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Bump Stocks and the Lessons We Refused to Learn at Sandy Hook

As the FBI releases 1,500 pages of documents on Sandy Hook, the GOP refuses even to talk about basic gun regulation.
Gun rights activists gather before a march on November 16th, 2015, in Ferguson, Missouri.

Gun rights activists gather before a march on November 16th, 2015, in Ferguson, Missouri.

On the day after the deadliest mass shooting in modern United States history, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders responded to questions about gun control legislation by telling reporters that "there will certainly be a time for that policy discussion to take place, but that's not the place that we're in at this moment."

If there is a "place" and "moment," are we there yet? And if not now, when?

In the weeks since a gunman fired more than 900 rounds into a crowd of concert-goers, killing 58 and leaving over 500 more wounded, we've re-learned the key lesson about reducing gun violence in America: We still can't do it.

To be clear, the right wing is perfectly willing to use violence to make a political point, but only when it allows them to dehumanize already vulnerable people. Sanders, for example, concluded that press conference by talking about Chicago—which is to say gun violence among black people in Chicago. (In the interest of fact-checking: Chicago's gun laws fail because right-wing states like Indiana and Missouri allow individuals to purchase weapons and traffic them into the city.) Speaker of the House Paul Ryan always responds to questions about gun violence by talking about mental health. And people with unmet mental-health support needs are vastly more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. Sanders, Ryan, and their partisans are uninterested in such details, of course, because the goal is to derail the conversation onto any topic except how to keep killers from getting powerful guns.

In Las Vegas, the guns were exceptionally powerful. Not only did the killer have dozens of them, but he augmented his rifles with "bump stocks," devices that enable semi-automatic rifles to shoot even faster. For a day or two, despite Sanders' proclamation that now wasn't the time or place, a narrow sliver of optimism emerged that we could find a bipartisan consensus around banning bump stock sales. Even the National Rifle Association agreed, initially, that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms might be constitutionally able to regulate accessories, if not the weapons themselves. GOP lawmakers timidly signed onto Democratic proposals in the House of Representatives and the Senate. For the first time in years, it seemed like we might take the tiniest incremental step toward reasonable regulation of firearms in this county.

Within three days of the shooting, as CNN reported, bump stock sales started to surge. Stores ran out of inventory. A secondary re-sale market emerged with markups of 300 percent and higher. The NRA panicked. The GOP withdrew support for the bump stock ban. Now advocates for the ban believe the effort is dead.

So to recap: The only tangible result of the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history will be record profits for the companies that made the devices enabling that mass shooting.

None of this is surprising. As many of us have been saying for the last five years, the lack of effective regulatory response to the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut—to the murder of children by a high-powered rifle—made it clear that our political culture is nowhere near ready to face the facts on gun proliferation.

Just when the bump stock regulatory efforts withered away, Sandy Hook sprang back into the news. On Tuesday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released 1,500 pages of (often heavily redacted) documents about the Sandy Hook shooting. There doesn't appear to be any groundbreaking new information here. But the documents do confirm what we already knew: To be sure, there were many missed opportunities for effective intervention with the killer, Adam Lanza, but without access to his mother's high-powered rifle, many children would still be alive today.

The documents are difficult to read. They include witness statements, incident reports, call sheets, and other documents about the wide net cast by law enforcement in the aftermath of the killings. Meticulously collected evidence illustrates Lanza's obsessive interest in mass killings and firearms (indicting, among other factors, the sensationalist press coverage such killings generate, and which Lanza consumed). One report, new to me, consisted of an interview with a witness who had followed Lanza online from the forums of "Super Columbine Massacre"—a game in which players play through the killings at Columbine from the perspective of the killers—to various Tumblr and other social media contexts. In these forums, Lanza talked about mass killings constantly, using handles that affirmed his sense of identification with the killers.

But as troubling as his conduct was, the biggest problem was that he was surrounded by guns. Nancy Lanza had many firearms and seems to have been pleased her son was also interested in them. In the report by the Connecticut state's attorney, for example, the investigator notes that Nancy earmarked a "Christmas check" that she gave Adam so he could buy a gun of his own. In the end, though, when it came time to murder all those children, Adam used his mother's AR-15-style Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle.

Sadly, gun violence isn't taking a break while Republicans flounder and fail to stand up to the NRA. Since the Las Vegas killings, at least 770 Americans have been killed by firearms, including 14 children. As a nation, we experience a Sandy Hook level of carnage to our children every month and the same overall body count as Las Vegas every couple of days.

In early November, lawyers representing families from Sandy Hook will take a lawsuit against the gun manufacturer Bushmaster to the Connecticut Supreme Court. It's a noble and necessary effort, and one I fear is likely to fail. In 2005, Congress indemnified gun manufacturers against liability when their devices are used to murder. No wonder the NRA seems to be performing an angry victory lap these days, with public-service announcements calling for civil war and mob violence against enemies of the state. Its most recent television advertisement warns that the organization's foes will "perish in the political flames of their own fires." The ad doesn't even mention guns.

Why bother, I guess. Until politicians who defend the NRA lose elections, nothing can change.