Media Go Home

If you’ve ever been part of a big media descent upon a small town, you know that awkward feeling of trying to get the story while also trying to not be an asshole. It’s rare in my experience though that the town becomes so j-saturated that we start cannibalizing each other.

Is the naval-gazing justified? Is there a better way to do what we do when it comes to big events like this?

I’ll offer the ignorant opinion that a primary cause for blow-back is the physical space used up by our television brethren — the sat trucks and lights and tents. True? What else?

(thanks for the prompt, Raja)

Running And Hoping To Find A Child Safe

Jim Dwyer: NEWTOWN, Conn. — A few minutes before 10 Friday morning, Michelle Urbina was speaking with a customer at the small bank branch that she manages in Bethel, Conn., when her assistant broke in.

“What school does your daughter go to?”

“Sandy Hook,” Ms. Urbina replied.

“There’s been a shooting there,” her assistant said.

As Ms. Urbina headed for the door, her phone began buzzing with text messages from friends and other parents. It is a 20-minute drive from Bethel to the school. The landscape rolled by unseen; a friend from the other end of town spoke to her on her cellphone, relaying news from someone who was monitoring a police scanner. None of it told her what she wanted to know: What about Lenie, her 9-year-old daughter?

Murder At Locker 02-069

Susan Taylor Martin, Feb. 11, 2001: He lives alone in the big city.

Weekday mornings, between 9 and 9:30, he steps out of Apt. 3A and rides the elevator down to the lobby. Walks across the black marble floor, buffed to a gleam. Nods to the doorman.

“Good morning, sir,” the doorman says.

He is tall and thin, looks to be in his late 30s. Though he has lived here for more than two years, the doorman doesn’t know much about him. Just that he’s a good tipper, never asks for anything, has few if any visitors.

“Heard he’s in the computer field,” the doorman says.

As the man ventures out, he slips on dark glasses and moves so softly he’s almost tiptoeing. The doorman has never seen him get in a car, hail a cab, catch a bus. He heads west on foot and disappears into the urban maw.

Thus begins another day in the quiet, anonymous life of a quiet, brilliant man . . . one of the first people in America to bring a gun to his school and open fire.

If It’s for Sale, His Lines Sort It

Margalit Fox: It was born on a beach six decades ago, the product of a pressing need, an intellectual spark and the sweep of a young man’s fingers through the sand.

The result adorns almost every product of contemporary life, including groceries, wayward luggage and, if you are a traditionalist, the newspaper you are holding.

The man on the beach that day was a mechanical-engineer-in-training named N. Joseph Woodland. With that transformative stroke of his fingers — yielding a set of literal lines in the sand — Mr. Woodland, who died on Sunday at 91, conceived the modern bar code.

(thanks, Mark)

Teachers Sought To Soothe Children In Moments Of Terror

Eli Saslow: NEWTOWN, Conn. — The day began, like all days at Sandy Hook Elementary, with the morning ritual of taking attendance.

Yellow buses rolled into the parking lot just before 9 a.m., and a dozen teachers working “bus duty” greeted them at the school’s front curb. The teachers marked off students as they descended from their buses, patting their heads and counting them out loud. Then the group entered en masse through the glass doors at the front of the school and dispersed into classrooms, where the students were counted again.

Kindergartners snatched their colored name tags off a classroom wall and dropped them into a bucket so their teacher could see which ones were missing. First-graders seated in classrooms near the school’s front entrance listened for their names, raised their hands one by one and said, “Here.”

Inside a single-story school building in the quiet hills of central Connecticut, everyone was accounted for. The glass doors were locked, and the video security system was enacted. A voice came over the loudspeaker to read the Pledge of Allegiance and then the school’s daily announcements. It was the seventh day of Hanukkah. The cafeteria would serve homemade pizza and broccoli for lunch. Christmas cookies were for sale after school in the lobby.

The date was Friday, Dec. 14, 2012.

Fateful Premonition Wouldn’t Dim Immigrant’s Dreams

Susan Carroll (subscription required): PIEDRAS BLANCAS, Guatemala – Leonel Tipaz de León stretched out on the wood-framed bed in his parents’ tiny adobe home, its peeling, aqua shutters closed to the stifling afternoon heat.

At 21, he already was tired of life, of toiling for less than $7 a day in the cornfields that surround his family’s farm high in the Sierra de Chuacús mountains, of scraping by with odd jobs and selling natural medicines. He wanted nice things, Nike shoes, his own home.

He longed to leave this pristine, Mayan village and join his sister on a dairy farm outside of Amarillo, where he could make $400 a week feeding and milking cows and cleaning up manure. He could save money and send some home.

It sounded sweet and simple, but Leonel knew it would be far more complicated, far messier, if he left. He would have to defy the singular force that kept him here: his father.

The Mystique of GUNS

From Daniel Boone to Dirty Harry, America’s Fascination with Firearms

Henry Allen, Washington Post Staff Writer
April 19, 1989

The Great American Gun Mystique:

We love guns. We hate guns.

We spend millions to defend the right to keep and bear guns. We flatten guns with steamrollers for the benefit of television cameras. We never stop arguing about guns. Guns kill people. No, people kill people. Guns are right up there with race as one of the most sensitive, taboo-ridden public issues we have. And the mystique gets bigger all the time.

It comes in a lot of varieties.

There is the mystique of freedom, from the flintlocks that fired the shot heard round the world to the Thompson submachine gun depicted on a T-shirt under the motto: “The Last Great American Freedom Machine.” The names of American gun companies have the ring of an anthem: Winchester, Remington, Colt, Sharps, Savage, Springfield, Smith & Wesson.

No other country finds so much history, emotion, belief, vice and virtue in so many guns.

Snub-nose .38 revolvers stand for the world-weary persistence of pulp-fiction detectives in the Depression. Single-action Army Colts are the attribute of the cowboy. A Parker double-barreled shotgun is your grandfather picking his way with a knowing elegance through the brush in search of quail. A .22 is the innocence of childhood — that spattering noise of the rifle range at Boy Scout camp, and afterward the smell of Hoppe’s No. 9 cleaning solvent. The wood-sheathed M1 evinces the common-man determination that won World War II. The Model 29 Smith & Wesson .44 magnum carried by Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry is the resentment and paranoia of the early ’70s. On and on.

There is the mystique of the gun that will destroy America and maybe civilization as we know it. It was Thompson submachine guns in the gangster ’20s, sawed-off shotguns, zip guns when we started talking about “juvenile delinquency” in the ’50s (oh, innocent era), imported military surplus rifles like the one that shot John Kennedy, and the guns that Patty Hearst posed with in front of a Symbionese Liberation Army flag.

We credit guns with powers that verge on the supernatural.

It’s said a .45 can knock you down even with a close miss; that a .357 magnum can penetrate the length of a car, including the entire engine block; that the M16 or the .44 magnum or whatev17019782151868963956 Just now, assault rifles are “high-tech killing machines” of “incredible destructiveness,” according to the media. The focus is the AK47. A dirt-common, medium-powered little rifle that was first mass-produced more than 40 years ago in the Soviet Union has turned into a legend of lethality … a stamped-metal Third World special that Middle Easterners shake at television cameras … a rifle whose stock looks like it was carved from an orange crate … a gun that hit 35 people in the Stockton, Calif., schoolyard massacre in January and left 30 of them alive … “the mildest-wounding assault rifle in existence,” says Col. Martin Facker, a surgeon who treated AK47 wounds in Vietnam and now heads the Army’s Wound Ballistics Laboratory in San Francisco.

He argues that other massacres, committed with guns that can be found gathering dust in closets all over America, and with much smaller magazines than assault rifles, have had death-to-wound ratios that are hideously worse. Only four of 11 people survived last year when they were hit with a 12-gauge shotgun in Sunnyvale, Calif. When Charles Whitman shot 47 people in 1966, he hit most of them with ordinary rifle bullets from the 27th floor of a tower at the University of Texas, Facker says, and only 31 survived.

Emergency legislation to ban assault rifles makes the nightly news (though no one has yet defined exactly what an assault rifle is), and panic-buying has more than doubled the price of the semiautomatic versions sold legally. All this makes them especially alluring to the 16-year-old drug dealers, who want them not just as tools of the trade but as status symbols. People can care more about what they represent than the actual carnage they can cause.

“I keep asking people for data,” says Ed Ezell, author of “The AK47 Story” and curator of the division of armed forces history at the Smithsonian. “They come up with anecdotes.”

American gun mystique is bigger than the facts.

In “Billy Bathgate,” E.L. Doctorow has the title character say: “I will never forget how it felt to hold a loaded gun for the first time and lift it and fire it, the scare of its animate kick up the bone of your arm, you are empowered there is no question about it, it is an investiture, like knighthood, and even though you didn’t invent it or design it or tool it the credit is yours because it is in your hand, you don’t even have to know how it works, the credit is all yours, with the slightest squeeze of your finger a hole appears in a piece of paper sixty feet away, and how can you not be impressed with yourself, how can you not love this coiled and sprung causation, I was awed, I was thrilled, the thing is guns come alive when you fire them, they move, I hadn’t realized that.”

Guns are like suspension bridges or computers — they have a romance even for the Americans who live and work with them. In the 19th century, cowboys posed for pictures with their guns and wore sidearms “much as a hat, a pair of boots, or moccasins, or a personal ornament was worn … The pistol could readily serve as a badge, as the sword had for the European aristocracy and the Japanese samurai,” William Tonso writes in “Gun and Society — The Social and Existential Roots of the American Attachment to Firearms.” Nowadays, whole magazines are devoted to the guns of the police and the military: “S.W.A.T.” and “Soldier of Fortune,” for instance.

For Americans in particular, they have always been associated with the romance of technology. Eli Whitney is said to have demonstrated mass production for Thomas Jefferson by assembling guns out of heaps of interchangeable parts. Throughout the 19th century, a gun was a cheap way to buy a piece of the great age of invention. With their new Glock pistols, the Washington police will be getting not only added firepower, but an extravagantly ugly plastic-and-metal pistol that looks uncomfortably like the sidearm of the future. Who can tell where one appeal stops and the other begins?

Through guns, the romance of mass production is linked, ironically enough, to the romance of individual freedom, of life lived by wits in don’t-tread-on-me solitude: the riverboat gambler or the gold-rush madam with their derringers, or the the mountain man and yeoman farmer with their rifles.

Guns are also “equalizers.” God created man and Samuel Colt made him equal, as the saying goes — a gun having the rare, maybe unique, power of seeming to offer both of the contradictory blessings of American democracy at the same time: equality and freedom.

No other country makes movies and television shows where the guns have such life in themselves. It’s an esthetic tradition, a genre: “Winchester ’73,” “Have Gun Will Travel,” “Gunsmoke,” “The Left-Handed Gun,” “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” “The Rifleman” … We’ve named both a movie and a malt liquor after a gun: “Colt 45.” The only comparison to the gun in American movies is the sword in samurai movies.

Lately, the movies have been big on the post-Vietnam world of betrayed heroes and lone avengers. Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger wander through a smorgasbord of apocalypses with plastic and black-metal machine guns and rocket launchers that have all the grace of something you’d use to spray rust-proofing on the bottom of a car. But this is a mystique in itself, the romance of the purely and brutally functional in a world devoid of meaning.

Hollywood has its own armorers. The mystique of guns is one of infinite detail, and it takes experts to get it right. On “Miami Vice,” according to a piece in Popular Mechanics, Crockett was equipped with not just a pistol and an assault rifle, but a $ 600 10 mm Dornaus & Dickson Bren Ten with hard-chrome slide on a stainless steel frame with double or single action and a reversible thumb-action safety, along with an $ 889 5.56 mm Steyr AUG-SA Zytel-synthetic assault rifle with pistol-grip and trigger forward of the shell-ejector aperture that can be converted for left-hand use.

“Guns are always used at pivotal points in films,” says Harris Bierman, who has armed the cast of John Milius’ “Farewell to the King,” among other movies. “This goes all the way back. There was the 1921 Thompson in ‘Little Caesar’ and the Webley-Fosberry .455 revolver that knocked off Sam Spade’s partner in ‘The Maltese Falcon.’ There were the 1873 trapdoor Springfields in ‘Birth of a Nation’ and the Gatling gun in ‘Vera Cruz.’ You need this stuff. Look at ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls,’ the kid saying the rosary with the Lewis gun on his shoulder, defending against the fascist hordes. Or ‘Bataan,’ with that close-up of the machine-gun muzzle blasting away at the end — directors always like to come in on them. For Rambo III, they went to Israel because they couldn’t get the weapons they wanted here.”
The more we see them at pivotal points, the more they get a sacramental glow about them. But we see them so constantly in the guns-and-muscles movies that maybe they’ll lose their pivotal significance after a while and become just another prop, like cigarettes in the movies of the 1930s.

Adventure fiction has turned guns into a sort of Greek chorus that gets bigger and bigger. Detective novels had their gats and heaters. Ian Fleming’s James Bond books gave 007’s Walther PPK pistol a fetishy charm. By 1984, after 62 books in Don Pendleton’s “Executioner” series, the publishers came out with a special “combat catalogue” with 35 illustrated pages listing all the guns that had been used in the series, from the Armbrust Disposable Anti-Tank Weapon to the XM174 Automatic Grenade Launcher.

We also have postapocalyptic fiction, set in a future after a nuclear war, when the world is one big frontier. Number 6 in Jerry Ahern’s “Survivalist” series begins: “John Rourke pulled up the zipper on the fly of his Levis with his right hand, his left moving across his body plane to the Detonics stainless under his right armpit in the double Alessi rig, his fingers knotting around the black checkered rubber Pachmayr grips, his left thumb poised to cock the .45 as soon as it cleared the leather … He already had the target — a man about six-foot four, unshaven, his black leather jacket mud-stained, a riot shotgun in his hands, the pump tromboning as the 12-gauge, roughly .70 caliber muzzle swung on line. Rourke’s trigger finger twitched …”
The romance excites, the romance horrifies.

There’s a lot of bragging on both sides. Bumper stickers feature the hokey martyrdom of “I’ll Give Up My Gun When They Pry My Cold, Dead Fingers From It.” On the other side is a conspicuous squeamishness and an ignorance that not only favors the mystique, but chronically misuses the simplest terminology of guns, confusing rifles with shotguns, semiautomatics with automatics and so on, as if it didn’t really matter.

“Insofar as the gun control struggle is based on cultural hatred and antagonism, it is a matter of pride to antigun people to be ignorant about guns,” says Don B. Kates Jr., a criminologist and former civil rights lawyer. On the other hand, it’s also a matter of pride to progun people to master vast bodies of technical data, and sometimes convince themselves that they’ve won the moral argument against gun control by using it.

Ruling classes have always liked guns for the hunt, but disliked them in the hands of poachers. French revolutionaries broke into cha|teaux and the Bastille, looking for guns. Around the turn of the century, the establishmentarians of the United States feared “a number of forces they associated with the handgun,” Kates has written. Among them: “Blacks who wouldn’t keep their place; radicals, labor agitators, assassins, robbers, and by a process of further association, the foreign-born.” Kates says that it was white supremacists in the Tennessee legislature who passed the first “Saturday night special” law banning cheap pistols. (If cheap pistols were doing the killing in Washington, there wouldn’t be much killing — the weapon of choice here now appears to be the 9mm pistol, the designation “9mm” having a mystique of its own.) In 1941, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a gun control law had been “passed for the purpose of disarming the Negro laborers and the statute was never intended to be applied to the white population.”

Guns mark cultural boundaries — witness the odd thrill that city people can get when they spot a gun rack in the back of a pickup truck. Guns divide those who take pride in rural roots from those who take pride in coming from the city.

“They think we’re Okies, ignorant,” said a man selling AK47s at a suburban gun show recently.

“TV has done a lot against us,” said an onlooker, Army Sgt. Carl Day. “Whenever you see a hunter on TV, it’s some drunken redneck.”

The modern gun control movement springs from the assassinations and violence of the 1960s. For a while, it was fashionable to keep one’s children from playing with toy guns. Guns were dangerous, lower class, macho and backward.

In 1970, in an essay called “America as a Gun Culture,” historian Richard Hofstadter wrote: “What began as a necessity of agriculture and the frontier took hold as a sport and as an ingredient in the American imagination … For millions of American boys, learning to shoot and above all graduating from toy guns and receiving the first real rifle of their own were milestones of life, veritable rites of passage that certified their arrival at manhood. (It is still argued by some defenders of our gun culture, and indeed conceded by some of its critics, that the gun cannot and will not be given up because it is a basic symbol of masculinity. But the trouble with all such glib Freudian generalities is that they do not explain cultural variations: they do not tell us why men elsewhere have not found the gun essential to their masculinity.)”

Hofstadter found the political roots of the gun culture not in the sort of militarism that gets blamed by gun haters now, but in the “anti-militaristic traditions of radical English Whiggery.” In these traditions, vice was standing armies of the sort that the American revolutionaries fought against, and virtue lay with the sort of yeoman extolled by Jefferson, who provided in his first draft of the Virginia constitution that “no freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms.”
Yeomen didn’t beat the British — American and French standing armies did. Nevertheless, the mystique of the lone American rifleman was already such that George Washington encouraged “the use of Hunting Shirts, with long Breeches made of the same Cloth … it is a dress justly supposed to carry no small terror to the enemy, who think every such person a complete marksman.”

At a gun show in Virginia recently, an English immigrant who gunsmiths as a hobby said that if there is a British mystique of guns, it is one of the upper class, with its Purdeys and hunting privileges. “The privileged, the rich, have places to shoot. But it is next to impossible to buy, trade and use guns as we do here. They’re the sign of the liberation of the New World. The silent majority of gun owners in America are not loonies, not paramilitary, don’t subscribe to Soldier of Fortune. But it would seem like oil and water — you’re either far left or far right. Anyone who has anything to do with guns is a Nazi. Anyone against them is a communist.”

The argument over guns doesn’t have much to do with the use of guns as demystified tools to put venison on the table, ease fear of rape, win Olympic medals and equip our armed forces. It ignores the fact that every major segment of American society owns guns, city and country, North and South, Catholic and Protestant, white and black, rich and poor.

It also ignores the sheer pleasure of guns. This pleasure provokes a particular bewilderment among people who have never done any shooting, and among the gun control advocates who have veered into prudery.

“This is the moment you wait for,” says Neal Dadisman, as a fellow flintlock collector pulls a walnut-stocked 18th-century rifle from a case at an antique gun show at the Baltimore Armory. “That engraving tears me all to pieces.”

A few rows over, somebody is asking what ammunition was used by the same sort of 1895 Winchester that Teddy Roosevelt owned.

“Let’s see, you could get it chambered for the .303, the 7.62 Russian, the .30-06, the .30 U.S. Army, the .303 British, the .33 Winchester and the .405,” says Bill Printz, an antiques dealer from Kensington. He doesn’t own the gun, he just happens to know this. There are mountains of literature on guns, listing the minutiae of mechanics, serial numbers, decoration and history, a body of knowledge that gun people memorize the way baseball fans memorize slugging percentages. It’s part of the lore.

And the guns themselves: a Winchester Model 70 bolt action closing with the snug ease of a bank vault; blued barrels with an odd depth to them, like an opaque mirror; the monolithic density of a Luger pistol when you pull back the slide, as if it were one block of steel whose atoms were merely rearranging themselves with the ease of a thought; an Aya .28 gauge side-by-side double-barreled shotgun, a good dove gun that floats to your shoulder with the ghostly self-volition that’s like when you were a kid, and you pushed your arm outward against a wall for a while and then stepped back, and the arm rose all by itself; the tenor crack of an M1 carbine; the dark, round boom of a muzzleloader; or the three distinct clicks of an old single-action Army Colt being cocked, an echo of the dark, water-driven, leather-strapped mills of 19th-century manufacture, and a sound much like the one that was the last that Jesse James ever heard, as he dusted a picture hanging on the wall.

“He heard the hammer click as I cocked it with my thumb and started to turn as I pulled the trigger,” said Bob Ford. “The ball struck him just behind the ear and he fell like a log, dead.” Ten years later, Ford was shotgunned to death in Colorado by a James admirer.
And the sheer radiant heft of a loaded gun, a pistol, say, the first time you carry one, feverishly huge on your hip, you can’t stop thinking about it, like when you’ve got a very big roll of bills in your pocket.

There is a lot of mystique about guns in America. There are also a lot of guns in America. Half of American households have guns, somewhere between 150 and 200 million guns in all, according to educated guesses, with 50 or 60 million handguns alone. We add 4 or 5 million new ones a year, not counting imports like the AK47. Meanwhile, advocates on both sides keep adding to their mystique. It’s a measure of the persistence of American idealism that anyone could imagine that we’ll ever reduce their numbers and their allure to the point where we can, as they say, control them.

Research assistant Lynda Edwards contributed to this article.

Never Let Go

Part 3, from Kelley: The surgeon sewed our baby shut. The neonatologist rose from her prayer rug. Then a nurse returned our tiny daughter to the quiet of her incubator, and we made our bargains with God.

The surgeon wouldn’t say it, but she was certain our baby would be dead by morning.