One of Stephen King's earliest novels centres on a troubled teenager who takes a gun to school, murders his algebra teacher, and holds his class hostage. Nearly 20 years after its publication, a student walked into his algebra class in Washington, killing his teacher and two students – quoting the book following the crime. After a handful of shootings where links were made to his book, King made the decision to pull Rage from the shelves.
Though the book is out of print, King continued to research gun crime and control, and following the tragedy in Sandy Hook, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children aged between 6 and 7 years-old, as well as six adult staff members in 2012, he wrote the ebook Guns in 2013 – with profits going to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Last month, America witnessed the worst mass shooting in its history, as a gunman massacred 49 in a gay club in Orlando. This month, at a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, five police officers were killed. And just last night at a teenage disco at Club Blu in Fort Myers, Florida, two people were killed and 17 injured - including a 12-year-old child.
There were 372 mass shootings in the US in 2015 (64 in schools), killing 475 people and wounding 1,870, according to the Mass Shooting Tracker. According to the Gun Violence Archive, 13,286 people were killed in the US with firearms in 2015, and 26,819 people were injured.
As the gun debate rages on in the US, here, we revisit Stephen King's final chapter in his essay Guns, where he outlines the need for Americans to accept controls on assault weapons.
I have nothing against gun owners, sport shooters, or hunters (as long as it's varmints they're after, or, in the case of bigger game, they eat what they kill), but automatic weapons and assault rifles (such as .223 assault rifle, Glock 19, M-16 rifle, Bushmaster AR-15, Tec-9, Intratec DC9M machine pistol) are not used to shoot skeet or kill deer. If you used a Bushmaster on a deer in anything but single-shot mode, you'd turn the poor thing into hair-covered meatloaf. Semi-automatics have only two purposes. One is so owners can take them to the shooting range once in awhile, yell 'yeehaw', and get all horny at the rapid fire and the burning vapour spurting from the end of the barrel. Their other use — their only other use — is to kill people.
In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, gun advocates have to ask themselves if their zeal to protect even the outer limits of gun ownership have anything to do with preserving the Second Amendment as a whole, or if it's just a stubborn desire to hold onto what they have, and to hell with the collateral damage. If that's the case, let me suggest that 'fuck you, Jack, I'm okay' is not a tenable position, morally speaking.
I read a jaw-dropping online defence of these weapons from a California woman recently. Guns, she said, are just tools. Like spoons, she said. Would you outlaw spoons simply because some people use them to eat too much?
Lady, let's see you try to kill twenty schoolkids with a fucking spoon.
Guns are not tools — not unless you reverse a pistol and use the butt to hammer in a nail. Guns are weapons. Autos and semi-autos are weapons of mass destruction. When lunatics want to make war on the unarmed and unprepared, these are the weapons they use. In most cases, they are bought legally. These killing machines are for sale on the Internet as I speak. The real question is hackneyed, but I suppose it has to be asked: How many have to die before we will give up these dangerous toys? Do the murders have to be in the mall where you shop? In your own neighbourhood? In your own family? One hopes for a little more public spirit and citizenship than that, even in this politically double-fucked country. A gun is not a bit like a spoon. A gun is like a gun.
Guns, she said, are just tools. Like spoons, she said. Would you outlaw spoons simply because some people use them to eat too much? Lady, let's see you try to kill twenty schoolkids with a fucking spoon.
In January 2013, President Obama announced — to the predictable howls of outrage from America's right wing — 23 executive orders and three major initiatives to help curb the spread of guns and stiffen penalties for illegal use and possession. (The NRA's response was a vile ad suggesting that Obama's daughters were receiving special treatment, as though a terrorist attack on the Chief Executive's family were not even a possibility... don't these guys watch shows like Homeland?) What it all boils down to is a trio of reasonable measures to curb gun violence. I list them in ascending order, from the one most likely to happen to the one least likely.
Comprehensive and universal background checks. This probably will happen, and not a moment too soon. For one thing, it would entail a waiting period, and that alone might stop a number of would-be mass killers. Remember that two school shooters, Dustin Pierce and Michael Carneal, expressed incredulity at what they had done only moments later. James Holmes, the movie theatre shooter, was apprehended as he stood beside his car, in a daze. Violent emotions (especially in teenagers like Pierce, Carneal, and Loukaitis) are like spring tornadoes in the Midwest: their departure is as sudden as their violent arrival.
Given a chance to think, even for 48 hours, would be enough to stop at least some of these guys. Not all — [Columbine killers Eric] Harris and [Dylan] Klebold planned for months, and only an act of God would have stopped them — but some; the ones who look at what they've done and express disbelief at how disastrously their lives have changed. As a corollary to these background checks, there have to be stiff penalties for those who lie about their pasts in order to obtain weapons, and the penalties have to be enforced. Not just a slap on the wrist, either. We're talking jail time here.
Why sell more than ten rounds?
Ban the sale of clips and magazines containing more than ten rounds. I think that's too many; to borrow the title of an old sitcom, I believe eight is enough. But I'd happily accept ten. It's better than thirty. Or fifty. Or a hundred. I believe the NRA's idea of putting armed guards in schools is ridiculous — think of the last elderly, truss-wearing crossing guard you saw — but suppose it happened? If I'm a shooter with enough sanity left in my haunted brain to choose a high-capacity weapon, I'm going to scope out the guards first, and they're going to be the first ones to go. But a shooter with only eight or ten rounds at his disposal really might be taken down, if not by an elderly rent-a-cop, then by a brave teacher or bystander.
Dawn Hochsprung, the principal of the Sandy Hook school, died apparently in an effort to subdue Adam Lanza. If Lanza had been reloading after shooting his way in, she might have succeeded. He was crazy, but he was also a scrawny wisp of a kid. The Bushmaster was his equaliser, he had plenty of ammo left, so he shot and killed Hochsprung before she could get to him. I wish with all my heart that she had tackled him, beat the crazy little fuck's head bloody against the floor, and gotten a medal from the President on national TV. She was too brave to die the way she did.
Ban assault weapons
Ban the sale of assault weapons such as the Bushmaster and the AR-15. This is the one that probably won't happen, partly because of the NRA's influence on a great many congressmen and senators, but also because plenty of gun advocates cling to their semi-automatics the way Amy Winehouse and Michael Jackson clung to the shit that was killing them. There are rationalisations but very little actual discourse on the subject of banning assault weapons. What we get mostly are incoherent screams of outrage and furious references to "the liberal agenda." When I listen to gun advocates and NRA brass on this subject, I get an image of a little kid doing a tantrum in the dirt, rolling around with his hands plastered over his ears. No! No! No! No! Also, La-la-la-la, I can't HEAR you, can't HEAR you, can't HEAR you!
What they can't hear — because they don't want to — is that the restriction of heavy weaponry works, possibly because most of these yo-yos are so dismally screwed up they probably need a map to put their pants on in the morning. James Holmes may have thought he was The Joker, but he really wasn't; he was a dope with a few very large screws loose in his thinking machinery. Most of them are.
Assault weapons will remain readily available to crazy people until the powerful pro-gun forces in this country decide to do a similar turnaround. They must accept responsibility, recognizing that responsibility is not the same as culpability.
Here's a dope for you: Martin Bryant, of Port Arthur, in Tasmania. On April 28, 1996, he went on a spree with an AR-15 he purchased through a newspaper ad — easy-peasy. This happy asshole mowed down over a dozen in a crowded café, moved on to a gift shop where he killed some more, then moseyed to a parking garage where he killed yet more. The final tally was thirty-five dead and twenty-three wounded. He called his spree "lots of fun", and in court laughed wildly when the judge read out the charges and intoned the names of the dead. He is now serving 1,035 years in Ridson Prison, and that should probably be enough. For him, at least. Maybe still not quite enough for the grieving relatives of the dead and the maimed.
For Australia, though, it was enough. The government either banned or restricted automatic weapons (as well as pump shotguns of the sort Harris used at Columbine). As for those autos already out there, the government authorised a huge buyback that eventually netted 600,000 weapons. It amounted to about 20% of the country's private firepower. Since the Bryant killings and the resulting tough gun laws, homicides by firearm have declined almost 60 percent in Australia. The guns-for-everyone advocates hate that statistic, and dispute it, but as Bill Clinton likes to say, it's not opinion. It's arithmetic, honey.
In the end, this sort of ban can only be accomplished in one way, and that's if gun advocates get behind it. I can hear people laughing and saying pigs will whistle and horses will fly before that happens, but hey, I'm an optimist. If enough American gun-owners urge Congress to do the right thing, and insist the NRA climb aboard, the results might surprise you. Gun owners aren't dragons, and they don't have to practice Gerald Ford two-mindedness, simultaneously mourning the victims and denying the role speed-shooters play in these tragedies, forever.
I didn't pull Rage from publication because the law demanded it; I was protected under the First Amendment, and the law couldn't demand it. I pulled it because in my judgement it might be hurting people, and that made it the responsible thing to do. Assault weapons will remain readily available to crazy people until the powerful pro-gun forces in this country decide to do a similar turnaround. They must accept responsibility, recognising that responsibility is not the same as culpability. They need to say, "We support these measures not because the law demands we support them, but because it's the sensible thing."
Until that happens, shooting sprees will continue. We will see the BREAKING NEWS chevrons, the blurry cellphone videos of running people, the tearful relatives, the rolling hearses. We will also see, time and time and time again, how easy it is for the crazies among us to get their hands on portable and efficient weapons of mass destruction.
Because, boys and girls, that's how it shakes out.
Stephen King is one of the world's most popular storytellers. His most recent novel is the just-published End of Watch. He's a recipient of a National Medal of Arts and a National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.