Philip Caputo is the author of “A Rumor of War” and 14 other books.
In 1989, Esquire magazine assigned me to write a story about the aftermath of an atrocity that January in Stockton, Calif. Patrick Purdy, a 26-year-old drifter and alcoholic, opened fire on the playground of Cleveland Elementary School during recess with a legally purchased AK-47 assault rifle, killing six children and wounding 29 others. He then put a legally purchased 9mm semiautomatic pistol to his head and killed himself.
My assignment was to find out why. Purdy left no clues that might explain his actions. After speaking to law enforcement officials, evidence technicians and forensic psychiatrists, who specialize in puzzling out the motives of suicides who don’t leave notes, I drew a bleak conclusion: A mind like Purdy’s is ultimately unknowable. It’s like a black hole in outer space. Whatever light can be shined into it is sucked in by the gravity of its pathologies and never gets out.
I assume that the same will hold true of Adam Lanza.
If such minds are unknowable, it follows that they’re also unpredictable. If you look into the backgrounds of mass murderers, you’ll find very few who gave signs that they were capable of a heinous crime. Many of them were “grievance killers” — the laid-off employee who is to all appearances normal, up to the moment he barges into the office with guns blazing.
Purdy was the psychopathic type, but he did not have a history of violence. He had never been charged with a felony, never been committed to a mental institution. Sure, he was depicted as a weird loner, but that description would fit a million people, virtually none of whom commit massacres. No one who knew him suspected that he had it in him to spray a crowded school ground with bullets. No one could say what triggered his rampage.
Since the Newtown, Conn., massacre, there has been a good deal of vague chatter suggesting that people like Purdy or Lanza or Jared Loughner can be identified before they act on their monstrous fantasies and can be prohibited from purchasing firearms. A kind of early-warning radar will detect a disturbed personality on a trajectory toward slaughter.
How would this be accomplished? Are disgruntled workers, loners or anyone who says or does bizarre things going to be examined by psychiatric boards? If it’s determined that they are potential dangers to themselves or others, would they be placed on some sort of national watch list? Compelled to undergo treatment? Locked up?
Even if such a system had been in place, it would not have stopped Lanza, who, as we all know, obtained his weapons by stealing them from the collection of his gun-enthusiast mother.
Libertarians and gun-rights lobbyists say that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. That is, they assert that the problem isn’t the proliferation of ever more lethal weapons, the elimination or gutting of gun-control laws, the passage of concealed-carry regulations that exceed the ridiculous (in eight states, it is permissible to pack heat in a bar, something that was illegal even in Wild West towns like Dodge City). No, these advocates say, the problem is that the guns end up in the wrong hands.
It’s true that there are too many people walking the streets who ought to be institutionalized or kept under close medical supervision; and background checks need to be tightened and loopholes closed. And, yes, the hands holding the guns are the wrong ones.
But what’s more wrong are the guns themselves. A 9mm semiautomatic handgun with a 30-round clip isn’t a pistol; it’s a weapon of mass destruction. Jared Loughner proved that by killing six people and wounding 13 others in not much more time than it took you to read this sentence.
Today, tens of millions of such firearms are in circulation in the United States. If it were up to me, they would be regulated as strictly as fully automatic weapons, such as machine guns, have been for decades. All citizens, except those with federal firearms licenses, would be required to surrender them to law enforcement authorities (with fair compensation). And then I’d destroy them.
I served a tour of duty with a Marine rifle company in Vietnam; while covering the Lebanese civil war as a newspaper correspondent, I was seriously wounded by AK-47 fire. From both the giving and receiving end, I am intimately familiar with what these weapons are designed to do, and that is to kill people. As many as possible as quickly as possible.
I’m also a hunter who owns shotguns and bolt-action rifles, none of which can hold more than five rounds. Not only do regulations in most states prohibit hunters from entering the field with the firepower of an infantry platoon, it’s considered unsportsmanlike. Apparently, we value the lives of our deer and ducks more than we do the lives of our children. That’s partly why the NRA’s suggestion that all U.S. schools should have armed guards is as insulting as it is absurd.
Patrick Purdy’s awful deed provoked much the same shock, sorrow and outrage as Lanza’s has, the same vows from politicians to make sure nothing like that happened again. Recently, I searched to see how many mass shootings have taken place in the 23 years since then. The answer was 47, with 228 dead and more than twice as many injured.
What will it take before we acknowledge that the guns themselves are the problem?