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.”