Moral Low Ground

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‘On This Day’ 2012: Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre

Sandy Hook victims photos

From the time he was just two years old, Adam Lanza was exhibiting what an inquiry into the horrific events of December 14, 2012 would later call “significant developmental challenges.” As he grew up in quiet Newtown, Connecticut, things only got worse. By the time he was a teenager, Lanza had been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder. He also suffered from undiagnosed anorexia—he was 6 feet tall but weighed as little as 112 pounds—and mental health experts, as well as his father Peter Lanza, believed Adam also had schizophrenia.

The report by the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate found that Lanza went “completely untreated” for years before Sandy Hook. Even as the troubled teen showed signs of “severe and deteriorating internalized mental health problems,” his mother, Nancy Lanza, seemed more interested in appeasing her son and accommodating his mental illness than treating it. She consulted with the Child Study Center at Yale University when Adam was in ninth grade, but resisted when experts there recommended medication. She also largely unheeded recommendations “for extensive special education supports, ongoing expert consultation and rigorous therapeutic supports.”

What Nancy Lanza, who had been Adam’s main caregiver since she split with Peter years earlier, did give her mentally ill son was plentiful access to her arsenal of guns, all of them legally purchased. Nancy had exposed her son to guns from his earliest days. Investigators searching her home discovered a photo of Adam as a camouflage-clad infant sucking on a pistol with a belt of what appears to be machine gun ammunition folded across his lap. Family friend Marvin LaFontaine would invite Nancy, Adam and his brother over to his backyard shooting range, calling Adam “comfortable with a firearm” from the time he was 4 years old.

A very young Adam Lanza—who would grow up and kill 26 people including 20 children during a 2012 gun massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT—playing with a gun and bullets. (Newtown, CT Police)

A very young Adam Lanza—who would grow up and kill 26 people including 20 children during a 2012 gun massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT—playing with a gun and bullets. (Newtown, CT Police)

“From the beginning you could tell that Adam liked the feel of the gun in his hands,” LaFontaine later said.

The dangerous combination of mental illness and easy access to guns should have raised red flags. A teacher at the Catholic school where Nancy transferred her son in seventh grade reported Adam suffered from “very distinct anti-social issues.” He obsessed over guns, battles and killing, penning stories that were “so graphic” that they “could not be shared.” However, the child advocate office’s report on Lanza said his troubling obsession with violence went “largely unaddressed.”

It was worse than that. In the days leading up to the tragedy at Sandy Hook, Nancy Lanza wrote her son a check to buy a CZ-83 pistol as a Christmas present. But she would not live to see Christmas. At around 9:30 a.m. on December 14, 2012, Lanza shot his 52-year-old mother four times in the head with a .22 caliber Savage MK II-F bolt action rifle. He then armed himself with his dead mother’s Bushmaster .223-caliber semiautomatic assault rifle—a civilian clone of the M4 rifles used by US troops—an Izhmash Saiga 12-gauge semiautomatic shotgun and two 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistols before driving to nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School.

A Bushmaster .223 assault rifle similar to the one used by Adam Lanza to kill 26 people in Newtown, Connecticut.

A Bushmaster .223 assault rifle similar to the one used by Adam Lanza to kill 26 people in Newtown, Connecticut.

Dressed in black and wearing sunglasses, the 20-year-old outcast, who once attended that very same elementary school, shot his way into the building. Principal Dawn Hochsprung and school psychologist Mary Sherlach, who were attending a faculty meeting when they heard Lanza fire his first shots, rushed out into the hall to see what was happening. They didn’t realize they’d heard gunshots until it was too late. Hochsprung lunged toward the shooter in a desperate bid to stop him, but Lanza shot both women dead and wounded another teacher before forcing his way into a classroom where substitute teacher Lauren Rousseau was trying to hide her students in a bathroom.

But they could not hide, and Rousseau, along with 15 students and behavioral therapist Rachel D’Avino, were shot dead. Most of the victims were found huddled together in the bathroom. There was only one survivor—a 6-year-old managed to avoid being shot by playing dead. “Mommy, I’m fine, but all my friends are dead,” she told her mother upon their tearful reunion.

Sometimes Lanza killed in silence. Sometimes he spoke. When one of his victims pleaded, “help me, I don’t want to be here,” Lanza coldly replied, “well, you’re here” before firing. In Victoria Leigh Soto’s first grade class, four children and the teacher, who placed herself between her students and the gunman, were killed. At one point, Lanza’s gun either jammed or ran out of ammunition in Soto’s classroom. Sensing a chance to escape, 6-year-old Jesse Lewis shouted for his classmates to run for their lives. Many of them did, but Lewis was shot and killed moments later. Also killed was teacher’s aide Anne Marie Murphy, 52, who was found covering a slain 6-year-old.

Lanza’s final shot was fired at around 9:40 a.m. when he took his own life in a classroom. Eight boys and 12 girls, all of them 6- and 7-year-olds forever, and six adult women were found dead. All had been shot with the assault rifle. All but two of the victims were shot multiple times.

Sandy Hook shocked and outraged the world. President Barack Obama promised “meaningful action” to combat the increasing gun violence plaguing America. Fighting back tears, the president lamented that Sandy Hook’s youngest victims “had their entire lives ahead of them—birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.”

“As a country, we have been through this too many times,” Obama said. “Whether it’s an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago—these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children.”

Long-time gun control advocates skeptical that change was possible after witnessing a recurring pattern of inaction after past mass shootings expressed hope that things would be different this time, that meaningful reform might at long last be at hand. Within hours of the Sandy Hook massacre, a petition was launched asking Obama to “immediately address the issue of gun control through the introduction of legislation in Congress.” Common sense proposals included universal background checks on gun purchasers, a renewed ban on assault weapons and prohibition of high-capacity magazines.

In January 2013, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who nearly 35 years earlier was appointed mayor of San Francisco after a gunman killed her predecessor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, introduced a bill banning 157 military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

“If 20 dead children in Newtown wasn’t a wakeup call that these weapons of war don’t belong on our streets, I don’t know what is,” said Feinstein.

But relentless opposition and lobbying by pro-gun groups, chief among them the National Rifle Association (NRA), killed Feinstein’s bill. While the families of the Sandy Hook victims were still burying their dead children, and at the same time that a gunman was on a rampage that left three people dead in Pennsylvania, NRA CEO—for the gun business is very big business indeed—Wayne LaPierre was calling for more guns to solve America’s gun violence epidemic. LaPierre blamed music, movies, video games and pretty much everything but guns for the surge in gun violence plaguing the nation.

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” LaPierre parroted, adding a call for “armed police officers in every school” in the country. Even Republicans called LaPierre “tone deaf,” after all, public support for expanded background checks, the very least that could be done, stood at 90 percent in early 2013—higher than the approval rate for baseball, apple pie and kittens. Alas, NRA and other pressure prevailed and in April 2013 the Democrat-controlled Senate rejected a measure to expand background checks. Shouts of “shame on you” echoed through the Senate chamber following the vote on the bill.

There was plenty of shame to go around. When Neil Heslin, father of slain Sandy Hook hero Jesse Lewis, spoke out in favor of an assault weapons ban at a January 2013 gun violence prevention hearing at the Connecticut legislature, he was shouted down and heckled by pro-gun protesters. Other gun advocates fueled ridiculous rumors that Sandy Hook was a hoax or even a false-flag attack by Obama operatives hell-bent on disarming Americans. These gun-loving conspiracy theorists have even sunk to the level of repeatedly harassing and threatening Sandy Hook victims’ relatives, who they claim invented the tragedy for personal or political gain. Some influential Christian fundamentalists said Sandy Hook was their wrathful ‘God’s’ meting out justice for perceived ‘sins’ like abortion, same-sex marriage and ascendant secularism.

In the three years since Sandy Hook, more than 90,000 Americans have been shot and killed by guns. More than 210,000 others have been shot and injured. There have been more than 1,000 mass shooting incidents, defined as four or more people shot in a single event.

Sadly, mass shootings have become such a regular occurrence—they already were long before Sandy Hook—that many Americans have grown numb to all the killing and the “how many more have to die before we take action” questions, asked half-seriously in the inevitable boilerplate media reports following each new slaughter. It is impossible to remember every mass shooting, but we are never given time to contemplate the last one before our screens flash red with news alerts and bloody footage of the next massacre. And so it continues, with San Bernardino recently becoming the newest member of a grisly club no American city or town wants to join. The deflection continues too, with conservatives howling about radical Islam while ignoring the fact that the guns used in San Bernardino were legally purchased.

Since Sandy Hook, Muslim terrorists have killed 34 Americans, who are more likely to die from falling furniture or from getting shot by a toddler than at the hands of jihadists. Yet America has deployed its military forces to nearly every corner of the world, invading, bombing, droning and occupying half a dozen nations, killing and maiming at least hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children, spying on billions of phone calls and emails, and dangerously eroding civil liberties at home in the name of fighting Islamic extremism. America wages a devastating global war on terror to combat a threat that has killed no more than a few thousand of its own throughout history while allowing the wholesale slaughter of tens of thousands of its own people under the guise of protected constitutional rights at home.

At the heart of gun advocates’ rabid rejection of reform lies one overriding emotion—fear. Fear of government disarmament—especially by a mixed-race president who millions of Americans believe is a Muslim—makes passing even the most minimal and publicly-supported gun law reform nearly impossible. A warped interpretation of the Second Amendment is promoted by the NRA and the politicians it controls, gun manufacturers reap windfall profits as a terrified nation arms itself to the teeth in response to the last mass shooting in fearful anticipation of the next one. They never have to wait very long, and in between massacres local media outlets from coast to coast broadcast daily reports of one gun tragedy after another.

“How many more have to die,” Americans will inevitably ask yet again after the next fresh bloodbath. If current trends continue, and there is no reason to believe they won’t, the answer to that question is more than 30,000 people in the coming year. This is the price paid by a nation where a majority of citizens have decided, either tacitly or otherwise, that the lives of 20 young children at Sandy Hook, or of 1.5 million Americans since 1968, or of all of those who will be shot dead in the coming years, are worth less than their sacrosanct right to wield weapons of war.

Speaking in January 2013 before the same Connecticut legislative hearing on gun violence prevention where Neil Heslin was booed, David Wheeler, who lost his 6-year-old son Benjamin at Sandy Hook, invoked the Founding Fathers in defense of common sense gun control.

“Thomas Jefferson described our inalienable rights as life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness—the rights with which we are endowed, for the protection of which we have instituted governments,” said Wheeler. “I do not think the composition of that foundational phrase was an accident. I do not think the order of those important words was haphazard or casual. The liberty of any person to own a military-style assault weapon and a high-capacity magazine, and keep them in their home, is second to the right of my son to his life—his life; to the right to live of all of those children and those teachers, to the right to the lives of your children, of you, of all of us—all of our lives—it is second. Let’s honor the founding documents and get our priorities straight.”

In memory of those killed in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012:

  • Nancy Lanza, 52
  • Rachel D’Avino, 29
  • Dawn Hochsprung, 47
  • Anne Marie Murphy, 52
  • Lauren Rosseau, 30
  • Mary Sherlach, 56
  • Victoria Leigh Soto, 27
  • Charlotte Bacon, 6
  • Daniel Barden, 7
  • Olivia Engel, 6
  • Josephine Gay, 7
  • Dylan Hockley, 6
  • Madeleine Hsu, 6
  • Catherine Hubbard, 6
  • Chase Kowalski, 7
  • Jesse Lewis, 6
  • Ana Marquez-Greene, 6
  • James Mattioli, 6
  • Grace McDonnell, 7
  • Emilie Parker, 6
  • Jack Pinto, 6
  • Noah Pozner, 6
  • Caroline Previdi, 6
  • Jessica Rekos, 6
  • Avielle Richman, 6
  • Benjamin Wheeler, 6
  • Allison Wyatt, 6

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