Authors: Stephen King
By Stephen King
Here’s how it shakes out.
First there’s the shooting. Few of the trigger-pullers are
middle-aged, and practically none are old. Some are young men; many are just
boys. The Jonesboro, Arkansas, school shooters were 13 and 11.
Second, the initial TV news reports, accompanied by
flourishes of music and dramatic BREAKING NEWS logos at the bottom of your
screen. No one really knows what the fuck is going on, but it’s exciting. You
get your still photo of the location; you get your map from Google or Bing. The
cable news producers are busting their asses, trying to get some local news
reporter on the phone.
Third comes confirmation that it’s not a false alarm; there
are casualties! American blood has been spilled! Planes with reporters and
video crews onboard begin rolling down runways in New York and Atlanta, bound
for whatever Podunk just got lit up by a psycho with a gun.
Fourth, the first video. It’s always from a cellphone. You
know this because it’s short, and everything is all crooked and jittery. Mostly
what it shows is people running.
Fifth, the first on-scene news reports, filed by those local
reporters who must sub until the A-team arrives. All of them are bullshit with
excitement at their unexpected turn on the national stage, although some hide
it better than others. One or more will use the phrase “as many as,” followed
by a number. This linguistic construction will be used dozens of times in the
first hour, as the reporters slowly close in on the shooter’s final tally. It’s
like watching a carnival game of chance.
As many as six
Witnesses who fled the shooter say it’s at least eight
Sixth, the correct equation: X dead, Y injured.
Seventh, the first cop interview. Cop One says nothing
substantive, and doesn’t have to. His job is to look stalwart and use police
Eighth, the shooter is indentified incorrectly.
Ninth, the first stand-up report from outside the local
hospital, preferably with an ambulance in the background. Bonus points for an
arriving ambulance with lights and siren.
Tenth, the shooter is identified correctly, and we get to
look at a yearbook photo in which the guy looks pretty much like anybody. The
search is already under way for a photo where he will look like your worst
Eleventh, the first Talking Head interview. Said Head talks
about gun violence. He or she may also bring up America’s famous culture of
violence, but it’s probably too early. The culture-of-violence thing usually
has to wait until the third or fourth Talking Head interview.
Twelfth, interviews with eyewitnesses, most of them weeping
and inarticulate (the phrase “popping sounds” will be used). A reporter who
makes actual money for asking questions so dumb they are surreal will inquire,
“How did you feel?”
Thirteenth, wall-to-wall cable news coverage begins. By now
producers will be assembling the best clips, and you will see them more often
than Fred Thompson flogging reverse mortgages.
Fourteenth, recaps of previous shootings begin. We will be
shown the superstars of America’s unbalanced and disaffected time and time
again: Harris, Klebold, Cho, Mohammed, Malvo, Lanza. These are the guys we
remember, not the victims. News producers are especially fond of Aurora movie
theater shooter James Holmes’s booking photo, ’cos gosh, that motherfucker just
. He really
your worst nightmare!
Fifteenth, interviews with people who knew the shooter. They
all agree that he was pretty weird, but no one expected him to do something
Sixteenth, what cable news does best now begins, and will
continue for the next seventy-two hours: the slow and luxurious licking of
tears from the faces of the bereaved. We’re treated to interviews with weeping
mothers and fathers; interviews with stunned siblings and classmates; fleets of
hearses rolling from church to cemetery; memorials featuring flowers, teddy
bears, photographs, and signs saying WE WILL NEVER FORGET YOU. The best part of
Number Sixteen is that the cable networks are now free to resume commercial
messages. As a result, you can go directly from a funeral to info about adult
diapers, or products to stiffen your penis, or how if you follow a certain
green line across your kitchen floor, you’ll be able to spend your retirement
living in Fat City.
Seventeenth, the NRA announces they will have no comment
until the details become clear. Also out of sympathy for the victims. Pro-gun
legislators neglect to return calls from news organizations.
Eighteenth, politicians decree a national dialogue about gun
control. This dialogue centers on automatic and semiautomatic weapons, plus
high-capacity clips and magazines for same. (The gun Adam Lanza used at Sandy
Hook to murder almost two dozen little kids was a Bushmaster AR-15. He also
carried a Glock .10, a pistol so big it’s issued to rangers in Greenland,
should they encounter polar bears.)
Nineteenth, the NRA drops the other shoe (only it’s more
like a combat boot), proclaiming itself dead-set against any changes in
existing gun laws. In their official statement, they blame the shooters and
America’s culture of violence. They also single out the failure of mental
health professionals to ID potentially dangerous persons, even though most US
senators and representatives with A ratings from the NRA don’t want to see a
single dime of federal aid spent on beefing up such services. (Gosh, they’ve
got that pesky deficit to think about.) The NRA doesn’t come right out and say
the victims are also to blame for thinking they could live in America without a
gun on their person or in their purse, but the implication is hard to miss.
Twentieth, there’s a killer tornado in Louisiana, or an
outbreak of hostilities in the Mideast, or a celebrity dead of a drug overdose.
Out comes the dramatic music and the BREAKING NEWS chyrons. The shooting is
relegated to second place. Pretty soon it’s in third place. Then it’s a squib
behind that day’s funny YouTube video.
Twenty-first, any bills to change existing gun laws,
including those that make it possible for almost anyone in America to purchase
a high-capacity assault weapon, quietly disappear into the legislative swamp.
Twenty-second, it happens again and the whole thing starts
That’s how it shakes out.
During my junior and senior years in high school, I wrote my
first novel, then titled
Getting It On
. I suppose if it had been written
today, and some high school English teacher had seen it, he would have rushed
the manuscript to the guidance counselor and I would have found myself in
therapy posthaste. But 1965 was a different world, one where you didn’t have to
take off your shoes before boarding a plane and there were no metal detectors
at the entrances to high schools. Also a world where America hadn’t been
constantly at war for a dozen years.
Getting It On
concerned a troubled boy named Charlie
Decker with a domineering father, a load of adolescent angst, and a fixation on
Ted Jones, the school’s most popular boy. Charlie takes a gun to school, kills
his algebra teacher, and holds his class hostage. During the siege that
follows, a kind of psychological inversion takes hold, and gradually the class
begins to see Ted rather than Charlie as the villain. When Ted tries to escape,
his supposedly well-adjusted classmates beat the shit out of him. Charlie caps
his final day of public education by trying to commit what is sometimes called
Ten years later, after the first half-dozen of my books had
become bestsellers, I revisited
Getting It On
, rewrote it, and submitted
it to my paperback publisher under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman. It was
, sold a few thousand copies, and disappeared from
view. Or so I thought.
Then, in April of 1988, a San Gabriel, California, high
school student named Jeff Cox walked into his English class, declared that
“urban terrorism is fun,” and held his fellow students hostage with a
Korean-made .223 assault rifle. He had a few modest demands: sodas, cigarettes,
sandwiches, and a million dollars in cash. He fired several shots, but into the
walls and ceilings rather than at the kids. “I don’t think I can kill anyone,”
he said. “I don’t think I can do it.” One of the students jumped him while he
was gabbing on the phone, and disarmed him. When police asked where he’d gotten
the idea, he told them from an airliner hijacking story on TV. Oh, and from a
paperback novel called
Seventeen months later, a shy 17-year-old named Dustin
Pierce burst into a World History class at Jackson, Kentucky, High School with
a .44 Magnum and a shotgun. He shot into the ceiling and told teacher Brenda
Clark and about a dozen of the students to leave. He held 11 others hostage
while police surrounded the building and a SWAT team was flown in by
helicopter. Pierce, meanwhile, flipped through Clark’s grade book and remarked,
“Look how smart I am. Why am I doing this?” One by one, Pierce let his hostages
go, and by 4 p.m., it was just Dustin and his Dirty Harry revolver. “I became
increasingly afraid he would kill himself,” said hostage negotiator Bob
Stephens. “He seemed to be carrying out the scenario of a book he had been
reading.” The book was
. Dustin Pierce didn’t kill himself or anyone
else. He threw out his guns and emerged with his hands up. What he really
wanted, it turned out, was to see his father. And for his father — maybe for
the first time — to really see
In February of 1996, a boy named Barry Loukaitis walked into
his algebra class in Moses Lake, Washington, with a .22 caliber revolver and a
high-powered hunting rifle. He used the rifle to kill instructor Leona Caires
and two students. Then, waving the pistol in the air, he declared, “This sure
beats algebra, doesn’t it?” The quote is from
. A phys ed teacher,
in a commendable act of heroism, charged Loukaitis and overpowered him.
In 1997, Michael Carneal, age 14, arrived at Heath High
School, in Paducah, Kentucky, with a Ruger MK II semi-automatic pistol in his
backpack. He approached a before-school prayer group, paused to load his gun
and stuff shooter’s plugs in his ears, then opened fire. He killed three and
wounded five. Then he dropped the gun on the floor and cried, “Kill me! Please!
I can’t believe I did that!” A copy of
was found in his locker.
That was enough for me, even though at the time, the
Loukaitis and Carneal shootings were the only
-related ones of which
I was aware. I asked my publishers to pull the novel from publication, which
they did, although it wasn’t easy. By then it was a part of an omnibus
containing all four Bachman books. (In addition to
, there was
The Running Man
— another novel
about a shooter with psychological problems.) The Bachman collection is still
available, but you won’t find
The Copycat Effect
, written by Loren
Coleman (Simon and Schuster, 2004), I also apologized for writing
No, sir, no ma’am, I never did and never would. It took more than one slim
novel to cause Cox, Pierce, Loukaitis, and Carneal to do what they did. These
were unhappy boys with deep psychological problems, boys who were bullied at
school and bruised at home by parental neglect or outright abuse. They seem to
have been operating in a dream, two of them verbally asking themselves
afterward why they did what they did. As for what was going on with them before
spent several weeks in an LA
County psych ward, where he spoke of putting a gun in his mouth and pulling the
was collateral damage in an
ugly divorce; his father left and his mother often talked to the boy about
was bullied. In addition, he
suffered from paranoia so great he would cover the vents and windows in the
school bathrooms, because he believed people were watching him pee. When
sitting in chairs, he lifted his feet so no one hiding beneath could grab him.
wrote poems about how
worthless his father was, and how he wished the man were dead.
All four had easy access to guns. Most of the weapons they
used were in the home. Cox bought his at Wolfe’s Gun Shop in his hometown of
San Gabriel, for $400 — easy-peasy. The clerk had no reason not to sell it to
him; the boy said the semi-auto was a present for his father and was old enough
under California law to buy a firearm.
Ryan Lanza’s mother bought her guns, as so many people do,
for home defense. When young Lanza wanted them, he killed her.
My book did not break Cox, Pierce, Carneal, or Loukaitis, or
turn them into killers; they found something in my book that spoke to them
because they were already broken. Yet I did see
as a possible
accelerant, which is why I pulled it from sale. You don’t leave a can of
gasoline where a boy with firebug tendencies can lay hands on it.
Nevertheless, I pulled it with real regret. Not because it
was great literature — with the possible exception of Arthur Rimbaud, teenagers
rarely pen great literature — but because it contained a nasty glowing center
of truth that was more accessible to me as an adolescent. Adults do not forget
the horrors and shamings of their childhood, but those feelings tend to lose
their immediacy (except perhaps in dreams, where even old men and women find
themselves taking tests they have not studied for with no clothes on). The
violent actions and emotions portrayed in
were drawn directly from
the high school life I was living five days a week, nine months of the year.
The book told unpleasant truths, and anyone who doesn’t feel a qualm of regret
at throwing a blanket over the truth is an asshole with no conscience.
As far as I’m concerned, high school sucked when I went, and
probably sucks now. I tend to regard people who remember it as the best four
years of their lives with caution and a degree of pity. For most kids, it’s a
time of doubt, stress, painful self-consciousness, and unhappiness. They’re
actually the lucky ones. For the bullied underclass — the wimps, the shrimps,
and the girls who are routinely referred to as scags, bags, or hos — it’s four
years of misery and two kinds of hate: the kind you feel for yourself and the
kind you feel for the jackwads who bump you in the halls, pull down your shorts
in gym class, and pick out some charming nickname like Queerboy or Frogface
that sticks to you like glue. In Iroquois rituals of manhood, naked warriors
were sent running down a gantlet of braves swinging clubs and jabbing with the
butt ends of spears. In high school, the goal is Graduation Day instead of a
manhood feather, but I imagine the feelings are about the same.
I had friends in high school — including a girlfriend who
stood up for me when I needed standing-up for, God bless her — and I possessed
a certain sophomoric wit that gained me respect (also a few detentions, which
were a very acceptable trade-off). Those things got me through. Even so, I
couldn’t wait to put high school behind me and meet people who did not consider
giving wedgies to losers a valid part of social interaction.
If that was how it was for me, a more or less regular dude,
how must it be for kids like Jeff Cox, Dustin Pierce, Barry Loukaitis, or
Michael Carneal? Is it really so surprising that they would find a soul brother
in the fictional Charlie Decker? But that doesn’t mean we excuse them, or give
them blueprints to express their hate and fear. Charlie had to go.
He was dangerous. And in more ways than one.