Last week’s release of the investigation records of Jared Lee Loughner, who tried to assassinate then-Representative Gabrielle Giffords, and Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary School killer, managed to be both chilling and depressingly familiar. It turns out Loughner’s father was so horrified by his son’s instability leading up to the January 2011 shootings, which killed six and wounded 13, that he disabled his son’s car to keep him close by at night. Lanza, for his part, so worried his own father that he tried on various occasions to get him committed to a mental hospital.
Alas, both young men had arsenals at their homes that were so vast that no one seemed to bother to keep them secured. Lanza’s included 1,600 rounds of ammunition that he managed to leave behind before traveling to his former school and killing 20 first graders and six employees in a matter of minutes.
No, of course not.
Nor should it be a shock that opponents of gun control are focusing on the two men’s apparent mental illness as if it were the sole problem. As crucial votes on gun control measures continue to be delayed in Congress, gun advocates are embracing all the horrific details of the men’s backgrounds. The National Rifle Association has been heartened by the chance to isolate Loughner and Lanza from the rest of the gun-owning universe; reports of their bizarre behavior seem to put them in a class by themselves.
Nothing proves this more than the NRA’s glee at finally being able to confirm that Lanza was not one of its members, a question that the gun lobby’s critics have foolishly obsessed over. It turns out an NRA certificate at his home was printed off the Internet. His gun-loving mother wasn’t a member either. She was, however, a member of AAA — which is about as relevant to the question of gun control as the NRA membership/non-membership issue. But the NRA is acting like it’s out of the woods.
The unfortunate truth is that none of the gun-control proposals on the table would necessarily have stopped Lanza or Loughner. For gun control supporters, there is no point in denying it. Loughner never had the mental health evaluation that Pima College recommended, and so any background check before he acquired guns would probably have come up short. Most of the weapons Lanza had access to were owned by his mother, and would have been allowable under any of the proposals now being considered. Only Senator Dianne Feinstein’s legislation, prohibiting the Bushmaster XM15-E2S or the Saiga-12 shotgun, might have slowed Lanza’s horror, but her bill is unlikely even to get a committee vote.
But this is hardly a reason to stop pushing for tighter gun laws. The fight for gun control has moved past Lanza or Loughner. They are the Pearl Harbors of the current legislative battle: causes for engagement but not the only reasons for the war. Gun control is a cause in itself, and the struggle for universal background checks of gun buyers is nothing short of a battle for democracy. Over 90 percent of all Americans now favor such checks. It shouldn’t be that hard to get it through Congress.
It is also a struggle for decency. David Wheeler, who lost his 6-year-old son at Newtown, remarked to the New York Times that “these details [about Lanza] will spark enough soul-searching to get something done.” But the details seem to be working against progress, making Lanza’s bizarre behavior more useful for gun control opponents than supporters.
No, the gun control battle cannot be about Lanza or Loughner. If it is, a promised Republican filibuster will gain more supporters and the NRA will win.
Looking back, there were moments when family, friends, and educators all knew that no good would come from these men, but weren’t able to do anything meaningful to stop them. What if the police officer who pulled over Loughner’s car that morning had seen his weapon? What if Lanza’s gun-loving mother, who was shot by him before his rampage, had managed to shoot her son first? Was there a moment when society, collectively, could have stepped in? The might-have-beens would keep anyone up at night.
But that damage is done.
It is now over 100 days since the massacre in Newtown. Since then, over 2,200 people have died from guns in America.
The gun control battle cannot be about Adam Lanza or Jared Lee Loughner.
You should be.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @juliettekayyem.