When the subject of lethal firearms and mass killers and gun regulations comes up, as it will again and again, keep this quote handy. These are the words of Elliot Rodger on getting home with his first handgun, not long before his massacre in Isla Vista:

After I picked up the handgun, I brought it back to my room and felt a new sense of power. I was now armed. Who's the alpha male now, bitches? I thought to myself, regarding all of the girls who've looked down on me in the past.

Elliot Rodger was a legend in his own mind, and he made guns a part of that legend. His case doesn't merely brook a conversation about gun regulations and whether we make it too easy to own a firearm. His case should force us to confront America's gun culture, and to ask whether we make it too desirable to own a firearm.

Mind you, gun fondlers and their largely unarmed pseudo-intellectual ilk would prefer if that conversation simply didn't happen. The National Review began its post-Rodgers pro-gun editorial by blasting "the classic" boilerplate of gun-control advocates, only to end the piece with boilerplate of its own: "It is at this point something of a cliché, but it should perhaps be offered anyway: If someone is determined to kill a substantial number of people, he will almost certainly manage to do so." Rodger also stabbed some unfortunate souls and attacked more with his car, see. Why pick on guns?

Yes, it is something of a cliché. (There are not 100,000 Americans killed or maimed with knives each year.) Adam Gopnik has deftly dispensed with that cliché and others that the loudest, most irrational gun-lovers deploy to shut down conversations:

We know that slogans masquerading as plain speech are mere rhetoric because, on a moment's inspection, they reveal themselves to be absurd. "The best answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun" reveals itself to be a lie on a single inspection: the best answer is to not let the bad guy have a gun. "Guns don't kill people, people do." No: obviously, people with guns kill more people than people without them. Why not ban knives or cars, which can be instruments of death, too? Because these things were designed to help people do things other than kill people. "Gun control" means controlling those things whose first purpose is to help people kill other people.

At what point in Elliot Rodger's mind did his planned Day of Retribution go from a dumb, mad solipsistic fantasy to a sick real-life plan? We could look to his manifesto—for example, to the first day in 2012 that he shot a gun, alone, to pass time while he waited for delivery of a new gaming computer that his mother had purchased for him:

Going to the shooting range while I waited for my laptop gave me the perfect opportunity to gain some initial training in shooting guns, which will be the main weapons I use as vengeance against my enemies when the Day of Retribution ultimately comes to pass. I walked into the range, rented a handgun from the ugly old redneck cashier, and started to practice shooting at paper targets. As I fired my first few rounds, I felt so sick to the stomach. I questioned my whole life, and I looked at the gun in front of me and asked myself "What am I doing here? How could things have led to this?" I couldn't believe my life was actually turning out this way. There I was, practicing shooting with real guns because I had a plan to carry out a massacre.

We could look to the day he bought his Glock:

My first act of preparation was the purchase my first handgun. I did this quickly and hastily, at a local gun shop called Goleta Gun and Supply. I had already done some research on handguns, and I decided to purchase the Glock 34 semiautomatic pistol, an efficient and highly accurate weapon. I signed all of the papers and was told that my pickup day was in mid-­December.

We could look to the moment he got the Glock back to his room—that quote from the beginning of this post. Worth rereading:

After I picked up the handgun, I brought it back to my room and felt a new sense of power. I was now armed. Who's the alpha male now, bitches? I thought to myself, regarding all of the girls who've looked down on me in the past.

We could look to the day he decided one handgun wasn't enough:

During this Spring of 2013, I began to seriously think about planning the Day of Retribution. My next step towards planning for it was to buy my second handgun, a Sig Sauer P226. It is of a much higher quality than the Glock, and a lot more efficient. In turn, it was also a lot more expensive. My Glock 34 was around $700 dollars, whereas my new Sig Sauer P226 was $1100.

We could look to the day he decided two handguns weren't enough:

I had enough extra money saved up to live comfortably and indulgently before I die. I didn't spend all of it though, for I still needed supplies that were vital to my plans. First, I needed to buy a third handgun, just in case one of them jams. I needed two working handguns at the same time, as that was how I planned to commit suicide; with two simultaneous shots to the head. I also needed to buy magazine clips and ammunition, as well as knives and carrying cases for my equipment.

We could look to the 41 extra handgun magazines he took with him on his killing spree or the four-hundred-plus rounds of ammunition he loaded into them. Or we could look to the way he planned his massacre fantasy around his guns:

After I have killed all of the sorority girls at the Alpha Phi House, I will quickly get into the the SUV before the police arrive, assuming they would arrive within 3 minutes. I will then make my way to DelPlaya, splattering as many of my enemies as I can with the SUV, and shooting anyone I don't splatter...

I will pull up next to a house party and fire bullets at everyone partying on the front yard. I will specifically target the good looking people, and all of the couples. After I have destroyed a house party, I will continue down Del Playa, destroying everything and everyone. When I see the first police car come to their rescue, I will drive away as fast as I can, shooting and ramming anyone in my path until I find a suitable place to finally end my life.

We could look to all these moments, or we could look away from them. But what we cannot ignore is the now-ossified American myth of the gun as the "peacemaker," the "equalizer," the heralded and sacrosanct righter of wrongs that helped make this country great.

Take, for example, the first words on gunmaker Colt's "history" page about its founder: "Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam Colt made them equal."

Guns are fun. They are useful. They are, like all tools, limited in their utility. But unlike most tools, they are virtually unlimited in their capacity for destruction.

It is true in a strict sense that guns make men equal. They make the deranged, the paranoid, the excitable, the racist, and the brute equal in strength and righteousness to the sane, the cautious, the paranoid, the open-minded, and the meek.

One thing that is clear about Elliot Rodger is that for all his racism, his privilege, his misogyny, his acting out, his awfulness and his sickness, he never doubted that he was right and just. In idiosyncratic language, he averred again and again that attractive people were "horrifyingly" "cocksure" "pricks," "foul" "beasts" that he deserved to best in love and in life. He felt impotent to do that until he armed himself.

On at least two occasions, Rodger threw coffee on women or couples he didn't like in Isla Vista. He verbally attacked others on the street. He sprayed a crowd of students with an orange juice-filled Super Soaker. His father once restrained him from tossing his soda at a couple during lunch. His friends talked him out of acting similarly on occasion.

Then he rented that gun on the Oxnard range. He got the Glock and his alpha male rush. Then the Sig. Things changed. He changed. Several of his friends permanently broke contact with him. He ran through relationship counselors at a steady clip. He drank heavily and vomited often.

And finally, months before the massacre but after he'd assembled most of his arsenal, he got bolder. He got drunk, crashed a house party, had his leg broken, and returned with his fractured limb to fight the partygoers after attempting to throw several women over a ten-foot-high railing. The police actually knew about that last incident, in which Rodger embellished his account and unsuccessfully sought to prosecute the people who had broken his leg.

In the next months, as he sat alone, his leg mending, his mind on his guns as much as on his misery, he got the final handgun and made the final resolution:

Only now, I was ready and capable of fighting back against the cruelty of women. Back when I was a weak and timid boy at Taft High School, I was powerless and frightened, having to resort to hiding in a life of playing video games. All of the suffering, loneliness, rejection, and humiliation I had to experience since then had strengthened me. The hatred that festered inside me in all of those years leading up to this point had empowered me in a dark, twisted way. I was now armed with weapons, possessed great intelligence and philosophical insight, with the willpower to exact the most catastrophic act of vengeance the world will ever see.

His self-righteousness, always present and never reflective, found talismanic expression in the weapons, in what they represented. Does that sound dramatic? Good: That's what he was going for, as somebody "who always loved fantasy and magic, and who always wished that such things were real." His firearms were supernatural, restorers of social, psychical, and sexual potency.

Any of the parties involved in the earlier incidents—any of Rodger's relatives, or roommates, or erstwhile acquaintances, or victims of his aggressions—probably would have recoiled in horror knowing he had sought to purchase a firearm, much less three handguns, forty-some mags, and well more than a hundred bucks' worth of ammo.

Sometimes a tool is just a tool. But sometimes it is much more. We are a society that makes much of our guns as more than mere tools, as instruments of power. Elliot Rodger's guns provided a tragically clichéd ending to his cliché social problems. But sometimes—not every time, but too often by far, in schools, on streets, in restaurants and playgrounds—when you're the one holding the guns, every cliché you utter sounds profound, every action you take seems good, and every problem is somebody else's.

[Photo credit: AP]