Mass Murder in Newtown and the Battle Over Assault Weapons

Jan 21, 2013 - by J. Patrick O'Connor - 0 Comments

Revised April 8, 2013

newtown shooting

A month after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, President Obama called for sweeping legislation to stem “the epidemic of violence” confronting the United States. The next day, the National Rifle Association called the President’s proposal to rein in gun violence “the fight of the century.”  No new federal legislation would result from the Sandy Hook massacre.

by J. Patrick O’Connor

In 2012, the Newtown, Connecticut massacre capped the worst year in U.S. history for mass murderers using high-capacity ammunition clips in assault weapons. Fifty innocent people were gunned down in public places.  In April, seven people at Oikos University in Oakland, California were shot to death; in July, 12 people, including a 6-year-old girl, were murdered at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado where another 58 people sustained gunshot wounds; in August, five men and one woman were shot to death at a Sikh Temple outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Three others, including a police officer, suffered gunshot wounds.

All the children murdered at the Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012, were first graders. Seventeen of them were 6 years old and three had recently turned 7. If police and other first responders had not arrived as swiftly as they had, dozens if not scores more of children would have been shot to death.  The shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, had several hundred unspent bullets in additional ammunition clips.  Instead of committing the second deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history – second only to the 32 people shot to death at Virginia Tech in 2007 – he would have committed the worst.  The Hartford Courant reported that Lanza had several news articles in his bedroom about Andres Behring Breivik murdering 77 people, most of whom were teenagers, in Norway in 2011. It is likely his intent was to top that body count.

The principal, the school psychologist, and four teachers were murdered. A vice principal and a teacher suffered gunshot wounds.

Not one child who was shot survived. The medical examiner reported that each child was shot at least three times – some as many as 11 times – with a high-powered semi-automatic Bushmaster XM15-E2S  rifle. Many of the shots were to the head, leaving some of the dead children identifiable only by the clothes or shoes they had worn to school. In all, Lanza fired 154 rounds from the assault rifle. Ten 30-round magazines were found at the scene, some partly or completely empty, others fully loaded.

Lanza entered the locked elementary school by shooting out a large glass window near the school’s locked front door shortly after 9: 30 a.m. Hearing the commotion, Principal Dawn Hochsprung ran from her office to confront Lanza. When she lunged at him in the hallway, Lanza gunned her down. As Lanza advanced toward the classrooms, Vice Principal Natalie Hammond and Mary Sherlach, a school psychologist, tried to stop him.  Lanza shot them both, killing the psychologist and wounding the vice principal in the leg. A secretary and a nurse, hiding under a desk in the front office, called 911 to report a gunman loose in the school.  Seven police would arrive in three minutes.

By now someone had turned on the school’s intercom system and the loudspeakers throughout the school were picking up the gunfire. Teachers all over the school began scrambling to secure their classrooms and hide their students. When first-grade teacher Kaitlin Roig, whose classroom was closest to the front door, heard  gunfire just outside her classroom, she led her students into the class bathroom and pleaded with them to keep quiet.  They did and Lanza passed that room and instead entered the first-grade classroom of Lauren Gabrielle Rousseau and opened fire with the Bushmaster, killing Rousseau and behavioral therapist Rachel D’Avino who were both attempting to shield the children.  Then he murdered all 14 of the 15 children in the room.  One girl survived the fusillade by playing dead, lying on the floor covered in the blood of her classmates.

Victoria Soto’s first-grade class would be next. The 27-year-old teacher and her teaching aide, Anne Marie Murphy, 52, herded their students some of the students into a bathroom and tried to hide the others in a closet as shots rang out in the adjoining classroom. Soto slammed the door shut and she and Murphy huddled with the children in the closet. The gunman burst into the room and approached the closet. Soto and Murphy were acting as human shields when Lanza shot both of them dead. As he continued firing the Bushmaster, killing six children, six other children dashed behind him and out the door. By now Newtown police were arriving en masse. A minute after their arrival, Lanza used one of the two semi-automatic handguns he brought with him to take his own life, shooting himself in the head. He was found wearing earplugs.

Lanza was the 28th victim to die at his hands that day. Earlier that morning he had shot his 52-year-old mother, Nancy Lanza, to death in her bed before setting out for the school.  Authorities said Mrs. Lanza was shot in the forehead with a .22 caliber rifle. All the weapons and ammunition Lanza had with him were obtained legally by his mother with whom he lived alone in a $1.6 million, rambling, pale-yellow Colonial-style home at 36 Yogananda Street in Newtown. Mrs. Lanza, according to what her sister-in-law Marsha Lanza told a reporter, amassed an arsenal of high-powered, semi-automatic weapons “because she was prepared for the worst,” fearful of the day when the “economy collapses” and “the government and police can’t protect you, and only your own firepower will keep you safe."

Because this mass murder involved the massacre of 20 first-graders in a rustic setting in an affluent, New England town, it touched a nerve in the American psyche that the slaughter of older students at Columbine and Virginia Tech had failed to ignite. From across the country, calls rang out for stricter gun-control laws. At an interfaith service in Newtown for the Sandy Hook victims and families on Sunday after the tragedy, President Obama said, “We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them we must change.”

The next day the White House announced the formation of a special task force headed by Vice President Biden to develop specific policies that might prevent future mass shootings.  Over the next four weeks, the vice president met with 229 groups involved in gun-violence issues, including representatives of the National Rifle Association.

On January 16, President Obama laid out a sweeping gun-safety agenda “to stem the epidemic of gun violence.”  The plan he unveiled represents the largest overhaul of firearms regulations since Lyndon Johnson was president.  Standing at a podium in the White House with children who had written to him in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, the President called on Congress to reinstate of the assault-weapon ban that Congress allowed to expire in 2004, to restore a 10-round limit on ammunition magazines, and to implement universal background on all gun buyers. Currently, people buying guns from private dealers, at gun shows or via the Internet are not required to submit to background checks. As a result, an estimated 40 percent of the guns purchased each year in the United States are acquired without the purchaser undergoing a background check.

Reinstating the assault-weapon ban, limiting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds, and requiring universal background checks for all gun purchases are measures that require congressional approval and are expected to face deep resistance, particularly in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. At the White House event announcing his gun-safety initiatives, President Obama encouraged members of the public to take their concerns about mass killings to their elected representatives, “Ask them what’s more important: Doing whatever it takes to get an A grade from the gun lobby that funds their campaigns? Or giving parents some piece of mind when they drop their child off to first grade?”

Despite the uphill battle gun reform faces in Congress, the American public, including gun owners, is now, in direct response to the Newtown tragedy, more inclined to embrace the notion of new gun laws. A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted by phone in mid-January found that the Newtown massacre “appears to be profoundly swaying Americans’ views on guns, galvanizing the broadest support for stricter gun laws in about a decade,” The New York Times reported on January 18, 2013. The poll determined that 54 percent of Americans believe “gun control laws should be tightened up markedly.”

The Times reported that a majority of independent voters now favored stricter gun laws and that there was an 18-point increase among Republicans who felt the same.  By a wide margin, Democrats endorse stronger gun laws. Considering that a USA Today/Gallup Poll taken in the immediate aftermath of Newtown showed that 51 percent of the American public opposed the reinstatement of the assault weapon ban, the movement in public opinion toward tougher gun laws was impressive.

In the New York Times/CBS poll, 47 percent of the respondents said they or someone in their household owned a firearm. There are nearly 300 million firearms in U.S. homes. Among Republican respondents, 62 percent owned guns as compared to 50 percent of independents and 34 percent of Democrats. When asked if they favored a ban on semiautomatic weapons, 53 percent said yes; did they favor a ban on the sale of high-capacity magazines, 63 percent said yes; did they favor background checks, 92 percent said yes; did they support a national database on all gun sales, 78 percent said yes. 

A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 88 percent of Americans support requiring background checks on people buying guns at gun shows; 65 percent support banning high-capacity ammunition clips, and 58 percent favor a ban on assault weapons.

Under the headline “Obama’s gun-violence plan faces a race against time,” an editorial in USA Today on January 17 warned about the futile history of gun politics: 

 “The sad history of gun politics is that the public zeal for reasonable restrictions spikes after terrible incidents, such as last month’s slaughter at a Connecticut elementary school, then fades as time passes and the forces of delay-and-defeat mobilize.

“So it’s encouraging that President Obama, who expressed little appetite for gun control before he was re-elected, has moved ahead quickly with a sensible ‘all of the above’ approach to curb mass killings and the wider gun-violence problem. Now the challenge facing him and other supporters of new measures is to sustain the pressure in the face of powerful interests seeking to slow-walk the proposals to oblivion.”

It did not take long for the battle lines the USA Today editorial referenced to form. The day after the President announced his plan to reign in gun violence, the National Rifle Association sent out an urgent fundraising letter to its four-million members that stated, “This is the fight of the century.” The NRA also released a TV advertising campaign that accused the President of being an “elitist hypocrite” because Secret Service agents protect his two daughters while he opposed armed guards at all the schools in the nation. The White House denounced the ad as “repugnant and cowardly.”

Ron Fournier, writing in TheAtlantic.com, said by putting forth gun-safety initiatives anathema to the National Rifle Association that the President was taking on a formidable opponent. “The organization [NRA] will threaten every red state and rural congressman and woman with the loss of their jobs if they vote for the President’s proposals.”

At Politico.com, columnist George Gascon said that if Congress does nothing else, it should ban high-capacity magazines. He wrote that in all 22 of the mass shootings between 1984 and 2011, the killer used a clip that carried more than 10 bullets. “Those oversized magazines enabled the shooters to collectively fire more than 1,500 rounds in schools, workplaces, churches, and other public places, murdering 225 people and wounding 242 more. Bystanders or police were able to overpower the shooters only when they stopped to reload. There is no need in civil society for such weapons of mass destruction.”

By mid-January, Newtown civic officials conducted a public hearing on violence prevention that went on for six hours, until after midnight. The New Yorker reported “that dozens of speakers said the massacre marked the crossing of a threshold, diving history into ‘pre-Sandy Hook’ and ‘post-Sandy Hook.”

Despite the national trauma caused by the murdering of 20 first-grade children, getting meaningful gun reform in the United States remains a long shot. While the outpouring of condolences from around the country was unprecedented, with people sending 50,000 stuffed animals to Newtown, 10,000 tulip bulbs, 200 bicycles, and $8 million in donations to the town of 27,000 residents – with no clear intended use – even Newtown citizens remain divided over reigning in gun violence. At a legislative hearing on gun violence held later at the state capitol in Hartford, there were sharp disagreements about how to go about preventing future violent attacks. One Sandy Hook father spoke of looking at his son in his casket with a bullet wound in his forehead and asked if anyone could explain why civilians need assault rifles. The New Yorker reported that a man in the audience responded by shouting out, “The Second Amendment shall not be infringed.” Another father of a slaughtered first-grader said he would not support a new gun law even if “were named for his dead son.”

“And so it goes,” as Kurt Vonnegut used to say.

In the months that followed, all of President Obama's gun-safety initiatives died in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

 

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