After six-year-old Brandon Holt was shot in the head as he played with neighbours in his front garden he did not die at once and his father, Ronald, leaned over him, made his face and voice as calm as possible and said to him, “Daddy’s here, daddy’s here”.
The afternoon of April 8, 2012, in the cul de sac in Tom’s River, a leafy suburban township in New Jersey, had been the same as any other. Brandon had been out on the lawn with the Senatore kids from next door. But about 6.30pm, the Senatores’ oldest child, a 12-year-boy, knocked on the door, a local paper, The Star Ledger reported later.
“Brandon got hurt,” he said.
Ronald and his wife walked, then ran, down the driveway, to find Brandon slumped in the seat of a golf cart.
Brandon had been playing a “pretend shooting” game with the Senatore children when the youngest, a four-year-old boy, disappeared into his home and returned with a loaded .22 rifle he had taken from his father’s bedroom.
One shot was discharged from about 13 metres and hit Brandon in the head as he sat next to the Senatores’ 8-year-old daughter.
When Ronald arrived he was still struggling to breath, with one eye bulging.
In the weeks that followed, the shooting fractured the community. Many wanted to see the boy’s father, Anthony Senatore, known as Anthony jnr, charged. Police found five unsecured firearms in the house within the reach of his children, along with ammunition. Aside from the .22 that killed Brandon, they found a Stevens 12-gauge shotgun, two Harrington & Richardson shotguns, and a Remington 12-gauge shotgun.
A month later Anthony jnr was charged with five counts of second-degree endangering the welfare of children (his own), one count of third-degree endangering the welfare of a child (Brandon), and a disorderly person’s misdemeanour-offence for enabling access by minors to a loaded firearm.
On December 14 it will be two years since Adam Lanza blasted his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School with a semi-automatic rifle and shot dead 20 children and six staff.
The massacre inflamed, yet again, the culture war over gun ownership in the United States, sparking a new movement for gun control laws. Nationally at least, that movement has failed, with the National Rifle Association successfully blocking the introduction of bans on automatic rifles like the one used in Sandy Hook, or even of universal background checks for people seeking to buy weapons.
And until the recent midterm elections it seemed the gun rights movement was succeeding across the states, too – not just in halting gun-control proposals but even in having state legislatures abolishing those that already existed. Depending on which analysis you read, 70 pro-gun laws have passed since Sandy Hook, compared with about 64 gun-control laws. The trend appears to be that strongly conservative states are loosening their laws, while liberal states are tightening theirs.
The so-called “guns everywhere” law passed in July in Georgia allows permit holders to carry firearms into airport security zones without penalty, as well as into bars, nightclubs, classrooms and certain government buildings. Similar laws have been passed around the country, including in Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.
The day after the law’s introduction in Georgia, two gun owners drew on one another in a convenience store after a “misunderstanding”, a local newspaper said. One saw a gun in a holster on the other’s hip and pulled his weapon. There was some semi-serious debate later about whether under the state’s so-called “shoot first” law, which allows people to use lethal force if they feel threatened, both men might have been justified in shooting the other on seeing each other’s weapons.
In Texas, the gun rights group Texas Open Carry has been expressing its support for the second amendment right to bare arms by gathering in local coffee stores and supermarkets armed with military-style assault rifles.
It is notoriously difficult to record accurately how many people in the US are killed or injured each year by guns. While annual figures emerge eventually, it usually takes years and they are not always accepted universally because research is hampered by a federal funding ban.
In the 1990s the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funded a study that concluded the presence of a gun in a home was a strong indicator of an increased risk of gun violence in that home. Alarmed, the National Rifle Association pushed to limit federal funding of research into gun violence and in 1996 Congress passed the Dickey Amendment, named for the Arkansas Republican who introduced it. The law forbade the use of funds for research that advocate for or promote gun control. While the Dickey Amendment did not ban outright all federal gun studies, researchers say it was clear the CDC and all scientists dependent on federal funding risked losing their backing if they investigated gun violence.
One of the few changes Barack Obama managed to drive home after Sandy Hook was a $10 million package of funding for research, but the Dickey amendment remains in place.
The most reliable recent figures on gun deaths come from 2010, when 31,076 Americans were killed by guns – 11,078 were homicides, 19,392 were suicides, and 606 were accidents. There were also 73,505 people treated in hospitals for gun injuries.
The long-term trend in gun violence is down, in line with declining crime rates. A Pew Research study last year found US firearm homicides peaked in 1993 at 7.0 deaths per 100,000 people, but by 2010 the rate was 49 per cent lower, with firearm-related violence – robberies, assaults and sex crimes – falling 75 per cent from 1993 to 2011.
But the rate of mass shootings appears to be increasing.
According to a study by Every Town for Gun Safety, a gun control group founded after Sandy Hook, there have been more than 90 school shootings since the massacre, including one just after midnight on Thursday local time, when a gunman opened fire in Florida State University library, wounding three students before being shot dead by police.
Meanwhile, the rate of mass shootings has trebled since 2011, according to a study by Harvard University based on data provided by the investigative journalism magazine Mother Jones.
The researchers looked at incidents in which a stranger murdered four or more people, a standard developed by the FBI a decade ago. (A federal law signed by Barack Obama last year used a threshold of three victims.) This research challenges that done by Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, which found a relatively stable rate. The difference can be found in the data the two studies have used. Fox looks at all incidents in which four people were shot dead, including domestic violence and drug and/or gang-related violence .
Scrubbing those sorts of incidents from the data, the Harvard researchers found that between 1982 and September 6, 2011, a mass shooting occurred on average every 200 days in the United States. Since then one has occurred every 64 days.
Meanwhile, a small industry has been spawned in finding ways to protect children in schools from armed attackers.
In a recent survey of new products, the Washington Post spoke to a teacher who had been seeking to patent the Portable Affordable Lockdown System, a cable a teacher could keep on their desk and loop between a classroom door handle and an eyehook bolted into a wall.
“Our classrooms are not safe. There are people bent on doing wrong, doing evil,” inventor Celisa Edwards, of Georgia, told the Post. “And we are deterring those perpetrators.”
Other new products included portable, bullet-proof white boards to use as shields, bullet-proof school bags and an app to monitor for homicidal plots. The industry was believed to be worth $720 million this year, one researcher said.
Kenneth Trump, a national school safety consultant, told the Washington Post, “What’s really being sold here is an emotional security blanket”.
What has confounded many advocates for a broad political response to the incidence of gun violence is that gun control remains popular, not just in the general community, but even among gun owners, even members of the NRA.
Last year, the New England Journal of Medicine published research showing overwhelming support among NRA members for many initiatives the organisation was opposing successfully in Congress and in state governments.
“For instance, 84 per cent of gun owners and 74 per cent of NRA members (versus 90 per cent of non-gun-owners) supported requiring a universal background-check system for all gun sales,” the researchers reported. “Seventy-six per cent of gun owners and 62 per cent of NRA members supported prohibiting gun ownership for 10 years after a person has been convicted of violating a domestic-violence restraining order, and 71 per cent of gun owners and 70 per cent of NRA members supported requiring a mandatory minimum sentence of two years in prison for a person convicted of selling a gun to someone who cannot legally have a gun.”
The NRA does not typically talk to media about gun control, but a former senior NRA lobbyist, Richard Feldman, told Fairfax Media there were two reasons the organisation appeared to be more radical than its membership.
First, of the estimated 5 million NRA members, only about 10 per cent bothered voting on board positions or donating to its campaigns, he said.
“They might only be donating $20 each, but 500,000 times $20 ain’t chump change,” he said.
With its coffers bulging from membership fees and donations, as well as its relationship with arms manufacturers, the NRA expresses to politicians, through what is considered the most sophisticated lobbying machine in the US, the fears and desires of a minority of members, those with the extreme and passionately held views on the right to bare arms.
Second, he blamed the rise of identity politics in the US. He believed many of those motivated members opposed anything proposed by gun control advocates simply because they disliked and mistrusted gun-control advocates. Feldman was abandoned by the organisation when he backed an initiative by then-President Bill Clinton to provide child locks with new guns when they were sold.
Feldman does not believe the NRA genuinely opposed the provision of child locks for guns – after all, there was no compulsion on gun owners to actually use the devices – but they opposed seeing him compromise with a known enemy.
With the general failure of even sympathetic politicians to bring significant change, a new trend emerged in the midterm elections earlier this month.
Gun-control activists simply circumvented legislators by using referenda in various states. Though the election was a huge success for conservatives in office, gun-control activists won a string of victories.
In Washington state a referendum to close the so-called gun show loophole – where private sales don’t require background checks – passed easily and a competing ballot initiative banning any gun restrictions was voted down 55-45 per cent.
Although anti-gun-control measures won in deeply red states like Alabama, “where it counted – Colorado, Connecticut, and Washington State – our side lost big-time,” Mike Vanderboegh, a pro-gun activist from Alabama told the Christian Science Monitor.
One reason might be that for the first time, the deep-pocketed gun lobby was outspent. The NRA spent about $35 million this year to support its candidates – nearly all Republicans – but gun-control groups, funded by billionaires like Bill Gates and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg spent more than $50 million. Gun-control groups spent $4 million in Washington state alone, whereas NRA spent about $500,000.
John Feinblatt, president of Mr Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety, celebrated the results. “When Americans vote on public safety measures to prevent gun violence, gun safety wins,” he said. “The NRA might be able to intimidate Washington, DC, and state legislators, but they don’t intimidate American voters.”
In Connecticut, where Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy signed a gun-control law requiring registration of semi-automatic weapons and large magazines, voters returned him to office. Malloy was a target of the gun lobby, which argued the law was unconstitutional. About 100,000 gun owners are refusing to register their guns and the state is threatening them with legal action and the loss of their right to own guns.
In Colorado, Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper also narrowly won re-election after signing laws requiring background checks for gun purchases and limiting the size of ammunition magazines. Unlike mostly liberal Connecticut, Colorado is a swing state and Hickenlooper trailed his Republican opponent for much of the campaign before pulling out a nail biter.
Tactics have changed, too. Where once most gun-control groups advocated banning gun types, most now pursue more limited changes.
Dan Gross, the president of one of the nation’s leading gun-control groups, the Brady Centre to Prevent Gun Violence, told Fairfax Media Brady did not want to see some guns banned from all people, but all guns banned from some people.
That is, where once activists sought to ban hand-guns, then semi-automatic weapons, activists now claim to support the second amendment but seek to introduce new regulations, such as universal background checks, compulsory child locks and bans on people with domestic violence records.
A Brady Centre report published last month, called the Truth About Kids and Guns, showed that guns are the second-leading cause of death and injury to American children after car accidents. Gross said while the auto industry and government did all they could to reduce the incidence and impact of such accidents, the gun industry and NRA did all it could to prevent any action to reduce the impact of gun deaths. The report showed that in 2011, 19,403 children and teens were shot and 2703 were killed.
Children had no say about living in a home with an unsecured weapon, he said. He also argued that mass killings were part of the story, because most perpetrators of school shootings – people like the Sandy Hook killer – took their weapons from their home.
Everytown for Gun Safety has also focused on the issue of children, producing a report on accidental child shootings in the year from December 2012 to December last year. It makes for difficult reading. Over 20 pages it provides snapshots of the lives and deaths of children who have found guns in their homes or cars and accidently shot themselves or people around them.
Some examples: The day after the murders in Sandy Hook, three-year-old Ryder Rozier was visiting the home of his uncle, Ian Rozier, a 37-year-old Oklahoma highway patrolman, when he found the state trooper’s loaded handgun and accidentally shot himself in the head.
A couple of weeks later, on Christmas day, the Smiths in Conway, North Carolina, had just finished the family meal when two-year-old Sincere picked up a loaded .38 and shot himself in the chest.
In Jacksonville, Florida, three children were playing together when one found a .22 handgun and accidently shot her friend Tatiana Mitchell in the head.
Brandon Holt’s story is retold in scant detail on page 26 of the document, just above that of three-year-old Qui’ontrez Moss, late of Sumter, South Carolina.
Last month Anthony Senatore, 35, pleaded guilty to two of the six counts of endangering children he had originally been charged with for leaving those weapons lying around the house next to Brandon’s home.
Brandon’s father Ronald told Fairfax Media the legal result means little to his family.
Senatore faces three years in prison and will be free on bail until his sentencing in February.
At the hearing last month prosecutors said they would make him surrender his guns and his firearms purchaser ID card.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Wuxi Plastic Surgery Hospital.