By Eugene Robinson
The gunman in the Newtown massacre fired 154 bullets from his Bushmaster military-style rifle in less than five minutes, killing 20 first-graders and six adults. He brought with him 10 large-capacity magazines, each holding up to 30 rounds, which allowed him to reload quickly. He also carried two semiautomatic handguns, one of which he used to take his own life.
Is this supposed to be the price of the Second Amendment? Is this the kind of America we want?
I know that realists have concluded there is little chance of getting an assault weapons ban through Congress. I know that many gun-control advocates believe legislation mandating universal background checks, thought to have a reasonably good chance of being approved, can be even more valuable in preventing future Newtown-style tragedies. I know that politics is the art of the possible.
But still it’s hard for me to accept that the right to “keep and bear arms” extends to the kind of arsenal that Adam Lanza—and his mother, Nancy, whom he also killed—assembled and kept in their home.
Lanza was outfitted like a commando, with guns and ammo clips engineered to kill the maximum number of people in the minimum amount of time. There were other weapons in the family’s possession that would seem better suited for recreation or self-defense—the reasons why, according to the National Rifle Association, we need to arm ourselves to the teeth. But Lanza left a .22-caliber rifle at home and a 12-gauge shotgun in the car he drove to the school. He had maximum mayhem on his mind.
Search warrant documents released by Connecticut authorities suggest just how disturbed Lanza was. Among the items discovered was a newspaper article about a 2008 massacre shooting at Northern Illinois University in which six people, including the perpetrator, were killed. There were also three photographs “with images of what appears to be a deceased human covered with plastic and what appears to be blood.”
Police found books on Asperger’s syndrome, a condition related to autism from which Lanza was believed to suffer. They also found a “military-style uniform” and a number of written journals whose contents have not been disclosed. An affidavit in support of the search warrant quotes an unnamed witness who described Lanza as “a shut-in and an avid gamer who plays ‘Call of Duty,’” an extremely violent—and popular—video game.
You read the documents and you begin to form the impression of an extremely troubled young man. The police found NRA shooting certificates for both mother and son, bolstering reports that Nancy Lanza took her son shooting and encouraged his interest in guns, perhaps as a way of bringing him out of his shell.
The NRA would say that the issue here is mental health, not firearms. But there are plenty of young men who play gory video games and harbor violent fantasies. How can you pick out the few who lose all distinction between fantasy and reality? Clearly, Nancy Lanza couldn’t. I don’t think anyone really can.
Given that guns are enshrined in the Constitution, there may have been no way to keep firearms out of the Lanza home. But if the federal ban on military-style assault weapons had not been allowed to expire, we might have seen less carnage in Newtown. Lanza probably wouldn’t have been able to get off so many shots in so little time. He wouldn’t have been able to fire so many rounds without pausing to reload.
Maybe just one young life would have been saved. To me, that life is worth more than being in the good graces of the NRA; to members of Congress, perhaps not.
I don’t want to downplay the significance of universal background checks. Even if they might not have had any impact on the Newtown slayings—Lanza’s mother bought the guns, and it’s unclear whether she would have been red-flagged—it is obvious that comprehensive checks would keep some guns out of the wrong hands and save lives.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is pouring millions of dollars into ad campaigns pressuring Congress to stand up to the NRA. President Obama, in a White House appearance Thursday with mothers of gun victims, noted that “right now, 90 percent of Americans support background checks. ... How often do 90 percent of Americans agree on anything?”
“Shame on us if we’ve forgotten” the Newtown tragedy, Obama said. “Now is the time to turn that heartbreak into something real.”
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group