Stephen Hunter: The massacre spree that never was

Stephen Hunter retired as the Pulitzer Prize-winning chief film critic of The Washington Post in 2008 and is the author of the Bob Lee Swagger novels. His most recent is Targeted, published earlier this year. Inspired by recent events, he sent us this column.

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Possibly you’re old enough to remember the great massacre spree of 1964? Classrooms shot up, strip malls decimated, scout troops blown away, fast food restaurants turned into mortuaries.

And all because, in its infinite stupidity, the U.S. government dumped 240,000 high-capacity .30 caliber assault rifles into an otherwise innocent America.

The weapons clearly had a demon-spirit to them. Compared to anything else in the market, they had that murder-most-easy look. One glance at the sinister gleam of the walnut stock which caressed the military-gray receiver and barrel of the weapon, its magazine wickedly boasting of many cartridges ready and waiting, its photo- and Hollywood associations with war, and some went screwball. They had the overwhelming desire to use it as it was meant to be used. It was not powerful enough for deer and not accurate enough for vermin. It existed only to kill human beings.

Except there was no massacre spree of 1964, despite the fact that in 1963 the United States Army surplussed 240,000 M1 carbines via the NRA. They were available through the mail at $20. Not an NRA member? Eighty bucks, then, from any sporting goods store. Denver’s Dave Cook’s–“Guns Galore at Prices to Score”– had them by mail order, magazine and sling included, postage, $1.25.

What did happen next was remarkable. It was also simple: nothing. Firearms deaths in 1964 rose modestly, in accord with statistical norms. No spurt of slaughter can be documented, much less attributed, to the sudden presence of all these weapons of war.

Some experts might argue that the carbine, an auxiliary rifle adopted by the army — six million were manufactured — for truck drivers and clerks, but preferred by many combat GI’s, was not a true “assault rifle.” It fired a cartridge far less powerful than the army’s majestic Garand rifle, a true battle weapon.

Liberals will add that it’s not scary, by which they mean it doesn’t scare them. It doesn’t have the pistol grip or the ventilated cooling sleeve encasing the barrel that so enflames the liberal imagination. That’s because it expresses the design tropes of the ’40s, not the ’50’s. However, for more expert commentary on this issue, we could ask the dead — they knew it well.

They would include the hundreds of Germans and Japanese it killed in the hands of Audie Murphy in Italy and Guy Gabaldon on Saipan, as well as the hundred-thousands in other war theaters killed by their huge cohort. Let’s not forget the thousands of North Korean soldiers killed by M1-equipped army and marine infantry in Korea. Let’s not forget Che. Among its true believers must also be counted the Secret Service, which deployed it into the ’60’s, as the South Vietnamese did into the ’70s. More than 30 militaries the world over adopted it, some of which still use it.

It was clearly our first assault rifle; its appearance is meaningless. The cartridge was as powerful as the iconic .357 magnum. It held either 15 or 30 rounds, depending on the magazine. It could be fired as quickly as the trigger was pulled — 30 shots in 10 seconds sounds about right– and reloaded in two or three seconds. It never jammed. It was light and handy with minimal recoil. Certain iterations had folding stocks, reducing the 35-inch length by a third, making concealment easy. Some had full-auto capacity. All had bayonet studs. It could do anything an AR-15 can do except kill groundhogs at 400 yards or penetrate a car door at 20. Either Peyton Gendron or Salvador Ramos could have employed it to the same results.

So in 1964, the guns were there — lots of them, everywhere, dirt cheap. But Gendron and Ramos were not. We must look elsewhere for the reason why.

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