If you ask gun-rights activists why Americans appear to be buying so many more firearms than was the case five years ago, they will usually give a sociological explanation or a political one. But when they explain why they themselves first bought a gun, they tend to describe something more personal. Often they will tell a story of a confrontation with violence and a specific terror that it left behind. One former national-board member of the NRA told me that he bought his first gun in the sixties in North Carolina, where he was working for a federal anti-poverty program, after he found himself chased down a nighttime road by hooded Klansmen. Another gun activist, a theology professor, told me about threats leveled against the institution and the compulsion he felt afterward to protect his students and fellow teachers. In one recent ad for Glock, an armed goon walks into a diner in order to rob it only to find the place filled with off-duty cops, each of them packing a concealed pistol. “Somebody picked the wrong diner,” the man behind the counter says, so full of confidence he is nearly sneering. When gun owners talk about mastering a firearm for the first time, this is often the tone they end on, the new gun changing the balance of their confrontation with violence and restoring their conviction. The gun becomes a prophylaxis against fear.
Violent encounters like these have a nightmarish power, and memories of them are hard to erase. Emanuel Kapelsohn, one of the most influential gun trainers in the country and a member of the advisory board of the Armed Citizens Legal Defense Network, described to me the events of one evening in 1966, when he was 14, at home with his mother, sister, and the sister’s infant child. He walked into his living room and discovered a man halfway through the window, breaking in. Somehow he remembered the shotgun his father had left on top of the family’s china cabinet and grabbed for it, leveling it at the intruder. The man jumped back out through the window. It took the police 55 minutes to arrive—Kapelsohn sitting on the couch clutching the weapon to his chest, the rest of his family huddled around him, “completely terrified.” Kapelsohn went on to study at Yale and then Harvard Law, then worked as a corporate lawyer in New York. He is not someone who, in Barack Obama’s words, “clings to guns and religion” as salves for his marginalization; he lives far from a marginalized life. But the memory of that attack stayed with him, and eventually he left his law job and the city and remade his life around self-defense and guns. “I’m sure,” Kapelsohn told me recently, launching into the story of his adolescent encounter, “that this shaped me.”
America’s relationship with guns has long been fixed in place by an architecture of partisan resentments, but since the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, there has been some movement. Public support for new gun-control measures tends to swell in the first few days after a highly publicized shooting and then very swiftly ebb; this time, unexpectedly, that support has lasted. At the same time, a second reaction has registered in the news: People are buying more assault rifles and handguns than they ever have. AR-15s—the main weapon that Adam Lanza used at Sandy Hook Elementary School—are particularly popular. “Right now, if you own one,” a leading firearms instructor told me a couple of weeks after Newtown, “it’s quadrupled in value.”
In both their purchases and their political response, gun owners have seemed to double down. In early January, I noticed a twenty-year-old news photo being passed approvingly around certain gun-rights Twitter feeds. The image showed five Korean-American men crouching on the roof of a Los Angeles building, wearing martial-arts headbands, rifles leaning against the parapet. The conservative magazine Human Events ran an article explaining the importance of this incident and titled it: “When ‘Assault Weapons’ Saved Koreatown.”
In the midst of the 1992 rioting after the Rodney King verdict, the store owners of Koreatown, finding their property threatened, turned to small armed groups of men like this one. A group of elite Korean marine veterans had put out a call on a Korean-language radio station, the Los Angeles Times later reported, for “volunteer security guards” to help protect stores and homes. Some came with “shotguns and automatic weapons.” “It’s just like war,” one shopkeeper told the reporter. Another man said he and a small security force had fired 500 rounds in all, some to ward off looters. “Where are the police? Where are the soldiers?” a man named John Chu asked. “We have no choice but to defend ourselves.” Episodes like the L.A. riots, Human Events argued, “can occur anywhere.” Not so long ago, was the message, and not so far away.
Every mass shooting has marks of the murderer’s individual mania, but each also bears traces of the culture. In 1970, the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote his last great essay, “America As a Gun Culture,” asking why America had such high rates of gun homicide compared even with countries, such as Australia and Canada, that shared our cultural heritage and our experience of the frontier. Hofstadter believed that our politics since the first days of the Republic had contained a profound fear of tyranny that had helped shape our gun culture. He was writing in frustration, after the gun lobby had managed to so thoroughly dilute the reforms proposed in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy that, in the end, Congress’s only real action was to ban mail-order weapons. “One must wonder how grave a domestic gun catastrophe would have to be in order to persuade us” to really control guns, Hofstadter wrote. “How far must things go?”
Things have gone somewhat further. Studies have found that there are more firearms in private hands than there are cars; somewhere between a third and a half of all American households contain a gun, and those guns are increasingly designed not for hunting but for modern military use or armed self-defense. The kinds of guns we buy have changed in part because what we want from guns has changed, and so gun culture has evolved, too: It has acquired a new politics, and addressed new fears—not just of tyranny but of anarchy, not just of government but of our fellow citizens. The weapons that Adam Lanza carried with him during his murder spree are not obscure or specialist guns but ordinary ones, present in many gun-holding households. Each was designed in different times to meet different appetites and anxieties. But together they represent a kind of American arsenal, and suggest that the fears of our present are in an arms race with the fears of our past.
Adam Lanza killed his first victim, his mother, with a .22-caliber rifle. Nancy Lanza reportedly kept her guns in a locked box near her son’s windowless basement bedroom, and so Adam had his pick of more powerful weapons at the time—the semi-automatic handguns and assault rifle he would take to the school later that morning—but still he selected this beginner’s rifle. Maybe this was just a random choice, or maybe it had real meaning to him—this was a student’s rifle, and his mother had taught him to shoot. When the police cordoned off the Lanza house after the massacre, they found Nancy’s dead body in her bed with four bullets in her head. The medical examiner concluded that she had likely been asleep, which means that her son, holding this nineteenth-century technology, had the luxury of a very close target and of time.
The rifle is a gun perfectly suited for the frontier, for defending property in wide-open spaces. It is a precision weapon—a tool of distance shooting, practice, and concentration. The .22-caliber rifle was first manufactured just after the Civil War and hasn’t changed very much since. It has a slender barrel and an elegant wooden stock, and it usually requires the shooter to load each bullet before firing, slowing his pace and focusing his mind. The firearm is only powerful enough to be used to hunt very small game (squirrels, or maybe woodchucks, if you are a good enough shot to reliably hit the head), but because it is easy to reload, and because its ammunition comes so cheap, it is often the rifle that novice shooters work with. The Boy Scouts use it as the test gun for their rifle-shooting merit badge. “Just about every household in America, if it has more than one gun, has a .22-caliber rifle,” says the gun author and .22 expert C. Rodney James.
But the .22 hasn’t endured only because its bullets are cheap. What the rifle has lent to shooting is an identity, an affinity for mastery and exactitude. I met recently with a coach of a high-school shooting team in Pennsylvania who told me about the maturity that shooting conferred on the “non-athletes” who showed up for practice, the way it disciplined the teenage mind, forced them to concentrate on every shot. Target shooting is an exercise in will over body. Police counter-snipers are trained to shoot just after they have exhaled, when their chest is still, and the best competition shooters shoot between heartbeats.
This persona is a legacy of American expansion, and the isolation and self-dependence of the frontier have long shaped the political understanding of guns. During the first half of the nineteenth century, as the West opened, the new states usually adopted a version of the Second Amendment into their own constitutions. But they also added a new element. “The traditional militia justification for the right to bear arms was increasingly replaced by the notion that the right was primarily about personal defense against criminal attack,” writes Adam Winkler of UCLA. Conservatives, Winkler notes, have often argued that the Second Amendment was meant not only to ensure militias could form freely but to address “the concern of the remote settler,” as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy put it in a 2008 oral argument, “to defend himself and his family against hostile Indian tribes and outlaws, wolves and bears and grizzlies and things like that.”
The frontier as it was actually lived was not precisely like that, or at least not like that for everyone. Historians have discovered that in Tombstone, Arizona; Dodge City, Kansas; and Virginia City, Nevada—the legendary gunslinger towns of the West—no more than a handful of people were ever killed in a year. Militias and posses were rare: According to Robert Dykstra of the University of Albany, most killings came when one drunk man got in a fight with another, and in the majority of cases, the murderer was a lawman. What’s more, Dykstra noticed, some frontier towns adopted “blanket ordinances against the carrying of arms by anyone.” In Dykstra’s telling, violence on the frontier looked a lot like contemporary violence: not much more frequent, not much more florid, and the cause for some agonized consideration, by local leaders, of how to balance public security against the right to self-defense. In Dodge City in the 1870s, a huge billboard straddled the town’s busiest corner: THE CARRYING OF FIREARMS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.
The rifle is such an antique—and such a comparatively tame-looking firearm—that it can now inspire a certain nostalgia, in both liberals and conservatives, for a time when guns were used mostly for sport rather than for self-defense. If that moment ever existed, it has slipped into the past. In the mid-nineties, the NRA conducted a study of all American gun buyers, says Joseph Olson, a law professor at Hamline University in Minnesota who was then a member of the NRA’s national board, asking them to list two reasons they’d decided to buy a gun. “Just about everyone who hadn’t put self-defense as their first choice put self-defense as their second choice,” Olson remembers. “I think that even surprised a whole lot of people at the NRA.” These changes in attitude took some time to shape the market: By the turn of the millennium, manufacturers were still making twice as many rifles as pistols. But by 2010, they were producing more pistols. The old firearms, designed for the necessities of the frontier over a century ago, were being replaced by more modern weapons of protection.
10-mm. Glock Semi-automatic Pistol
Gaston Glock was past 50 years old, a small-scale manufacturer outside of Vienna, when in the early eighties he began to tinker with pistol prototypes for the first time, firing them at targets with his weaker left hand so that he’d still have his right in case the gun exploded. Pistols were getting cheaper and replacing older revolvers. Glock’s innovation was to radically strip down the semi-automatic pistol, cutting out extraneous parts and using new, light, extra-strong polymers. His gun was blocky, matte, and partly plastic, a kind of video-game design. Soon after the Glock’s 1985 introduction to the United States, it became “the firearm of both the cop and the outlaw,” writes the journalist Paul Barrett in his entertaining history Glock, and the iconic gun of self-defense against violent crime in the eighties. By 1991, one exasperated Smith & Wesson executive slammed a Glock down on his conference table and cried out, “Copy the motherfucker!” to his subordinates. “What the Glock did,” says Aaron Karp, a senior consultant with the Small Arms Survey in Geneva, “was it made the pistol so stupid that anyone could use it.”
Adam Lanza carried two semi-automatic pistols to Sandy Hook Elementary School: a 10-mm. Glock and a 9-mm. Sig Sauer, but this in itself was somewhat unexceptional. More than eight million Americans hold concealed-carry permits, and the gun lobby has worked for years to liberalize licensing requirements. (“The gun industry should send me a fruit basket—our efforts have created a new market,” crowed the NRA’s chief lobbyist in 1996.) That purchases of concealed handguns would accelerate in the eighties made sense. America had become more dangerous. But the conceptual shift has lasted, and the idea of armed self-defense is now so central to gun culture that the NRA’s magazine for subscribers, American Rifleman, opens each issue with its ripped-from-the-headlines “Armed Citizen” column. Cleveland Plain-Dealer: “Mrs. Cawthon walked calmly to a nearby closet, picked up a snub-nosed automatic, turned to the knife-wielding bandit, and said, ‘Where do you want it?’ The thief ran out the door.” Paducah Sun: “Deputy sheriffs found Mr. Thompson’s assailant on the back porch, in a pool of blood.”
The arguments the NRA has made since Newtown have extended the logic of the “Armed Citizen” column: That we should station armed guards in every school, that the more people carry guns, the safer the world is. This is also something close to the personal philosophy of Manny Kapelsohn, the set of ideas about armed self-defense that seduced him, in the eighties, away from New York and across the invisible cultural line that separates blue-state culture from red.
When Kapelsohn watched the news from Newtown, part of what he thought about was the ways in which school shootings usually end. “Once the first cop on the scene has fired his weapon,” he said, “the shooting is usually over—the guy is shot by the cops, or he commits suicide.” The cops are often too late. Once the shooter came through the door, Kapelsohn said, the source and terms of his insanity no longer mattered. The only thing that mattered was how quickly somebody could shoot him. “There is a saying,” Kapelsohn explained. “911: When seconds count, help is only minutes away.”
Kapelsohn has spent the better part of his adult life training policemen and is himself a part-time deputy sheriff, and he has come to see the world as they do: as a physical map of violence. As we drove through rural Pennsylvania in his Toyota pickup truck, he kept up an elliptical monologue, pointing out all the places where violence had erupted or nearly had. Every convenience store seemed to conjure the memory of an armed robbery. Just a few evenings before, he said, he had to reach for his handgun after an intoxicated driver crashed into the flagpole outside Kapelsohn’s office; Kapelsohn could see he was carrying a knife. We passed a spot where a canine officer with the Berks County sheriff’s office had been shot and killed while trying to serve a warrant by a troubled young man who, having been kicked out of the family house, had been living in a tent. It was possible to ignore this world, he said. But that was to ignore reality. “There are predators out there,” Kapelsohn said, “just like there are predators in the jungle.”
Kapelsohn is 60, stocky and mustached and Jewish, and has enough of a sense of humor to put an image of himself on one of the paper targets he uses to teach. He rowed heavyweight crew at Yale, and considers his work with shooting a form of martial arts, a way of perfecting the muscle mechanics of a more deadly shot. “I’m not a redneck,” he told me pointedly, and I came to think that in his conversations with me, he was actually conducting a coded argument with an alternate version of himself, the lawyer who hadn’t left New York behind, making the case that to be alert to violence, to be armed at all times, was not abhorrent to civilization but a necessary condition for it.
To carry a gun makes you conscious of your own lethality, and this can inspire an urge to protect. When he teaches college students, Kapelsohn will pull some aside and make sure they have planned what to do if a shooter comes through the door. At high-school basketball games, he will corner the sheriff and talk to him about the threat of violence. When he goes out to school events with his daughters, he often finds himself thinking tactically about the shape of the room, the size of the crowd, the potential for harm. Once, at an athletic meet at a college nearby, Kapelsohn ran into a cop he knew, off duty, another father. Kapelsohn, who has an eye for concealed carry, couldn’t figure out where the cop had his gun, so he asked him. The cop said he wasn’t carrying. Kapelsohn started in on him. What would happen if a shooter came through that door? Wouldn’t the cop feel responsible? Was he willing to wait for 911 to arrive? “And every time I’ve seen him at a meet since,” Kapelsohn told me happily, “he’s been carrying a gun.”
But the problem of concealed carry isn’t the off-duty cop with a gun. The problem—the problem of the Glock—is what happens when everyone carries one. Matthew Miller of the Harvard School of Public Health has argued that we are not a more violent country than other industrialized nations (our rates of school fights and assaults match those of other well-off countries). But because guns are so plentiful here, we are far more murderous. Our habit of arming ourselves against criminals has outlasted the crime epidemic of the eighties, even though we now know that keeping a firearm in the home, no matter what precautions the owners of that firearm take, makes it more likely that someone living in that house will be murdered with a gun and more likely that someone living in the house will kill themselves with a gun.
In the eighties, there was a rudimentary training device called the Duelatron, which was a sort of two-sided metal frame; on one side was a drawing of a Good Guy, doing some harmless thing like carrying a bag of groceries, and on the other side there was a Bad Guy, carrying a weapon. You would draw your gun, the trainer would flip a switch, and either the Good Guy or the Bad Guy would display, and you’d have to recognize him in an instant and decide whether to shoot. To carry a handgun in public is to think of the world in these terms, always alert to the potential Bad Guy, sorting every crowd into innocents and threats.
There were, I said to Kapelsohn, dozens, sometimes hundreds of people at these swim meets whom Kapelsohn did not know and had not trained. Would he feel more secure if more of the spectators at the swim meet were armed?
“It’s a complicated question,” Kapelsohn said, “but ultimately my feeling is that if there are proper safeguards—if we know that they are law-abiding and are not mentally ill and have a modicum of training—then I do feel safer.”
.223 Bushmaster Semi-automatic Rifle; AR-15 clone
The AR-15 is a weapon of war. It is the same firearm that soldiers carried in Vietnam, when it was called the M-16. It was designed to be lighter than the older, heavier M-1, easier to carry through the jungle, and was “conjured to form solely for the task of allowing men to more efficiently kill other men,” the New York Times war correspondent C. J. Chivers, author of a history of assault rifles called The Gun, wrote recently. Psychology researchers have found that we display a fear of guns as instantly as we display a fear of snakes, and with its coiled upper barrel and the cylinders that attach for sighting, the AR-15 can look as if it were designed to invoke that primal terror. There are now dozens of companies that make their own versions of the AR-15, and variations on the design have been used in the past year by Adam Lanza to murder 26 in Newtown, by James Holmes to kill twelve in Aurora, and by William Spengler near Rochester to kill two volunteer firefighters who had responded to a fire he had deliberately set. “Trying to ban the AR-15,” says John Farnam, a master firearms trainer who runs Defense Training International, a shooting school based in Colorado, “would be like trying to ban the Ford.”
There are people who shoot AR-15s in target competitions, and others who use them to annihilate colonies of groundhogs, but if those activities alone were driving the market, then there would not be shortages of the guns, as there are regularly after mass shootings and natural disasters. These are worst-case-scenario weapons, bulky and ill suited for protecting against individual bad guys, in many places too big to carry legally outside the home. Virtually no buyer will have experienced a situation that requires an AR-15 in civilian life. Perhaps for this reason, the industry’s advertisements for what it calls “tactical rifles” tend to emphasize their military heritage (“As close as you can get without enlisting,” ran one FNH ad), as if inviting a civilian buyer to imagine a soldier’s world rather than his own. “If I had to put it in a word, it would be uncertainty,” said Tom Mitchel, who works the counter at the Handgunner in Topton, Pennsylvania, when I asked him what drove sales. “Political uncertainty, economic uncertainty, uncertainty of all kinds.”
A little more than a year ago, the liberal writer Sam Harris, atheist author of The End of Faith, began to train assiduously with his gun, having rarely taken it out of its safe during adulthood. With no exact precipitating cause, he had started to worry more about the threat of violence. “I feel like it pollutes my mind to think like this,” he told me, but he started to look at the crime statistics and decided that he couldn’t rule out the chance that he himself—or his wife or his child—would be attacked. “These aren’t plane-crash odds,” he said. Part of what darkened his view was the sheer number of guns at large in America. “If those 300 million guns were not there, it’s a completely different argument,” Harris said. But for him, they changed the ethical calculation; they meant that an attacker would be more likely to be armed, and therefore to do more harm. “From my point of view, certain outcomes are so terrible,” Harris told me, saying that the only proper response was to arm yourself against them, even if the chance that they would happen was “nearly infinitesimal.”
And yet the current popularity of the AR-15 seems to reflect a sense of instability that runs deeper than crime. The Harvard professor Edward Glaeser once wrote a paper explaining that people tended to buy the most guns in communities where the power of the state, and its ability to protect its citizens, seemed most distant, a category that includes parts of rural America and the poorest sections of the inner city. One way of viewing the vogue for assault weapons is that those geographic distinctions have now become states of mind. Farnam told me that among his shooting students, he could detect an amorphous anxiety, an “impending sense of doom across Western civilization,” a sense that the economic collapse and the riots in Greece portended “something terrible.” Kapelsohn also owns assault weapons, and when we discussed them he related—as other gun proponents had—vivid, sometimes apocryphal stories of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when parts of New Orleans remained lawless long after the catastrophe, and of the chaos of 9/11. It is as if the threat of violence in America, in growing more distant, had also somehow metastasized. The biggest reason for the AR-15’s recent popularity, Kapelsohn thought, was a fear that, should the Obama White House succeed in its gun-control push, the weapons would become scarce or maybe actually confiscated. But there were other reasons, too. “People have realized,” Kapelsohn said, “the fragility of order in our society, and their own vulnerability if that order collapses.”
What captured the imagination of gun enthusiasts about those Korean men on the L.A. rooftop during the 1992 riots likely had something to do with how certain they looked during an actual moment of crisis, how obvious their military training was, how steadfast they were, how committed. The image captures them in profile, the photographer looking down the parapet as if it were a line of scrimmage. They were holding assault rifles, ready for whatever might come.
Nancy Lanza owned at least five guns. In the wake of the shooting, some of her neighbors told reporters that she had an affinity for weapons, that she was a gun nut, but the size of her collection wasn’t so unusual. The average gun-owning American household, according to a Harvard study, has about five. In these American collections are nearly half the guns in the world. They are expensive, precision pieces of machinery, rarely discarded or destroyed, and even as they change hands, it takes decades for them to begin to decay. One story gun-rights activists told me, proudly, was that during the Cold War, as Soviet generals were making plans for some final war, they ruled out invading America because of the sheer scale of guns and ammunition in private hands. I doubt this story is exactly true, but it’s easy to imagine the Russian reluctance. We are talking about an astonishing mass of metal.
There is a perverse, escalating logic at work in the history of gun ownership in America, where the ancient fears of the nineteenth-century frontier survive in every long rifle, still functioning and lethal, and the legacy of every homeowner’s fear of a break-in during the eighties is an idiotproof Glock. The entry point into the current gun-control debate is that this existing collection will be left alone. “I’m not going to take away your guns,” Barack Obama promised on the 2008 campaign trail, and even as Joe Biden has, since the Newtown massacre, urged strict gun-control reform, he has also been careful to point out that other weapons (a shotgun) would remain legal. Liberals know that any more aggressive intervention would be impossible, practically and politically. But it has meant that the existing store of 300 million or so guns will outlast the present reform effort—each of them being handed down through the generations, sold, stolen, stored away, waiting for the moment when it is required.
In Koreatown after the 1992 riots, that moment came, rare and unique as it was. But as historians have worked to make sense of that crisis they have wondered whether the actions of the self-defense groups actually helped to preserve the community or to hasten its collapse. Because the men on the rooftop stayed and defended rather than fled, they perhaps helped to create a live-fire zone that gave the L.A. Fire Department an excuse not to enter Koreatown. One young Korean-American man, possibly on armed patrol, was killed, when if the militia had not existed, he might have stayed home. Hofstadter understood this all very well: Guns tell us more about our past than our future. They give us a map of the fears that linger. They tell us far less about the threats—the accidental shooting, the daughter’s depression that turns into suicide, the troubled son who opens a basement cabinet—that actually come.