Friday, December 14, 2012

Personal Thoughts on Newtown

Nancy Lanza, mother of the gunman and his first victim this morning, was a lovely person. I have friends in the area (all of whom were good friends of hers), and am around there a lot (in fact, I was there just last night, when the town was characteristically peaceful). I didn't know her well, but one memory keeps replaying tonight.

A mutual friend was in trouble, and I'd driven up to Newtown to discuss a loan. It wasn't for a ton of money, but more than just a few bucks. We discussed drawing up a letter of agreement, and that I'd hold the title to his little sailboat as collateral. Nancy overheard the discussion, and, unblinkingly, told him she'd just write him a check then and there. While I'm far from the most generous guy in the world, it's not often that I feel stingy. But I learned something from that. I should have just written him the check. She was right.

I never really befriended Nancy, though we exchanged greetings whenever we crossed paths. What held me back was my impression that she was a little high-strung. But now that I've been filled in by friends about how difficult her troubled son (the shooter) was making things for her, I understand that it wasn't that Nancy was overwrought about the trivialities of everyday life, but that she was handling a very difficult situation with uncommon grace. Plus, she was a big fan of my trombone playing. My next jazz solo's for you, Nancy.

Other scattered thoughts:

Whenever the press reports on something I'm familiar with or close to, it's painfully obvious how much they get wrong. I've been hearing nonsense from major media all day. The info I received via text message from friends early today was much higher quality than press reporting even hours later.

Speaking of which, if I read one more report about the shooting in "suburban Connecticut", I'll scream. This is a small town, not a suburb. It is, in fact, pretty much the Platonic form of a small town - which makes the events that much more horrific.

I'm in favor of gun control, but as a devout civil libertarian, I'm susceptible to the guns-don't-kill-people-people-kill-people argument. I want the government to exercise extreme restraint in determining what's too dangerous for people to do or to own. But, y'know, we (quite properly) don't allow people to own anti-aircraft guns, or tanks, or lots of other deadly instruments, though that same argument could apply. And while I understand the slippery slope perils of government intervention, human beings are just too damned crazy for guns to be so freely and easily available.

Finally, it really infuriates me to hear right wingers, at times like this, insist that "this is not the time to discuss gun control". I remember how, during the worst of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Mitch McConnell said the same thing: this is not the time to discuss regulating deep water drilling. Was September, 2001, not the time to discuss counterattacks on al-Qaeda? Was Katrina not the time to discuss levee engineering in Louisiana? I respect those whose opinions on guns differ from mine. But people taking this particular tack are loathsome.


istillhatepeas said...

Thank you for posting this. One report in the media mentioned that Nancy was "rigid," and it instantly infuriated me. The implication, however slight, was blaming the victim. A tragedy.

James Leff said...

That's weird, yeah. Not sure of the context on that. But one thing I will note is that she was a big, big gun fan.

There are lots of conservative people up that way. But I bet many of them have evolved their thinking on the gun issue since yesterday.

Anonymous said...

Guns exist - hundreds of millions of them in the U.S. alone - and the knowledge of how to make guns also exists. No matter how much any of us may wish to change that reality, we cannot.

If the discussion about Sandy Hook devolves to a discussion about gun control, any hope of reducing the likelihood or severity of future mass murders will be eliminated.

Wherever people gather in large groups, the risk exists - fortunately, a very small risk - that they will become targets of one or more persons bent on mass murder.

Realistically, the only way to reduce that risk meaningfully and in the near-term is for more people to be armed, not disarmed.

That may be sad. We may wish it were not so. But it is so.

connortanner said...

Jim, It's incredibly frustrating to read news about something you know well. I'm sure you're now equally frustrated by the partial quotes from your post that are now being shared around the world. As someone who has spent a lifetime among those trying to get it right, I'm glad technology at least provides a place for us to see your full quotes in the context in which they were intended. Thanks for this. Christy

Jim Leff said...

As you know, I've done a good bit of reporting myself (food reporting is, if done right, true reporting). And I know it's impossible to get (much less deliver) a really deep, nuanced, grounded perspective on a story that will ring true even to the subjects of the story. There's nothing more difficult in human relationships than to paint a picture that rings true to the people in that picture. Reporting - where you have to do that quickly, and under all sorts of stress, is almost impossibly hard. It's always going to be caricature, and it's always going to be somewhat wrong. But it's noble to try. I should have noted that.

As for my part, y'know, it was incredibly naive of me, amid a competitive frenzy of reportorial zeal, to think I wouldn't find myself loaded into this situation. I'm getting lots of email from reporters looking for comment. I'm not, however, going to be the victim's barber's cousin who tries to dissect the psychology on the nightly news. Ick. I was just trying to offer a quiet personal perspective here on my sleepy little Slog....not on Nancy, et al, but on how I, myself, have been trying to reason it all out. That's what a blog's for...or at least what mine's for. Publicly trying to make sense of stuff, hopefully in an interesting way.

Jim Leff said...

johnrharris, thanks for posting.

But I don't see the discussion of Sandy Hook changing (or, to tautologically load it, "devolving") to an exclusive discussion of gun rights. I think people are pretty thoroughly exploring every conceivable aspect of the horror of this story and how to prevent it in the future. And, regardless of your opinion on the matter, if you don't think such an incident ought to spark (in addition to lots of other discussion of societal ills) thoughtful discussion on gun rights, then I'm afraid I can't relate to your perspective at all.

FYI, that community is one of the more conservative/libertarian enclaves you'll find in this part of the country. You'd find an awful lot of folks there who'd share (or, more precisely, had, before yesterday, shared) your view on gun ownership. It's not rural Louisiana, but as close as it's going to get in CT. And gun laws are incredibly open. And while it's not a wealthy area, people can well afford guns. And lots and lots of people there are packing.

So things there were already representative of the armed-to-the-teeth society you're envisioning. But it didn't work real well, and we're not gonna arm kindergarden kids.

On the other hand, if Nancy wasn't an ardent gun enthusiast, these particular weapons would not have been so easily available (I have no inside info, but reports say that's where the shooter got them and it's what most people who knew the situation assumed). Might he have bought his own? Maybe, but that's a higher bar. Might he have, instead, found a way to dump anthrax in the water supply? Same. A higher bar. The bar on buying/owning guns is incredibly low. And it's adjustment of that very bar that I'm favoring. It doesn't need to be this easy. There ought to be background checks and waiting periods. It wouldn't stave off anything violent from ever happen, but raising the bar seems an awfully sane move, if only because it's so incredibly, historically, low at this point.

We certainly don't allow people to buy dangerous agents like anthrax, even though the genome is on the internet and can be synthesized, and I for one am glad of this, even if its illegality doesn't completely prevent its prospective use.

Jim Leff said...

Christy, ok, just saw the Times piece. Sigh. It was my second naive action of the day to engage with him. I refused to comment beyond my blog piece, but, desperate for something, he carved up the piece and served it.

I'm not quite as miffed as you about the context issues; his editing/extraction choices were all defensible, though, in sum, hardly conveyed the spirt of what I'd written. But, per above, that's journalism. If you're lucky, you get the facts straight. Spirit and context are luxuries. And in this frenzy (there are reporters from France and Mexico storming Newtown today), there's no time for luxury.

No more engagement from me, obviously. Are you listening, media?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for providing the forum, Jim.

Sure, let's have a discussion about gun rights - in fact, let's go back to first principles and have a discussion about rights per se: what they are, and what they aren't.

Let's discuss the fundamental rights of life, liberty, and property, from which all other rights emerge. Any discussion of gun rights divorced from first principles will solve nothing.

Let's discuss, too, whether parents should be dropping children as young as five or six years old at institutions that apparently have to be locked, that have to drill for "active shooters," and employ full-time psychologists.

Let's discuss whether the American experiment in government education and compulsory schooling is doing more good than harm, and whether a society organized on principles of compulsion and coercion makes sense on any level.

While we're at it, let's discuss hypocrisy, and how that may lead some people to bitterness, and even anger. Let's have a conversation about the people we elect who go on to murder children in our names and with our moral sanction: far more than twenty of them.

This did not happen in a vacuum. It happened in a context, in a community, in a society.

Let's talk about the entire context, at least to the extent we can, and not just about inanimate objects.

What happened yesterday is horrific and wrong on every level. Let's not compound the tragedy.

Jim Leff said...


Well, let me at least contribute this meta thought: my first sensation upon reading your comments was a feeling that voicing a staunchly pro-guns stance - while perfectly acceptable though it's not my own view - seems inappropriate in a time like this. And that's good, since it gives me at least a glancing sense of how gun rights people feel when they try to erect that same wall at times like this.

I don't think there's anywhere near perfect symmetry (and I only experienced that as a twinge, swiftly suppressed, rather than an actionable compulsion to shut down discussion), but at least I have an emotional inkling on that particular point.

As for the debate at large, I'm open to fresh arguments - or at least freshly-argued ones. I try to understand people I disagree with, e.g. anti-gay-marriage advocates. So if you have anything fresh for me, let 'er rip. I'll respond only if I have anything fresh to offer, myself.

Jim Leff said...

Request: anyone who wants to debate gun control issues, please comment in response to the entry one up from this, about the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence ( I'll pipe up if I have anything interesting to offer).

Veganovich said...

Below is a link to the actual election results in Newtown, CT. Obama beat Romney by 5%, which is only slightly lower than Obama did in Connecticut as a whole. The libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, received 0.1% of the vote, which is 1/8th of what he received statewide. The election results are hardly consistent with the claim that Newtown, CT is “one of the more conservative/libertarian enclaves you'll find in this part of the country.”

Mireio said...

My thoughts on reading and listening to the news is to remember just how much we got wrong at Columbine. Myths that created meaning took over-- and still so many people believe inaccuracies about that event.

This horrible situation is no different. I am sorry that your humble offering of a remembrance has been so butchered. Be thankful, though, that the mainstream media has not linked you--you'll be sparred the hate that inevitably is left in the comments.

Thank you for sharing your memory. I am reminded, despite the media's desire to paint things in stark contrasts, that people are complex.

Prayers for you and your friends and all touched by this incredibly senseless moment.

Jim Leff said...

Veganovich, but who knows how the district is drawn. I'm talking about the folks in northeast newtown, near sandy hook. Newtown sprawls a good bit (and, again, who knows what the district covers), including five miles south where there's a trippy/hippy coffee shop that's from a whole other world.

And "conservative" is a loaded term. Most of the people I know there mistrust government programs/regulations, but would jump at the chance to help anyone in need in any way.

Jim Leff said...

Mireio, thanks. And good point; probably better not to have them here. Though we'll get some when the paper publishes. Oh, I see it's been picked up 1950 times on google news sources....

Anonymous said...

As of 10:33 PM EST today, Jim, the home page of the online version of The New York Times has these headlines concerning the murders of 27 people in Newtown:

"Newtown Shooting | The Victims"

"Children Were All Shot Multiple Times"

"Gunman Fired His Way Into School In Connecticut"

"A Mother, A Gun Enthusiast and the First Victim"

"Justice Dept. Shelved Ideas to Bolster Gun Database"

"New Gun Control Debate Amid Trend to Ease Rules"

Please excuse me if I am wrong, but I infer from your post that you think this is not the time to be debating gun control. If my inference is correct, I agree with you. But you began this post with these words: "Nancy Lanza, mother of the gunman..."

Advocates of abrogating the rights of individuals to own guns for self-defense use tragic events such as these murders to advance their cause. One of the techniques they use, whether consciously, is to draw attention to the means the criminals employ, rather than to the motives or even the victims.

Not surprisingly, when mass murderers drive automobiles onto crowded sidewalks in order to kill as many innocents as possible, no one calls for bans on automobile ownership.

So I think that defenders of the right of individuals to employ guns as a means of self-defense may be forgiven for not biting their tongues in these moments.

As horrible as these murders are, they pale in comparison with the horrors of sanctioned murders - those carried out on a mass basis by society when engaged in offensive warfare against innocents.

Banning guns will not reduce murders by guns. On the contrary, such murders will increase in volume.

M said...

John Harris' comments were spot on

1. I think that timing is wrong, this is not an oil spill or a time to retaliate against a foreign enemy. We all know the anti-gun socialists are salivating for this moment and pursuing a campaign on incremental gun confiscation is wrong at this moment.

2. A nation of 330 Million people, tragedies by guns - knives - homemade explosives or other means will happen and using this intense moment to leverage on a constitutional right is wrong. If there is something to discuss it will me be worthwhile in a few months. Why support hysterical emotion when all the facts are not even in?

3. It is clear from the interview - High School head of security that was aware of significant problems in 2008. "If that boy would've burned himself, he would not have known it or felt it physically," Novia told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "It was my job to pay close attention to that."

that Adam's issues were know, as were the Virginia Tech case, Aurora Case and Gifford's case. People simply do nothing to confront the real evil and take reasonable measures to separate society from these monsters. Adam pumped each victim with no less than 3 rounds and as many as 11. He is an absolute raging monster. My guns, nor the other 250,000,000 ones, play any role in sick minds.

4. Are you ready to confront Hollywood and video games with their clear connection? Ready to modify the 1st amendment, or perhaps just cancel the 1st and 2nd? Because it is clear that these intense films and interactive media play a huge role.

Gun rights are as slippery a slope as free speech, the oppressors of either one act incrementally.

Appreciate your words and the other side of Nancy. It is such a sad situation and the take away is that people need to trust their gut and take appropriate measures with people, like Adam, that clearly demonstrate such troubled minds.

M said...

What role do you think grossly violent Hollywood productions play?

Do you deny that the Dark Knight clearly inspired the Aurora incident?

Is it not possible that Adam was a copycat of that incident on some level seeking attention and or significance?

Any idea if he was a gamer or if he was involved with the first person shooter games, like Call of Duty?

Are you ready to call for censorship of Hollywood and all other forms of media that teaches, encourages and glorifies these acts? Call of Duty sold $500 Million on day one of their release in 2010 and kids play on average 1.5 hour a day EVERY DAY. “ To date, more than 600 million hours have been LOGGED playing Call of Duty: Black Ops since the game launched on November 9, 2010”

The criminal is Adam, the inspiration and impetus of these acts are not inanimate objects, it is our culture.

I grew up around all these types of guns and when I had access to them alone I dared not TOUCH them for respect and innate fear that my Dad would deal out justice. That has all changed and I'll be damed if our 2nd Amendment rights will be chipped away while Hollywood churns out films that glorify extreme violence like Mr & Mrs Smith with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie firing every imaginable firearm at each other for 2 hours.

That or Dark Knight is fantasy? Tell that to the folks in Aurora or your hometown. These kids are being programmed.

Check it - this was from 2010.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, I tend to agree with your comments on gun control:


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