A killing on a Texas gun range in February captured the headlines. The victim was Chris Kyle, considered by many to be the most deadly sniper in American military history.
The man who admitted to killing him was a veteran as well — a young, disturbed man who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Kyle, an outspoken advocate for both veterans and gun rights, wrote American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. When he died in February, he was in the midst of writing a book about the history of firearms in America. That book, American Gun, has been published posthumously. It traces the history of the country through the lens of 10 historic guns.
The book begins with an account of how a gun called the American long rifle, also known as the Kentucky rifle, helped win the Revolutionary War. At the Battle of Saratoga, an American sniper hidden in a tree killed a British general with a long rifle. Without a leader, the British forces fell into disarray and had to retreat. The Americans went on to win the battle and eventually, with the help of the French, the war.
The book also features the M1 Garand rifle, used by the Allies in World War II; the Thompson submachine gun — or Tommy Gun — that terrorized the streets in the early part of the 20th century; and the M16 rifle Kyle himself carried in Iraq.
Kyle's wife, Taya Kyle, wrote the introduction to the new book. She tells NPR's Jacki Lyden how American Gun carries on her husband's legacy. The book's co-author, William Doyle, tells Lyden that each gun in the book changed history.
On Chris Kyle's philosophy about guns
William Doyle: "In our book, Chris wrote: 'Whether they're used in war or for keeping the peace, guns are just tools, and like any tool, the way they're used reflects the society they're part of. As times change, guns have evolved. If you don't like guns, blame them on the society they're a part of.' "
On the role guns play in our lives
William Doyle: "Chris Kyle made me realize that at the same time we're very aware, and we should be, of the tragedies that can occur when guns are in the wrong hands, Chris reminded me very much that my life depends on guns. My life walking out on the street here in New York City depends on a man or woman with a gun three blocks away and their ability to defend me against evil."
On Chris Kyle's self-image
Taya Kyle: "He always saw himself as just an everyday guy in different situations. And he had a tool. There are always everyday people in extraordinary situations throughout our history who use the tools available to them to change history, and it was just a perfect fit for what he'd been reflecting on."
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
Last February, a murder at a remote Texas gun range captured the headlines.
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DAN HARRIS: An ex-Navy SEAL and one of America's best-known snipers murdered at a gun range in Texas allegedly by a troubled former Marine. This comes...
LYDEN: Chris Kyle was a sniper in Iraq and the author of a best-selling memoir about his experience. The man who confessed to killing Chris Kyle was a young mentally ill veteran, just one of many mentally or physically injured vets Kyle took shooting in an effort to help them heal and readjust to civilian life. At the time of his death, Chris Kyle was writing a book about the history of firearms in America. That book, called "American Gun," has just been published posthumously.
His widow, Taya Kyle, spoke to us from the family home south of Dallas. She says that her late husband loved history and wanted to place his own experience with guns in a historical context.
TAYA KYLE: He always saw himself as just an everyday guy in different situations. And he had a tool. There are always everyday people in extraordinary situations throughout our history who use the tools available to them to change history, and it was just a perfect fit for what he'd been reflecting on.
LYDEN: Taya Kyle, you've taken up your late husband's mantle in more ways than one. You've written the foreword and the afterword to this book. You've spoken out for vets' benefits. You've also spoken out for gun rights, spoken to the NRA at their annual convention this year. Your husband has a very large profile. What do you want and hope that his legacy is going to be and how do you think firearms are going to be part of that legacy?
KYLE: Well, I certainly don't pretend to take a political stance. I feel that we should have the right to bear arms. But I don't mean it so much as a political statement. And certainly, "American Gun" was never intended to be a political statement in any way, shape or form. As far as speaking at the NRA, I just wanted to represent that there is so much good being done every day with guns, and I don't want that to be forgotten.
LYDEN: William Doyle was the co-author of the book "American Gun" and he completed it after Kyle's death. He says that Chris Kyle saw guns as an inescapable part of the American story.
WILLIAM DOYLE: Not really for better or worse. Just because of the nature of our country, all Americans are connected, one or two steps removed from firearms.
LYDEN: The narrative of guns in America begins at the Battle of Saratoga, and it wasn't going well for the colonists on the ground. Then one soldier climbed into a tree with an American long rifle and fired the shot that took down a British general. It would change everything.
DOYLE: That one shot early in the American Revolution helped turn the tide at the Battle of Saratoga. And the Battle of Saratoga, the American victory, is what brought the French in to support the Americans, which arguably was the decisive strategic factor of the American Revolution. So, you know, it shows you how sometimes a single bullet can change history, in our case for the cause of freedom.
LYDEN: The last gun in the book is the M16 rifle, and this is now the weapon of choice for the U.S. military - has been for a long time. It's the gun that Chris Kyle used when he was a sniper in Iraq. Let's talk about the M16, the birth of the modern assault rifle - assault weapon is a term we hear a lot today. What is the history of the assault rifle exactly?
DOYLE: The modern assault rifle really traces back to Lincoln's quest to gain an edge on the battlefield. And that turned into what's called repeating weapons, which helped win the West, both to slaughter an enormous amount of buffalo and also to win the Indian Wars, very tragic Indian Wars. But the repeating rifle, something that you could crank off several rounds with and get distance and power and accuracy with, was another historical milestone in the evolution of weapons. And I think that they all sort of flowed into the idea of a modern assault rifle.
LYDEN: You wrote this book with Chris Kyle, and he was famously the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. And earlier this year, as we know, he was killed on a shooting range by a fellow veteran who had PTSD. I'd like to ask you to read a paragraph that sums up the inevitable duality of guns.
DOYLE: Sure. Well, in our book, Chris wrote: (Reading) Whether they're used in war or for keeping the peace, guns are just tools. And like any tool, the way they're used reflects the society they're part of. As times change, guns have evolved. If you don't like guns, blame it on the society they're a part of.
LYDEN: You know, he's no longer here, of course, to explain that paragraph. But for you, what is the purpose of this book in the national conversation we're now having about guns, and did he speak to you about that at all?
DOYLE: Chris Kyle made me realize that at the same time we are very aware - and we should be - of the tragedies that can occur when guns are in the wrong hands, Chris reminded me very much that my life depends on guns. My life walking out the street here in New York City depends on a man or a woman with a gun three blocks away and their ability to defend me against evil.
My life depends on guns in the sense that there are men and women in the service all around the world right now who are literally - this is not just a slogan - they are literally protecting my freedom and my ability to shoot my mouth off and behave as an American citizen.
LYDEN: A point that Doyle and Kyle make frequently in this book is that guns are only as good or evil as the people who use them, not a point everyone is going to agree with as gun violence escalates. I asked Taya Kyle whether, in the wake of her husband's murder, she thinks there's anything that could or should have been done that could have prevented the tragedy.
KYLE: Anytime someone dies, I think that it's normal to look back and think could have, would have, should have and how could we have changed it. But I can say that Chris certainly should have had more information about the person who he was trying to help and that - that's troublesome.
LYDEN: In the book and in your essay, you write that firing weapons like this for veterans, especially veterans who seem to be struggling with PTSD, could be healing. And I have to ask if you haven't revisited that notion.
KYLE: No, it's a fair question. I think that what we have to remember here is that a lot of veterans are outdoor-type people. The place where Chris died is a very beautiful place with wildflowers and buffalo, and it's just - it's a very healing type place. Most of Chris is something other than guns and being a sniper and being in the military, even. Chris was a big-hearted, loving man who, he had a disarming ability to put people at ease.
LYDEN: Hmm. You seem very composed, and I'm sure that that wasn't easy. You have young children and you're young people. You must miss your husband very much.
KYLE: More than I can say.
LYDEN: Taya Kyle, I so want to thank you for being with us today.
KYLE: Well, thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
LYDEN: Taya Kyle is the wife of Chris Kyle, the high-profile sniper who was killed in February by a mentally ill veteran in Texas. The book Chris Kyle was working on when he died is called "American Gun." It's just been published posthumously.
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