When every channel on television is showing aerial images of a scene in which blue lights are flashing on the ground below, when black-and-yellow crime scene tape flutters around nondescript buildings, often in a seemingly idyllic small-town environment, most Americans know that they are about to watch yet another horrific news story. On Friday, that story came from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 young children were killed, as well as six adults, killed by a young man who had gone on a rampage and then turned one of his guns on himself.
He had come to the school shortly after 9:30 a.m. on Friday, armed with two pistols, a Glock 10 mm and a Sig Sauer 9 mm, a high-powered .223-caliber, semi-automatic AR-15 Bushmaster rifle used to kill most of his victims as well as a fourth weapon that was found in his car outside the school. After his arrival, witnesses say they heard a long series of what they described as "plop-plop-plop" noises, possibly up to 100 gunshots, mixed with the sounds of screaming, crying and falling bodies.
Before going on his rampage, he had shot and killed his mother at her home, where he was living. His mother had worked at the school's kindergarten. In a hail of bullets, the gunman killed the principal, the school psychologist and 18 children mostly between the ages of six and seven, some in his mother's classroom. Two other children later died of their wounds in the hospital. The murderer, who police identified as 20-year-old Adam Lanza, also died. He turned his gun on himself as the first emergency responders closed in on the scene. The guns had been registered in his mother's name. Lanza would have been too young to register the weapons in his own name. Indeed, the nightmarish story reads like a dark venture into the abyss.
"Heartbreaking" became the word of the day, as hardened newscasters fought to hold back their tears. In Newtown, in the eye of the hurricane and in the silence following the shots, children who had survived told the media what they had heard, seen and experienced. They talked about how they were afraid of the "loud banging noises," and about hearing someone in the auditorium who shouted: "Don't shoot." Outside the school, the small-town world of Newtown, a city of 27,000 people, was divided into groups of overjoyed parents and the devastated mothers and fathers who had just lost their children. One woman told CNN: "We live in a nice town. Sandy Hook is a nice school. This sort of thing doesn't happen here."
It was a national tragedy, especially happening as it did now, shortly before Christmas. The social networks have become blackboards of mourning, filled with prayers, expressions of shock and good wishes to the victims' families.
President Barack Obama, who had been briefed at 10:30 a.m., less than an hour after the killings, lost his voice for several seconds a number of times during a press conference on the shootings, wiping tears from the corners of his eyes. It was a devastating picture.
'We Can't Accept Events Like this As Routine'
"I know there's not a parent in America who doesn't feel the same overwhelming grief that I do," the president said. "The majority of those who died today were children. Our hearts are broken." America has "endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years," Obama continued. "These children are our children. And we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics." It sounded as if the old American debate over tougher gun laws were about to be reopened. But commentators are skeptical.
The president followed up at a memorial service for the victims in Newtown on Sunday by again hinting he might take more assertive steps on weapons control. "No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society," he said. "But that can't be an excuse for inaction." In the coming weeks, he added, "I'll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens ... in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because what choice do we have? We can't accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage? That the politics are too hard?"
Only a few minutes had passed since the gunshots were fired when Philip Gourevitch, a well-known writer for the New Yorker, vented his anger. Commenting first on Twitter and then in a longer Blog entry, he reviled American politicians as cowards for being incapable of standing up to the powerful gun lobby. "If I say our lawmakers & gun laws are killing us I'll be told now ain't the time," Gourevitch tweeted.
An Issue that Can Decide Elections
In fact, words like Gourevitch's are often American politicians' first reaction to yet another bloodbath. Little is as sacred in America as the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which many Americans believe establishes the right to bear arms. Even the Connecticut State Constitution clearly states: "Every citizen has a right to bear arms in defense of himself and the state." Connecticut is so generous in its interpretation of the Second Amendment that guns are almost as accessible as tennis rackets. The laws are written in precisely the way the National Rifle Association (NRA) wants them to be.
The NRA has about 4.3 million members and an annual budget of about $250 million (190 million) -- enough to pay for plenty of lobbying activity. The organization and its supporters have managed to turn gun ownership into a symbol of the state of freedom in America. So far, hardly any US president has dared to fundamentally challenge this position.
Former Democratic President John F. Kennedy was an NRA member, as was former Republican President Ronald Reagan. It wasn't until 1993 that significant gun-control legislation was passed, when then President Bill Clinton signed the so-called Brady Bill, which required gun buyers to submit to an FBI background check. But some of the bill's provisions were watered down only five years later.
Politicians know that the issue of gun ownership can decide elections in key states like Ohio or Pennsylvania. "I'm not going to take away your guns," then presidential candidate Obama said in 2008. Although he cautiously advocated tighter restrictions on gun buyers and a ban on especially dangerous assault weapons, Obama also gave gun owners more freedom when he signed laws that allowed people to carry them on trains. Just a few days before the Newtown massacre, the Republican-controlled state legislature in Michigan enacted a new law that allows guns in classrooms.
This helps to explain why the White House's initial reaction to the tragedy in Connecticut on Friday was so predictable. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that it was a day of mourning and not "a day for discussion of the usual Washington policy debates" on gun control.
The New Yorker wrote these disillusioned words about the response to the Connecticut shootings: "This is the way that we deal with such incidents in the U.S. -- we acknowledge them; we are briefly shocked by them; then we term it impolite to discuss their implications, and to argue about them. At some point, we will have to stop putting it off, stop pretending that doing so is the proper, respectful thing. It's not either. It's cowardice."