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.