in Monroe that’s a mystery — it appears to be the Monroe Green, a small park with a flagpole and war memorial:



…but my guess is that’s just what he parked by, and he was really visiting the Monroe Farmer’s Market next door to the park, then got whatever groceries he still wanted afterward from the Whole Foods, his next destination.

Three days later, on June 16th, trip thirteen is a rather complicated one. It records the shooter leaving his home just before 5:00pm, and driving to the Danbury Fair Mall — several miles past the mall/theater where he usually played DDR:


But this trip is unusual as compared with the other trips he makes from Newtown to Danbury, for another reason: rather than continuing North/Northeast on Berkshire Road in Sandy Hook — which would have taken him directly to the Interstate I-84 westbound onramp that he normally took to get to the theater — it appears he took a left turn off of Berkshire Road and instead drove past Newtown High School (where he was previously a student) and continued traveling east, through the old Fairfield Hills mental hospital campus. He turned right (north) on Queen Street, passing by Newtown Middle School (where he was previously a student) and turned right again onto Church Hill Road, passing once again by St. Rose of Lima, before coming back to the interstate, and taking the onramp, heading west. He did not stop on this detour, but he went out of his way to make it. Then he got on the freeway, heading west. 

While passing by the Danbury theater, the one he normally visited to play DDR, the shooter instead merged north onto State Route 7, then took the first exit, turned around heading back south, and continued to Danbury Fair Mall, where he apparently parked. (He could have just stayed on the interstate and ended up in the same place, so it seems like he took the wrong exit and had to double back.)


The Danbury Fair Mall contains a Dick’s Sporting Goods store, roughly where the shooter appears to have parked. The store sells ammunition, as well as various items associated with the shooting sports, which the shooter could have purchased there (the CSP report includes an interview with a Dick’s Sporting Goods manager who thought he saw the shooter in his store. That was shown to not be true, however that Dick’s store was in Milford, a town 20 miles away.) Also, right next door in the Danbury mall is an Eddie Bauer store; the shooter wore a green Eddie Bauer vest when he launched his attack, and this could be where and when he obtained it (though there are a ton of stores in that mall, so who knows.)  

A little detail here: out of curiosity I checked to see if Eddie Bauer was advertising any vests at this time that matched the description of the one the shooter wore (there’s no photo of it), and found one that does appear to fit: the “Travex” vest offered that year has the same arrangements of outer pockets at least, and the zipper matches:

Image result for travex vest men eddie bauer


Anyway, trip fourteen is another trip to the Danbury Theater, around 8pm on June 16th, and returning two hours later. Nothing interesting.

Trip fifteen is yet another trip to the Whole Foods in Westport, on June 30th.

Trip sixteen occurs on July 28th at 1:22pm and is different than the others, but I think it’s ultimately just another trip to the theater, broken into two pieces:

The first starts with the shooter heading up the I-84 entrance ramp (which is across the street from Newtown High School) and then taking the lane exiting west. In doing so he does pass near Sandy Hook Elementary School — but he’s doing 80 on the freeway. (Until now I thought the May 22nd trip was the same deal, but that time he drove directly past it.)


Then, I think what happens is he takes a wrong turn: he takes exit 9, which puts him in Hawleyville, then immediately turns in at a small shopping plaza, where there is a wine store, a deli, and a post office. This trip ends at 1:28pm, and then a new trip immediately begins (this might be the GPS “recalculating” the trip after the wrong turn); he gets back on the freeway, again heading west:


Then he takes the next exit (#8) in Danbury, the same he usually takes to go to the movie theater… except this time, he doesn’t go to the movie theater, he just turns left, gets right back on the freeway again, heading east this time, and goes home to 36 Yogananda — it could have been he was agitated from taking the wrong turn, and then didn’t want to play DDR after all.

There’s something else to take into account with the data at this point: frequency of the trips. There was almost a full month between trip fifteen and sixteen. And though trip seventeen (which is just another Whole Foods run) comes four days later on August 1st, there is then another gap. This time, three entire months. Here’s how it lays out visually:


Note that the shooter’s DDR friend says that the shooter stopped hanging out with him “in June of 2012” after some kind of disagreement about planning their meet-ups. The drop-off in activity is indeed evident after June. 

Meanwhile, we do know a few things about what is going on inside 36 Yogananda during this quiet period; the shooter has stopped going to the Columbine forum for good as of the end of February, but he still converses via e-mail with people he knows, either from the board or through some other place online where Columbine or mass murderers were being discussed; one of them writes him an e-mail (probably about the Aurora theater shooting that happened on July 20th) and he writes back on the 23rd (five days before the “wrong turn” trip above, #16) sounding very depressed:

July 23, 2012 (From AL to Cyber-Acquaintance): “My interest in mass murdered [sic] has been perfunctory for such a long time. The enthusiasm I had back when Virginia Tech happened feels like it’s been gone for a hundred billion years. I don’t care about anything. I’m just done with it all.”

We also know that his mother started telling people in the fall that he “hasn’t left his room in three months.” 

Hurricane Sandy struck Newtown on October 29th, 2012. According to what Nancy told her boyfriend and several others, when the power went out at 36 Yogananda, her son got “weirded out” — or “freaked out” as worded by another witness interview. A third interview subject, who seemed to know the family well (and in fact may well be a family member, though not the shooter’s brother nor father) said Nancy told them her son had “basically shut down,” but refused to leave the house. Nancy, in turn, refused to leave him there alone. It appears that as aresult, they both just sat in their huge, silent, dark house, while the storm raged outside.

When the storm cleared, Nancy said, she went out to buy a generator so the situation wouldn’t happen again. Here’s the generator, in the garage:


(and if you’re wondering about the dark shape in the trunk, it’s just a shadow cast by a flap in the upholstery.)

A couple weeks after the storm, on November 14th, the GPS unit finally gets turned back on: trip Eighteen starts a quarter after noon, and goes from 36 Yogananda in Sandy Hook down past Newtown High School (though again its location in relation to 36 Yogananda makes not-passing it pretty impractical.) It turns left at the site of the old mill, heads into Newtown, drives past St. Rose of Lima on the left and Hawley Elementary (a school the shooter never attended, but that’s where it’s located, and the CSP report draws attention to it) and turns left on Queen Street, and then turns right, into a parking lot across the street from Newtown Middle School.


This parking lot is also where “My Place” is located, a restaurant where the shooter had been several times when he was younger, and with a bar where his mother was drinking at several nights a week by this point. However, the shooter was most likely just visiting the “Big Y” that dominates the plaza — it’s a supermarket, not as fancy as Whole Foods, but a much shorter drive.

The next day, on November 15th, Nancy sends an e-mail to Peter, about their youngest son:

“I didn’t want to harass him. He has had a bad summer and actually stopped going out. He wouldn’t even go to the grocery store, so it’s been pretty stressful. Yesterday was the first time in moths [sic] I’ve been able to talk him into going to do his own shopping and his car battery was actually dead because it sat so long. I ended up spending most of the day getting it fixed and now I am going to have to start pressuring him to go out all over again.”

If she pressured him, it apparently didn’t work. The GPS data goes silent again for almost a month. Then, Trip Nineteen comes on December 13th. It is the same as the May 22nd trip, minus the detour to St. Rose: the unit drives up Riverside Road, past the white sign for Sandy Hook Elementary School, keeps going for a bit, turns off at Chimney Swift Drive, then heads back the way it came, to 36 Yogananda.

The shooter then takes the GPS unit, its cord, the notes about the gun shops, and assorted other papers from the car, and puts them in a white plastic bag. He takes the guns out of the safe, and puts the bag in their place. Later that night, Nancy comes home from her trip in New Hampshire, goes to bed, and never wakes up.

Some books found inside 36 Yogananda, identified

I’ve written about several books found in the shooter’s room before, but these are a few that I noticed in the den at 36 Yogananda: presumably, books that Nancy bought. There are no good photos of them really, but they’re on top of the cardboard box here, bottom-right:


The top book is “How to Behave: A Guide to Modern Manners” by Caroline Tiger.

Image result for How to Behave: A Guide to Modern Manners

This is just a bit interesting because it recalls an e-mail conversation Nancy had with her friend from Kingston, Marvin LaFontaine, shortly after moving to Sandy Hook, in May 1999 (these emails were published by PBS Frontline in early 2013, and site changes since them seem to have taken them offline, but I saved a copy.) She is responding to Marvin, who was asking about how to RSVP to a wedding invitation:

Yes…there REALLY is a book of etiquette…but I don’t think you need it. Just ask ME any of your questions. Haven’t you noticed how good my manners are, and just how polished I am??? (Not to mention my incredible ego!!!) Seriously…check out the section in the bookstore.

They even have a “Etiquette For Dummies” book out now. Flip through a few of them, and maybe buy one. (Emily Post is for VERY serious users…maybe the “Dummies” book is more usable in everyday situations) You will enjoy reading them…they are very entertaining.

Next to that book is “How to Find Out Anything” by Don MacLeod:

Image result for "how to find out anything"

This is apparently a book about how to use the internet effectively to find information. I have a pretty good idea why Nancy was reading this book; her sister-in-law showed facebook messages between them to the Daily Mail [here] which took place on October 6th 2012, showing that Nancy was investigating a “secret life” her deceased father apparently had, before she was born:

I discovered I have a half sister in Ohio, so I have to get there to meet her soon!

[…]  apparently my father was married previously and actually lived in Ohio…secret life and all. Weird.

[She lives in] Cincinnati …. Story TOO long to text off my little I Phone… But yes, life is funny and strange. Lies people tell and try to live in those lies. Sad. She seems nice and I would like to meet her. I feel sorry that my parents turned their backs in her at such a young age. No one is talking so I don’t know the real story.

[…] As for [the lost sister]…she had no clue what happened. Her mother is dead, our father is dead, and my mother won’t say. It’s a mystery. We will never have answers…just have to deal with what is.

Another book in the left stack is probably the most significant:

Image result for rethinking depression

Note that there are two copies of “Rethinking Depression” in the stack; possibly, one for Nancy and one for her son.

There are also bookcases lining the den, their contents mostly unremarkable, but there are two titles I’ve spotted that are consistent with witness accounts about the shooter, even if this room isn’t his domain; the first is next to this elephant statuette:


It’s the 2009 book “Revolution: A Manifest” by politician Ron Paul:

Image result for revolution ron paul

I just bring this up because it being in the shooter’s home supports his father’s assertion that he liked Ron Paul and his economic policies. Also the file “Politics” on the shooter’s hard drive included some kind of information on Ron Paul, per the CSP description.

The other book is actually four books, in a box set, one shelf down:

SHL romancing1

It’s a four-volume set of “The Three Kingdoms” an epic historical from 14th-century China, depicting the end of the Han Dynasty. Here’s a close-up someone uploaded on Amazon (I feel like I’ve mentioned this before but honestly can’t remember):

SHL romancing2.jpeg

There’s also a second box set in the house, just like it, down in the basement:


This novel (or at least works based on its contents) is something that the shooter was interested in since he was very young. Here is a page from his reading journal from December 2002 (the same that contained the Tuck Everlasting journal entry that I wrote about here.)


I can’t make out all of it but one section appears to read like this:

When the castle was about to be raided, Lord Dian Wei stood in front of the enemy’s army and attacked. He had two halberds to hold them off when they got chopped in half he pulled out his sword and when that shattered something [xxx] happened. He actually picked up two corpses and swung them around like his halberds.

When he was killed, the enemy’s army still did not dare to pass the castle gates because of all the damage this one man did.

This passage shows that he was writing a description of the “Battle of Wancheng” — which in Three Kingdoms is told roughly as he describes, with the legendary warrior Dian Wei weilding human bodies as weapons:

Image result for dian wei halberds

One of the Playstation 2 games that the shooter’s family owned, Dynasty Tacticsdepicts this exact battle, among many others from Three Kingdoms, and as do several of the main Dynasty Warriors titles, which he also played.

There’s also this scrap of paper — undated, but the appearance suggests roughly the same time period as the Tuck Everlasting drawing — showing a drawing of a person holding a large sword. “Cao Cao” and the other names written along the side of the page are all figures from The Three Kingdoms:


It’s enough to wonder how many of the statements from teachers in Newtown, that the shooter wrote “pages obsessing about battles, destruction and war” in class assignments, were actually reflections of these kinds of stories. His interest in them was evident as last as 2008 (just before his 16th birthday) when “Blarvink” wrote this post on Gamefaqs, about an old Super Nintendo war-strategy adaptation of The Three Kingdoms that he was apparently playing at the time, Romance of the Three Kingdoms II:


the joke is apparently that one opponent/computer soldier defeated 100 of the shooter’s soldiers, because there was not enough rice to feed the large army.

The Eagles of Shepaug Dam

This is one of the more tranquil little stories tucked away under all the madness at 36 Yogananda, so I think I’ll end on it.

In 1999, when Nancy was e-mailing Marvin back in Kingston, telling him all about her new life in Sandy Hook and how it was going, she told a story about a day some friends came to visit:

Sunday morning we got a nice little snowstorm…but the sun was shining the whole time. We got just enough to turn the ground white. [REDACTED] asked me, “What is it about Connecticut…everything is just SO picture perfect!!” (I kid you not!!) I just smiled and said “We pay extra for this!” It was too funny. Then later, as we sat at the table sipping our coffee and talking horticulture, a flock of Eagles…ten in all…started to circle the woods behind our house. They put on a show for about 45 minutes…landing in two trees less than 50 feet behind our house! One had a wingspan of about five feet…the others were a bit smaller. It was the first time ever that there was not a squirrel to be found in our yard… We got it all on video!

It’s a nice story: a cold winter morning, and the eagles circling overhead. But, the thing I’ve learned about this case is that a great deal of the exercise is simply determining if Nancy is telling the truth at any given time, because there are just so many documentable times when you can know for certain that she was lying. However, at the same time, she is really the only observer of what is going on inside 36 Yogananda, and she is practically the only person the shooter interacted with in any significant way, for much of his life. Her, and the internet connection are the only signals escaping the sealed chamber, beyond a few blips here and there (like the GPS data, which we’ve seen does support her side of a few events.) She’s an unreliable part of the story, but a vital one. So it always jumps out at me when I find something that shows she was actually being truthful, even about something small like this.

Anyway, in browsing old archives of the Newtown Bee, I found an article “All Eyes On The Eagles” from the February 19th 1999 edition (Nancy’s message was four days later on the 23rd) which documents what Nancy saw.  And in fact, that unusually cold weekend, which Nancy described in the same message, turned out to have been the cause of the eagles in the sky that morning.

To explain, this is Shephaug Dam, about two miles up the Housatonic River from where 36 Yogananda is:

Image result for shepaug dam eagles


The Newtown Bee story tells how it was so cold in Connecticut that weekend, the surfaces of the rivers all froze over. When this happens, the bald eagles, who feed on the fish swimming in the river, would have to fly somewhere else. But the waters just downstream from Shepaug, due to the action of the dam, would not be frozen. That’s why the eagles gather there.

On that particular morning, some engineers at Shepaug Dam noticed that the level of the Housatonic upriver was getting a bit high. So, they opened the floodgates; this brought thousands of alewives (a species of herring) coming over the dam. It was a sudden, incidental feast for all the eagles in the area.

There was a wildlife biologist on staff with Northern Utilties, a Mr. Rosgen, who kept a log of all the eagle sightings that winter. It had been a very quiet year so far, but when the floodgates opened, he counted 35 bald eagles from his observation post.

Back at 36 Yogananda, as Nancy’s email conversation continued, Marvin apparently commented on the story about the eagles. In her reply to that message, Nancy gave more details, and explained that she actually knows all about the wildlife reservation near her home:

The Eagles were very impressive. There is a reservation not more than 2 miles from here, where Eagles winter and mate. There was a record sighting of twenty eight Eagles at the reservation on the Sunday that the ten made it to our house. The largest one at the nesting spot had a wing span of over seven feet!

Nancy’s story to Marvin matches the Bee’s story in such a way that I expect she either read this same issue, or talked to someone who did; she said there were 28 eagles, which is wrong, but was actually the previous record, and that was what Nancy witnessed being broken. From the Bee story:

On Saturday, February 6, a record 35 individual bald eagles were spotted from the observation post, Mr Rosgen said. The previous record was 28 individual eagles spotted during a single day in 1988. The observation area began operations in the winter of 1985.

And that was that.

Lighthouse off

Just a brief personal note here. I started this blog on July 1st, 2013, because I read an article from the Hartford Courant about how “mass murders captivated [an] online user” who was believed to be the shooter. I had not followed the case closely at all up to that point, but it was inescapable in America: talking heads on TV or online or writing op-eds about why the shooter did it and why that version of events supports this or that view of what our society is supposed to do about it — if anything. But the shooter was like a ghost: someone people remembered as a kid, but almost never saw. And he never talked. So the debates about his actions were mostly noise and speculation, and felt like they went nowhere. They just made people angrier.

I had a background investigating online fraud, and figured the journalists probably didn’t get everything in their rush to print (also the Courant’s phrasing “user believed to be” sounded almost like a challenge) so I opened a Word doc and started a timeline. I knew a lot about the internet, and practically nothing at all about mass shootings, guns, or mental health. That was four years ago. 

I apologize if anything I’ve written since then has offended, or if anything I’ve brought to light would have best remained in the shadows of the internet; this is difficult material, and there was far, far more of it than I ever expected to find. I have at times been very conflicted about whether it is appropriate or useful to bring attention to the words or thoughts of a person responsible for something like what happened on 12/14. But it seemed as though every time I walked away, there would be another high-profile mass shooting in my country, and another round of debates over what the Sandy Hook shooter did, or why he did it, or how he did it, and another round of seeing the shooter’s face on television. It’s the case that puts a final seal on what our view ares, whatever they are, about this phenomenon of mass violence we are experiencing. It’s the one that won’t go away. And so I do think that it’s important that we have a clear, honest account of what happened. As close to the truth as we can get. That’s what this project turned into: an effort to, at least in some small way, try to shed light on that story. Meanwhile, I’ve been writing the story, as I see it. I look forward to sharing it soon. You might like reading it, or you might not. Thanks for joining me on the journey.



Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , ,

“KnaveSmig” on Wikipedia

A reader tipped me off to this.

On a particular Wikipedia user’s “Talk” page, just after midnight UTC on June 20th 2012 (or June 19 at 8:20pm, Newtown time) another user posted links to an Excel file they had uploaded, describing the spreadsheet file as their custom “mass murderer list.”  The message was posted under the username “KnaveSmig”.

Twenty minutes later, the same user posted another message, to the same page, with links to music files that they described as “songs about school shootings” that they had compiled off Youtube.

They posted only those two messages on Wikipedia, and then disappeared. There is no other activity associated with the account, nor the username anywhere else on the internet that I can find.

The files that the user “KnaveSmig” posted links to were hosted at — that website ceased functioning in 2015, so the files are no longer available.

However, the messages do provide some useful insight into the Sandy Hook shooter’s psychological state, six months before his attack and suicide at the elementary school.

Briefly, here is why I believe it’s likely that this was the shooter, based on what we know about his life and his other online activity:

  1. It is known that the shooter posted content to Wikipedia relating to mass shooters, under the username Kaynbred. (The evidence on Kaynbred)
  2. It is also known that, after mostly shedding his “Kaynbred” identity in early 2010, he took up a new username, Smiggles. (The evidence on Smiggles)
  3. The Sandy Hook shooter maintained a huge, meticulously arranged spreadsheet ranking mass murderers by a number of criteria. This was confirmed in the official police investigation, and was widely reported on, as one of the earliest known details about the shooter (the spreadsheet itself has never been released and its sealed status is part of an ongoing lawsuit filed by the Hartford Courant.) shl-colgam01
  4. He was also very careful about the criteria used for defining “mass murderers” on said spreadsheet (exhibited in “Smiggles” posts below as well) shl-rampage02
  5. As “Smiggles,” he had tried to share his spreadsheet before, on the Super Columbine Massacre RPG discussion forum:SHL-comprehensivelist-link1

There are several more things I will point out about this, but I’ll get to the messages themselves first. Here’s the context: “KnaveSmig” is posting a public message to the user page of another Wikipedia user, one who was very prolific in editing articles pages about mass murderers. KnaveSmig had apparently noticed this user when reading said articles. Here is what they said (or you can read directly at wikipedia here.)

Compared to the legions of people who focus solely on serial killers, it’s almost impossible to find anyone who’s interested in mass murderers, so I thought that I might as well introduce myself. I’ve been researching this topic since 2006 and I started compiling a formal list at the beginning of 2010. We basically use the same criteria, but the main difference is that I leniently define “mass murders” as involving a minimum of four casualties, whether through deaths or injuries.

Even if I could hope to be as thorough as you are, my list isn’t meant to be a comprehensive chronicle as much as it’s meant to help with answering statistical questions— albeit rather poorly since it really should be twice its current size. But if it weren’t for you, “twice” would be closer to “thrice”. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were responsible for 1/4 of my list, let alone the boundless complementary information you’ve provided on the other mass murderers. You’ve been incredibly helpful here.

I haven’t had the motivation to do much with my list since its first few months, and it’s currently in a mid-revision state, so the whole thing really isn’t much of anything to be excited about; but if you want to see it, here it is in all its mediocrity:

(dead link removed)

00:20, 20 June 2012 (UTC)

The second message followed about 25min after, pointing out a mistake on the spreadsheet:

Wow, ignore the negligent formatting error which placed Anders Breivik below William Unek. What an appropriate testament to my incompetency.

By the way, I don’t know if you have any interest in this sort of thing, but I recently compiled a pretty thorough list of (primarily YouTube) links to songs about school shootings. If you want just the list, you can download it here:

(dead link removed)

If you don’t mind downloading for half of a day, I took practically all of the songs (16 hours), cleaned them up as well as I could, and put them into a convenient package here. I recommend starting with the “Albums” file.

(four dead links removed)

If my mass murderer list is useless to you, at least you might be able to enjoy some relevant songs!~

That’s the only activity associated with this username anywhere on the internet, and they never came back to wikipedia.

The user he had posted the message to eventually replied, in 2013:

Hey KnaveSmig, I hope you are still alive. Sorry for not answering, but until now I really couldn’t be bothered to do so. Bad me, I know. I also didn’t save your list, and it ain’t available on rapidshare anymore, so if you should ever read this would you upload it again and leave me a note here? Thankee. 23:35, 7 April 2013 (UTC))

Some things that immediately jump out at me about this message, and what we know about the shooter:

  1. The statement “Compared to the legions of people who focus solely on serial killers, it’s almost impossible to find anyone who’s interested in mass murderers” is reminiscent of the statement from “Smiggles” seven months before, “Serial killers are lame. Everyone knows that mass murderers are the cool kids.
  2. KnaveSmig states that they first became interested in mass murderers in 2006; this aligns with the Sandy Hook shooter’s statement about the Columbine message board from Sept 16 2011, “I think I found it through Google toward the end of 2006. I didn’t register for years because it seemed like the kind of website which would get you on a terrorist watch-list.”
  3. They also state that they “started compiling a formal list at the beginning of 2010.”
    “Smiggles” was registered at the Columbine forum in Dec 2009. The first known posts from that account, including the sharing of the spreadsheet, come from early 2010. Early 2010 also marks the transition from “Kaynbred” to “Smiggles.” The Bushmaster rifle was subsequently purchased in late-March 2010; it appears that the shooter’s building of a spreadsheet in early 2010 was part of his gun-shopping phase, and so the purchas of the Bushmaster (and the Saiga shotgun the same week) would mark the culmination of that project.
  4. The awkwardly self-deprecating statements – “here it is in all its mediocrity”
    and “what an appropriate testament to my incompetency” – are reminiscent of the e-mail released by the Child Advocate’s office, from July 2012 (one month after these messages from KaveSmig, and a few days after the Aurora shooting): “My interest in mass murdered [sic] has been perfunctory for such a long time. The enthusiasm I had back when Virginia Tech happened feels like it’s been gone for a hundred billion years. I don’t care about anything. I’m just done with it all.” (it should also be noted  that, of this time period, his mother wrote in November “He has had a bad summer and actually stopped going out.”
  5. Sixteen hours is a pretty staggering amount of music that was supposedly all about school shootings. I have no idea what would be on there, except for the Youtube music that the shooter linked to as “Smiggles.” It was a pet subject of his, one he returned to again and again in tedious detail, usually as part of his preoccupation with establishing that the song “Pumped Up Kicks” was not about the Westroads Mall shooter. Below are the posts in question, which demonstrate the same combination of interests as “KaveSmig”:

7 September 2011:

Pumped Up Kicks, A hit song about a teenage killer?
I found that song about a month ago through Google because someone in the comments for a video of it said that it was about Robert Hawkins. “Robert” was apparently an arbitrarily selected name from what I could find, though, which is especially obvious considering that it has nothing to do with him other than how he took his stepfather’s AK-47.
For trivia’s sake, I know of four other young mass shooters whose names were Robert:
Robert Smith, November 12, 1966 (Who actually did use a “six-shooter”)
Robert Poulin, October 27, 1975
Robert Sartin, April 30, 1989
Robert Steinhauser, April 26, 2002
In any event, that song is waaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyy too repetetive for me to listen to without throwing a hissy fit. I’ve been constantly listening to this one since last year and I still love it:
(dead Youtube link removed, video was apparently “Regalsin’s tribute to Robert Hawkins” as the same link was later posted under that subject)

October 28, 2011:”I Don’t Like Mondays” is a song about a school shooting. “Omaha Shopping Mall Blues” is not a song as far as I can tell, so I assume it’s a joke (the shopping mall Robert Hawkins attacked is in Omaha) or a reference to the tribute video above (he shares a link to it again here):

Pumped Up Kicks
That song really irritates me. This is the much better one:
(deal link removed)
In any event, that “Pumped Up Kicks” song isn’t even about Robert Hawkins.

The average age of the people that Robert Hawkins shot was 49. That doesn’t seem to be getting back at kids who have redundantly pumped-up kicks. If the song really is based off of him, they did a pretty terrible job in making it relevant when you compare it to something like I Don’t Like Mondays, let alone the Omaha Shopping Mall Blues.

October 29, 2011: The “Barry” that he refers to is presumably the Frontier High School shooter, who wore a cowboy hat and boots and had a preoccupation with Clint Eastwood films:

Pumped Up Kicks
I can’t stop thinking about how much this song annoys me. Even if it wasn’t so lame, it would still bother me that they used the name “Robert”. Now one of my favorite mass shooters has been turned into a trendy stereotypical poster child of school shootings just because of his age, despite having nothing to do with the school shooter archetype. They could have used Michael, or Evan, or Barry, which would literally fit in with the whole “cowboy kid” thing.

November 8, 2011: Includes a link to a Youtube video for “The Ballad of Charles Whitman,” a song about the University of Texas tower sniper of 1966.

Pumped Up Kicks
The guy who wrote Pumped Up Kicks said that the song is about an outcast teenager losing his mind while plotting revenge without any explicit violence occurring. People have interpreted that to mean that it’s about a school shooting. Because of the name Robert, Robert Hawkins has now become a stereotypical poster child of school shootings.

If any name other than “Robert” had been used for the song, no one would have associated Robert Hawkins with Pumped Up Kicks. If the name “Robert” had still been in the song, but Robert Hawkins had actually been 32 years old (the average age of American mass murderers in the last 20 years), again, no one would have associated him with Pumped Up Kicks. They would have instead said that “Pumped Up Kicks is surely about Robert Steinhauser”, not at all because he fits in with it better than anyone else would have, but merely because his name was “Robert”. At least with Robert Steinhauser, it almost sort of vaguely fits in with the interpretation many people have that the song is about school shootings.

Robert Hawkins’s mass murder unquestionably was not a school shooting: he shot up an upscale shopping store. Without applying my pet theory as to the origin of mass murder, which you’re accusing me of doing, anyone can see that Robert Hawkins did explicitly share the socioeconomic characteristics of much older mass murderers. Instead of approaching it through simply stereotyping him as a school shooter who was bullied by his classmates, it would thus be more accurate to approach it through simply stereotyping him as maybe being a young version of Mark Barton, with whom he shared many similarities.

(link to article about Mark Barton)

If you interpret Pumped Up Kicks to be about school shootings and you think that Robert Hawkins is a better representation for a song about “an outcast teenager losing his mind while plotting revenge without any explicit violence” than Evan Ramsey or Michael Carneal would have been; and if you think that Pumped Up Kicks has more to do with Robert Hawkins in particular than the Omaha Shopping Mall Blues does, then I don’t know what I can say.

It’s akin to saying that I Don’t Like Mondays was about Charles Whitman. I mean, in a
sense I guess it could be, but it would be absurd to say that it’s a better representation of him than it is of Brenda Spencer; and if you want to think of I Don’t Like Mondays being about Charles Whitman, it would be absurd to say that this song,

has less to do with Charles Whitman than I Don’t Like Mondays does.

December 4, 2011: Note that Smiggles sneaks in some of the statistical observations from his spreadsheet, as KnaveSmig describes compiling along with his music playlist. The “multiple bootlegs” song he links to is a shock-rap that advocates school shootings:

Pumped Up Kicks
Other than the whole “Robert” thing, the only indication that Pumped Up Kicks could
be about Robert Hawkins in particular is that he used his stepfather’s Kalashnikov; but that’s not something unique to him because, according to the best information that I have available, around 75% of American <25-year-old mass shooters used firearms which they didn’t legally own, compared to around 25% of American >24-year-old mass shooters. Instead of being an explicit reference to Robert Hawkins, it could just be a throwaway reference to a common aspect of young mass shooters. Anyway, diverging from my whining, I serendipitously rediscovered Robert C. Bonelli Jr.after having forgotten about him for a while.

(link to photo of Robert C. Bonelli at trial)

The only explicit information that I could find about him regarding his teenage years was that he had dropped out of high school at age 16. At age 24, he was an extremely shy outsider who was constantly worried about being picked on for being reportedly 260 pounds at 5’10”. His duplex neighbor said that he was “the kind of kid who gets picked on in high school”. His uncle said that he had an inferiority complex, always being self-conscious about the way he looked, his weight, and how no girl would ever want him. Along with being depressed for many previous years, he had been having trouble with alcohol and drug abuse.

He spent almost all of his time alone in his room where he kept “a shrine of Columbine memorabilia”, which included newspaper clippings, “TV documentaries about ‘the darker side’ of Columbine”, and news accounts & pictures printed from the internet, along with a picture of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold taped to his wall. He had a video which included him building and exploding pipe bombs with two other local dropouts, one of whom’s girlfriend said that he had frequently spoken about killing himself.

It’s rumored that he also had multiple bootlegs of the album which contains this song:

If he didn’t actually have it, I’m sure that he would have if he had known about it.

He repeatedly took cocaine early in the morning of Sunday, February 13, 2005. Possibly precipitated by a girl rejecting his friendship several days earlier, he decided to kill himself. Dressed in black, he left a suicide note at his house, borrowed his father’s car, and drove to the Hudson River with the Hesse Model 47 he had legally bought at a gun show four months earlier. He held the rifle to his head but couldn’t kill himself. He drove around aimlessly, and saw a police car in the parking lot of the Hudson Valley Mall in Kingston, New York. He decided to get the police to publicly kill him.

He wrote a second suicide note at some point and left it in his car. The only information I could find on either of them was from the second one, which included the Dylan quote, “The lonely man strikes with absolute rage”. He had written somewhere (I don’t know any details) that he had been wanting to do this before the Columbine anniversary. About an hour prior to the shooting, he went to a Walmart to buy ammunition and returned to the mall. He considered waiting until the coming Monday to do it at a school, but demonstrably decided against it. He parked in front of the Best Buy (presumably the most convenient entrance, going by Google satellite) and sat in his car for twenty minutes. Just before 3:15 PM, he picked up his rifle and walked toward the mall.

He shot three times at the front door, which caused ricocheting bullet fragments and shrapnel to superficially hit his first victim. The victim’s daughter’s purse and pants were each penetrated once, but she remained uninjured. Once he entered the Best Buy, he spent the next seven minutes aimlessly shooting in the store. He never shot from the shoulder and most of the bullets struck the ceiling and floor. The most aiming he did involved shooting from his hip at televisions and blank walls. He had many opportunities to shoot people but bypassed all of them. He reloaded once and eventually left the Best Buy, entering the main corridor where he spent the next two minutes shooting out store displays while walking toward the center of the mall. It was here that he shot his second victim in the knee. When he had expended all of his ammunition, he dropped his rifle and calmly surrendered. He was subsequently sentenced to 32 years in prison.
Robert Bonelli and Robert Hawkins (who both went by Robbie) both used AK-47 variants (although Bonelli’s was a very cheap model), and both of them had two 30-round magazines (although Bonelli’s weren’t fancily jungle-taped together like Hawkins’s).

While Robert Hawkins used 2/3 of it and killed eight people and injured four, Robert Bonelli used all of it, but only directly shot one person and indirectly shot a second. The only time that I’m aware of Robert Hawkins deliberately shooting at anything other than a human was when he shot a teddy bear, but none of Robert Bonelli’s shots were deliberate. Likewise, I cannot seeing anything which indicated that Robert Hawkins had been significantly affected by (the conventional interpretation of) bullying nor peer rejection, but Robert Bonelli seems to be a different case.

If any “Robert” fits in with the school shooting interpretation of the song about “an outcast teenager losing his mind while plotting revenge without any explicit violence”, it’s Robert Bonelli, not Robert Hawkins. The only issue is that he was 24 years old, not a teenager; but Robert Hawkins was practically the same age, being less than a half a year from 20. Anyway, “teenager” was my word, with the Pumped Up Kicks guy always saying “kid” and “youth”.

Robert Bonelli still doesn’t fit in with it better than Evan Ramsey or Michael Carneal would. And Pumped Up Kicks is still a really lame song.

There’s also the fact that he makes mention of Anders Breivik, whom the Sandy Hook shooter did have a pronounced interest in — but, I think that would go along with the territory for anyone making such a spreadsheet, especially at that time (the Norway attack happened just the summer before.)

Anyway, that’s all I have. I think it’s pretty obviously the shooter, but draw your own conclusions.

One other thing of interest is that the recipient of the message (who has since “retired” from Wikipedia) has already realized that the message may have been from the Sandy Hook shooter; about a month after this blog broke the “Smiggles” story, he requested a that a Wikipedia admin run a trace “to check if KnaveSmig’s IP address is located in Connecticut, maybe even the Newtown area.” You can read his back-and-forth with the Wikipedia admin here (the request was denied; as requesting user notes, the Mod is not accurate in explanation for why they believe KnaveSmig is not the shooter, as he is confusing the account with Kaynbred. However I assume the decision not to trace the IP is still appropriate based on his explanation.)


I finished my investigation into the Sandy Hook shooter last year, and so “KnaveSmig” is the last username that I’ll be bringing to light. I’ll have a final update next weekend (what I was going to post today until this fell in my lap) which will be just an assortment of small things I’ve come across over the last couple years that didn’t warrant bringing up anywhere else.

After that, I’ll just be sharing updates on the status of the book — which should still be out this year, but not soon. I’ll be posting excerpts from it here over the next few months, as well.

*EDIT* 03/05/17 – So much for “next weekend.” But it shouldn’t be long.

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a quick non-update

As mentioned last time, I had hoped to post some more updates over the course of this fall, but life and other events have pretty much consumed my free time since September.

I’ll be back after the new year. My book on Sandy Hook will be available to read, in some form or another, in 2017. Apologies for the delay. I think it will be worth it.

That’s all for now. Have a safe New Year.

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