Ever since details emerged about how Adam Lanza massacred 20 first graders with a military-style rifle at a Connecticut elementary, I’ve been thinking back to that group of gun-toting Bay Area Open Carry members who came to Walnut Creek in 2010.
They came to a restaurant in Plaza Escuela. As you can see in this photo at left, they wore their weapons—unloaded—and ammo strapped to their belts, to demonstrate their right at the time to openly wear handguns in public. (They’ve since lost that right under a state law that went into effect earlier this year.)
Some proudly and defiantly displayed their semiautomatics, including Glocks, which have become known as the weapon of choice for mass shooters in recent years, including the assault on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona last year, the Aurora, Colo. movie theater rampage and now the massacre of students and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary.
While Adam Lanza killed his young victims with a Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle, loaded with ammunition "designed for maximum damage," he also carried Glock and Sig Sauer handguns that his gun enthusiast mother, and first murder victim, legally purchased.
I remember the Open Carry guys being friendly. Their talk about being responsible, law-abiding citizens sounded convincing. But their rhetoric revealed a mindset I tend to hear when I listen to the hysterical commentators on Fox news and conservative talk radio.
They sounded aggrieved, defensive, maybe a bit paranoid, and in possession of a sense of entitlement about their gun rights. "It's time for citizens to arm up," said Gus, a 50-year-old guy from Antioch said. Gus, who had introduced his two kids, starting at age 8, to firing guns, said it was especially important for citizens to arm up because of all the murder, raping, maiming and other mayhem that is occurring in our communities.
Again, he was speaking to me in downtown Walnut Creek. At the time I didn't recall lots of murder, raping, maiming and other mayhem happening recently. I don't think brawls breaking out in downtown bars -- as dismaying as they can be -- reached that level of civil unrest. Antioch may be a tougher town than Walnut Creek, but even it does not fit the image he summoned of armed and dangerous streets and roving bands of criminals. Maybe that image fits the worst parts of Oakland, or Richmond – or Los Angeles, during the Rodney King riots. Actually, it sounds closer to the landscape of post-apocalyptic horror fantasies. Yeah, I could see that possessing a stockpile of weapons would come in handy for a Walking Dead-style zombie invasion.
I don’t mean to make light of any discussion about firearms in the wake of the Sandy Hook rampage. But it’s hard not to be mystified when some gun proponents talk about the need to arm schoolteachers or how any new gun control laws would hinder their ability to protect themselves and their families.
Suburbanites—especially white suburbanites—who constantly express fears about being victims of violent crime seriously need to get over themselves. I’ve felt this way ever since covering crime in Richmond nearly 20 years ago. Now, there’s a place where people have good reason to fear being robbed, beaten or shot, notably if they are young men of color and they live in certain neighborhoods.
Some brave gun owners are speaking up publicly in the wake of the Sandy Hook rampage and have dismissed the idea that anyone needs a Bushmaster or a Glock or any other semiautomatic to hunt or to protect themselves and their homes. The main reason anyone wants to own a Glock or a Bushmaster--weapons once mostly limited to armed forces personnel and law enforcement--is because they are fun to shoot, these gun owners say.
“I am a gun owner. I am an avid hunter. I have a weapon in my home for protection. I support — for the most part — the Second Amendment," writes John P. Lopez, a Texas radio show host. “But never has it been more clear that the United States should ban and buy back semiautomatic weapons. They kill. They kill children. That is their sole purpose — to kill.”
Lopez says that he has many friends who will argue that semiautomatics are their hobby and passion, and they like to shoot the guns in remote locations. “I hope they enjoy shooting these weapons at trees. Because having that right also gives disturbed individuals the right to kill children”
This love for the culture of guns and for shooting big powerful weapons, embraced by some of the Open Carry guys I met in Walnut Creek in 2010, fed into the thinking of the perpetrators of murder-suicides at three U.S. schools since 1999, according to a 2010 study “Suicide by Mass murder: Masculinity, Aggrieved Entitlement, and Rampage School Shootings.”
The study’s authors, Rachel Kalis and Michael Kimmel, with the Department of Sociology and SUNY Stony Brook, examined three mass shootings that ended with the perpetrators killing themselves as law enforcement moved in: the 1999 Columbine High School shooting that left 12 dead and 21 wounded; the Virginia Tech shooting that killed 32 and wounded 17; and the 2008 rampage at Northern Illinois University that killed six and wounded.
The shooters in the three tragedies share several characteristics, according to Kalis and Kimmel,who is one of the world's leading researchers on men and masculinity. With Stonybrook's Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, he was awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grant.
“All the perpetrators were males, all were students in the rural or suburban schools they terrorized, and all evinced a self-justifying sense of righteousness to their actions,” the authors write. “Feeling aggrieved, wronged by the world – these are typical adolescent feelings, common to many boys and girls. What transforms the aggrieved into mass murders is also a sense of entitlement, a sense of using violence against others, making others hurt as you, yourself, might hurt.”
Connecticut police are still sorting through the remainders of Adam Lanza’s life, interviewing people who knew him and his family, to try to figure out what he was thinking in the days and months leading up to his mass murder and suicide. Was there something going on in his world or in his head that told him he had to kill other people, then end his own life? There are reports that his mother talked about wanting him to get out of the house more, or that she planned to move the two of them to Washington state.
In any case, his actions show someone who wanted to make a point with his death, by targeting a school filled with young children. Connecticut authorities say he went to Sandy Hook elementary with enough ammunition to kill everyone in the entire school.
Not only are school shootings done to get a point across, access to high-powered weapons was crucial to carrying out their plans.
“These young men were all socialized to see violence as a way to prove their manhood,” Kalish and Kimmel write. “Additionally, they were socialized in an environment that provided access to firearms.”
We know that Adam Lanza was definitely socialized in this environment. His mother helped teach him how to shoot, and he lived in a community populated by gun owners, hunters and assault weapons enthusiasts. The rural, hilly areas outside Newton was home to scores of shooting ranges, including some operating under the radar. The sound of gunfire, exploding at all hours, had become a common sound in otherwise bucolic Newton, according to the New York Times.
Contrary to what some gun proponents argue, it’s not likely that Harris, Klebold, Cho, Kazmierczak, or even Lanza would have planned suicides that involved killing other people had they not been able to arm themselves with guns:
“The access to guns proved a crucial element of their trajectories, since without such availability, it is unlikely that these young men would have made the same decisions,” Kalish and Kimmel write. “They may have wanted to end their lives, but without access to guns, their suicides would likely not have been preceded by mass murder.”