"One of the worst days in the history of our country," my friend Dan Kennedy wrote on Facebook. "The worst day since 9/11."
My sentiments exactly. If you're like most people, they're probably yours. Very likely, the rest of us will never know, much less comprehend the Newtown, Conn., school shooter's motives. The word itself implies a coherence alien to a diseased mind.
Twenty first-graders. Do his motives even matter?
Having some knowledge of mental illness, when I first heard that the Newtown killer's weapons — a Bushmaster .223 caliber assault rifle, a pair of 9mm semi-automatic handguns, and hundreds of bullets — were registered to his mother, I imagined I knew the story: a divorced, middle-aged suburban housewife, isolated, captive to her son's madness, handicapped by weak laws and an inadequate mental health system, and frantically bargaining with his advancing psychosis to buy peace.
Hoping that things would magically change.
But it turns out that I was wrong. The guns that ended Nancy Lanza's life in her own bed indeed belonged to her. Living alone in semi-isolation with a troubled teen-age son she kept at home because the stresses of school were more than he could handle, she adopted the least sensible hobby imaginable.
She became a gun collector and avid target shooter, and she took her son along. Something of a mathematical whiz with a loner's passion for computers and video games, he probably took to the mechanical precision of expensive, semi-automatic weapons.
Alas, he took to the darker aspects of the American gun cult as well.
Look, target shooting is one thing: a harmless, somewhat dorky pastime like bowling or showing thoroughbred dogs. I own a target pistol myself, and take it out sometimes to plink aluminum cans and the occasional cedar fence post. I also own shotguns, although I no longer hunt.
Out in the Arkansas boondocks where I live, guns are a practical necessity for several reasons — self-defense among them. Most men and a fair proportion of the women are deer hunters. We hear gunshots all the time. Even the dogs and horses pretty much ignore them.
There was even a killing at Christmas a couple of miles down the road three years ago. I knew the shooter somewhat, and had never heard anything bad about him. As told around the county, it was a deal where a meth addict vowed mayhem if his girlfriend took her child to see his father. He texted death threats.
Call the sheriff and maybe they'll send somebody within the hour.
Alerted by dogs, my neighbor took down a deer rifle, and confronted his shotgun-toting assailant, who jumped into his truck and threw it into reverse. He died at the wheel. Prosecutors charged the shooter with murder, but the case never came to trial.
There would have been no point. Everybody I talked to around here basically said the same thing: "What's he supposed to do, wait for the crazy sumbitch to sneak up on him again?"
My sentiments exactly.
In short, a sorrowful tragedy. But even in telling the story as sparely as possible, it's almost impossible to prevent a kind of tough-guy romanticism from sneaking in. The kind of false bravado that makes cartoonish revenge comedies like the "Dirty Harry," "Die Hard" and "Lethal Weapon" series such characteristically American cultural artifacts.
The same kind of false bravado that has persuaded Bushmaster Firearms to advertise its .223 caliber AR-15 rifle — slayer of 20 first graders, six teachers and one mother — with a stark black and white photo of the weapon propped on an oversized ammunition magazine and the slogan: "Consider your man card reissued."
Seriously now, how pathetic is that?
Prove your manhood by plunking down $1,200-$1,500 for a deadly toy. Was this Nancy Lanza's hope for her cowardly son? We'll never know.
Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that even in wealthy Newtown, there's a political struggle between gun hobbyists and citizens seeking restrictions on shooting ranges. "These are not normal guns that people need" one member of the police commission said. "These are guns for an arsenal, and you get lunatics like this guy who goes into a school fully armed and protected to take return fire. We live in a town, not in a war."
If the phrase "well-regulated militia" in the Second Amendment means anything, they're surely not guns that Americans need. They're military weapons with no legitimate civilian uses; they're cult objects, fetishes.
"What choice do we have?" President Obama asked at the memorial service to Newtown's dead. "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? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?"
Prayerfully, we are not.