Some time before 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 14, 2012, Adam Peter Lanza fatally shot his mother, Nancy Lanza, in their Newtown, Connecticut, home. Wearing black, military-style gear, including a bullet-proof vest and mask, Lanza drove his mother’s car to the Sandy Hook Elementary School and shot his way through a locked glass door. At around 9:35 a.m., Lanza opened fire inside the school. The initial shots, according to witnesses, could be heard over the school’s intercom system.
What followed were accounts of gruesome violence – most of the shooting took place in two first-grade classrooms, with fourteen killed in one room and six in the other – and remarkable stories of heroism – teachers hiding their children and barricading the doors, school custodians running through the hallways alerting classrooms to the danger. Between 9:46 a.m. and 9:53 a.m., after firing approximately 50 to 100 rounds, the shooting stopped.
A total of 28 people were fatally shot. The victims at the school included twelve girls, eight boys and six adult women: Charlotte Bacon, 6, female; Daniel Barden, 7, male; Rachel Davino, 29, female, teacher; Olivia Engel, 6, female; Josephine Gay, 7, female; Ana M. Marquez-Greene, 6, female; Dylan Hockley, 6, male; Dawn Hochsprung, 47, female, school principal; Madeleine F. Hsu, 6, female; Catherine V. Hubbard, 6, female; Chase Kowalski, 7, male; Jesse Lewis, 6, male; James Mattioli, 6, male; Grace McDonnell, 7, female; Anne Marie Murphy, 52, female, teacher; Emilie Parker, 6, female; Jack Pinto, 6, male; Noah Pozner, 6, male; Caroline Previdi, 6, female; Jessica Rekos, 6, female; Avielle Richman, 6, female; Lauren Rousseau, 30, female, teacher; Mary Sherlach, 56, female, school psychologist; Victoria Soto, 27, female, teacher; Benjamin Wheeler, 6, male; Allison N. Wyatt, 6, female. Each victim had been shot multiple times. At least one victim was shot 11 times.
Police recovered three semi-automatic firearms next to Adam Lanza’s body: a Bushmaster .223 rifle (the same type of rifle used in the 2003 Washington, D.C. sniper shootings), a 10 mm Glock handgun, and a 9mm SIG Sauer handgun. In addition, police recovered a shotgun from Lanza’s car in the school parking lot, and it was reported that Lanza had access to three more firearms at home (a .45 Henry repeating rifle, a .30 Enfield rifle, and a .22 Marlin rifle). The Bushmaster .223 rifle was the primary weapon used in the shooting, and authorities said Lanza had enough ammunition on him when he died to carry out significant additional damage. The five guns were all legally registered to Nancy Lanza, a member the “prepper” movement, which urges readiness for social chaos by hoarding supplies and training with weapons.
The shooting in Newtown was the second mass shooting in the United States last week, after a gunman opened fire in an Oregon shopping mall on Dec. 11, killing two. And the media coverage was reminiscent of the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, or the massacre at Virginia Tech, or the shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Local news stations broke away from daytime programming with breaking newscasts. Special reports were delivered by correspondents at the elementary school. Witnesses, including some children, were interviewed. The networks tweaked their weekend programming schedules. And with each hour, the death toll continued to climb.
This is all depressingly familiar.
In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, President Obama declared that “we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action.” As Adam Cohen wrote, “If any crime could usher in a new gun-control regime, last week’s slaughter of 20 6- and 7-year olds should.” But will it? If history is any indication, likely not. Mass shootings occur in much greater frequency in the United States than in other parts in the world. Since 1982, America has mourned at least 62 mass shootings; fifteen of the 25 worst shootings in the last 50 years took place in the U.S.; and of the 11 deadliest shootings in the U.S., five have happened from 2007 onward. Despite their frequency, however, according to the Pew Research Center, mass shootings do not typically affect views on gun control. The same “tipping points” have presented themselves time and time again, and little to no progress has been made.
Despite this, there is a sense that this time is different. Following Sandy Hook, a number of traditionally pro-gun rights legislators have come out in support of tighter gun regulations, most notably from conservative Democrats who have high rankings from the National Rifle Association. “This awful massacre of our youngest children has changed us, and everything should be on the table,” said Sen., and “proud gun owner,” Joe Manchin (D-WV) in a statement on Monday. “We need to move beyond dialogue – we need to take a sensible, reasonable approach to the issue of mass violence.” And the NRA, which grades lawmakers on their gun stance (ranging from A-plus, meaning that the legislator consistently votes with the NRA and makes a “vigorous effort to promote and defend the Second Amendment,” to an F, meaning that the legislator is a “true enemy of gun owners’ rights”), said in a statement that it was “prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.”
After the shooting in Sandy Hook, a number of proposals to reduce gun violence in the United States have received serious consideration, including implementing more extensive background checks, banning certain types of firearms, increasing the waiting periods for obtaining a firearm, and increasing public health funding.
But if we need a place to start, we should implement the following five measures immediately, each of which are supported by an overwhelming majority of NRA members. First, we should require criminal background checks on gun owners (supported by 87 percent of non-NRA gun-owners and 74 percent of NRA gun-owners) and gun shop employees (80 percent; 79 percent). Second, we should prohibit terrorist watch list members from acquiring guns (80 percent; 71 percent). Third, we should mandate that gun-owners inform the police when their gun is stolen (71 percent; 64 percent). Fourth, we should restrict concealed carry permits to individuals who have completed a safety training course (84 percent; 74 percent) and are 21 and older (74 percent; 63 percent). And finally, we should not give concealed carry permits to perpetrators of violent misdemeanors (81 percent; 75 percent) or individuals arrested for domestic violence (78 percent; 68 percent). Clearly, there is a great deal of common ground on which we can all move forward together.
It is also important however, that we place Sandy Hook into some perspective. Tragedies like the shootings in Sandy Hook, or Aurora, or Oak Creek grip the public’s attention because of their rarity and the fact that they happened in places of perceived safety (an elementary school, a movie theater, a place of worship). As Ezra Klein noted, “in the aftermath of the massacre in Newton [sic], we want to stop the next one.” But “it is possible, and perhaps even likely,” he continued, “that we can’t.” Indeed, many of the potential policy remedies being proposed would have been ineffective in preventing Adam Lanza from committing the heinous acts he did.
“Figuring out how to prevent the next gun massacre (or specifically the next gun massacre at a school) is a classic case of solving the wrong problem,” noted Mark Kleiman, a crime specialist at UCLA. “The right problem,” he wrote, “is gun homicide generally, or homicide generally.” We shouldn’t focus on stopping gun massacres, then, but gun deaths more broadly. Every year, 100,000 people in America are shot or killed with a gun, according to the Brady Campaign. U.S. homicide rates are 6.9 times higher than rates in 22 other populous high-income countries combined (the firearm homicide rate in the U.S. is 19.5 times higher), and among the 23 populous, high-income countries, 80 percent of all firearm deaths occurred in the United States. Gun violence in the U.S. is a public safety problem. Solving this public safety problem will require persistence long after the media leaves Newtown, Connecticut and the shock of Friday’s incidents has worn off. Guns are deeply woven into American culture, and this is something that is not going to change even after Sandy Hook. We cannot put the genie back into the bottle, and any person implying otherwise is kidding themselves. But this doesn’t mean that we cannot change.
Indeed, as President Obama remarked on Dec. 16, we must change. “Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children – all of them – safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.”