More mass shootings, gun paranoia, the real lessons of Newtown's Sandy Hook

The arid retelling of the Newtown elementary school shooting in Connecticut a year ago doesn't even begin to confront an America where mass shootings have become so commonplace that their ability to shock has waned, Neil Macdonald writes.

America facing an epidemic of mass shootings, but their ability to shock has waned

A visitor to Newtown, Conn., pauses to pay his respects to the 26 people, 20 schoolchildren and six teachers, killed by a 20-year-old gunman with mental health problems on Dec. 14, 2012. (Adrees Latif / Reuters)

Connecticut State attorney Stephen J. Sedensky's final report on the slaughter of 26 innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December is an arid, spectacularly banal piece of work, the sort of thing you'd expect from someone in his profession.

Sedensky reveals the approximate number of minutes (fewer than 11) that elapsed from the moment Adam Lanza, whom he consistently calls "the shooter," began killing people until he blew his own brains out.

For some reason, he conveys the weight of all the guns and ammunition the 20-year-old Lanza carried with him (30.47 pounds), and the reason his Bushmaster rifle's shoulder strap was partially disconnected (a failed nut attachment), and even the precise dimensions of the glass window Lanza shattered when he broke into the school (35.33 by 42.5 inches).

Sedensky painstakingly sets forth all the crimes he believes Lanza committed that day. (Aside from the obvious, Lanza was guilty of carrying a pistol without a permit, and, puzzlingly, "risk of injury to a minor.")

His report lists the bizarre inventory of things investigators found in Lanza's home, along with the corpse of his mother, shot to death in her bed, and the many weapons she'd purchased for the amusement of herself and her son on the shooting range.

As you'd expect from a prosecutor in this country, though, the report is shockingly aloof from the context in which any reasonable person would read it.

Such as the fact that a young man diagnosed as mentally ill, someone who taped black plastic over his bedroom windows, who studied school shootings and had for some time been communicating with his mother only by email, could have such easy access to an arsenal, including the infamous Bushmaster assault rifle he used to hunt the schoolchildren.

In fact, seemingly unaware of the blinding ironies he was committing to paper, Sedensky writes: "Both the mother and the shooter took National Rifle Association safety courses. The mother thought it was good to learn responsibility for guns."

The 'gun grab' fallout

That, of course, would be the same safety-conscious NRA that terrified the U.S. Congress into rejecting even the mildest tightening of gun laws after the slaughter at Sandy Hook, including, yes, background checks for things like mental illness.

There will be a lot written about that sad, but utterly predictable political cowardice in a couple of weeks as the Dec. 14 anniversary of the murders approaches and news teams return to bathe retrospectively in Newtown's grief.

Mass shootings on the rise 

The average number of mass shootings in the U.S. has tripled since 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told police chiefs in October.

The yearly average has increased from five per year between 2000 and 2008 to an average of 15 a year since, and these figures only reflect those shootings that resulted in five or more deaths. There have been at least 12 so far in 2013. 

And of course, the question of why Lanza did what he did will figure heavily in the coverage, even though Sedensky's report concluded the motive will probably never be known.

Much more instructive, perhaps, is what's transpiring at the other end of America, in the state of Idaho, partly as a result of Lanza's crimes.

Earlier this year, a state politician named Mark Patterson, fearing the Sandy Hook shootings might actually move Congress to action, authored a bill that would have made it a misdemeanor for Idaho police to help enforce any new federal restrictions on firearms.

Patterson, a big gun fan himself, had a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

But then police discovered he had lied on his application for the permit. He hadn't told authorities about his arrest for forcible rape at age 21 in Florida, or the jail time he'd done.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder: Between 2009 and 2012, 404 people were shot and 207 people were killed in the U.S. in what are classified as mass shootings, those involving five or more deaths. The 26 killed at Sandy Hook represent the second worst school shooting in the U.S. (Associated Press)

He had also neglected to mention another rape charge in Cincinnati three years later, for which he was acquitted.

Patterson told reporters he had lost all memory of the incidents because of chemotherapy he'd undergone in 2003 after he'd contracted Hepatitis C.

He did, however, retain enough memory of the Florida incident to insist that it was a frame-up, and that the police for some reason had lied, even though he eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of assault with intent to rape, which is also a felony, and which would disqualify anyone in Idaho from obtaining a concealed weapon permit.

None of Patterson's excuses impressed the local sheriff's office, though, which informed the state legislator last month his gun permit was being revoked.

But, this being America and Idaho being Idaho, that's not how the story ends.

The NRA, which backed Patterson's bill, has seen to it that Idaho's weapons laws are as meaningless as possible.

For some reason, any elected official in Idaho is exempt from gun permit laws. Period.

So Mark Patterson won't have to give up his gun as long as he remains in office. And in some quarters, he's a hero. He's accusing the local sheriff of singling him out unfairly.

A few weeks ago, the pro-gun, ultra-conservative Freedom Outpost website carried this headline: "Mark Patterson Smeared as 'Rapist' for Standing Up Against Federal Gun Grab?" 

If that isn't the definitive epilogue to Sandy Hook at this point, I don't know what is.

Commonplace now

Indeed, a year after the outrage in Connecticut, the NRA doesn't have much to worry about. Barack Obama has effectively conceded the fight.

The president will probably have something to say on the Sandy Hook anniversary two weeks from now. But it will likely sound deflated compared to his passionate call for new gun laws in the weeks after the killings.

Local police in Maryland, in August 2013, take part in a FBI training program designed to teach as many as 50,000 local officers how to respond to mass shooters. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

Actually, the president only bothers to comment anymore on the very worst mass shootings.

Of the dozen or so that have taken place in this country since Sandy Hook, the president has only spoken publicly about one, the slaughter of 12 federal public servants by a deranged ex-soldier at the Washington, D.C. Navy Yards in September.

Mass shootings have become so common in the U.S. — there have been dozens, even hundreds during Obama's time in office alone, depending on how you define the term — that their ability to shock has waned.

In any event, it seems pretty much clear by now that nothing can be done about them. America has become a nation of almost routine mass shootings and gun rights, coexisting without interference.

Adam Lanza, says Sedensky in his report, hated holidays: "He would not allow his mother to put up a Christmas tree. The mother explained it by saying that the shooter had no emotions or feelings."

Nonetheless, the doting Nancy Lanza had written her estranged, emotionless son a cheque so he could buy himself a new pistol for Christmas that year.

Sedensky explains she "worried about what would happen to the shooter if anything happened to her."

Well, she was right about that.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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