Long Shot

A sniper strikes more fear into part of America than invading Iraq.

I think we all felt sorry for George W. Bush last week. The little man with the big job was trying to whip up a frenzy of hatred and fear in anticipation of invading Iraq--that menacing cache of weapons of mass destruction--but history kept distracting us all. He got the Senate to do what he wanted, sure, but you could feel the battle-lust, such as it was, seeping out of the nation's heart as the week went on.

First, the stock market hit a five-year low as quarterly reports on retirement accounts darkened the mailboxes of regular citizens all across the nation. But the economy has been tanking for so long that we're sort of getting used to the idea of not being able to retire; what really hurt the Iraq demonization effort last week was the demon with the sniper rifle picking people off at random in and around Washington, D.C.

(The sniper's choice of venue must have been particularly painful for the White House, since Washington doesn't take much notice of anything that happens outside the Beltway. Here's a criminal who decides to set up shop, of all places, in and around D.C.)

You could hear the whole country sort of stop and think, "Wait, what about weapons of individual destruction? And, you know, there do seem to be dangerous madmen outside the Middle East."

It turns out that any goon can walk out of his house, start killing people dead from blocks away and panic a whole region of the country. If he has a good sniper rifle, he needs only a steady hand--"It takes very little training to hit a target at 100 yards," an instructor at a sniper training center (!) in the Great Dismal Swamp (!!) disdainfully advised the New York Times last week. And highly accurate long-range rifles and high-tech ammo, we now realize, are things that anyone can buy and practice with and then put to the exact use for which they were intended: Killing people from a comfortable distance. Who needs anthrax?

Personally, I had been unaware that there was a "rapidly expanding sniper subculture" in the U.S., and would have been happier had I remained ignorant. I could also have done without knowing that the gun industry sees the sniper market as a growth sector, or that Tactical Shooter magazine recently declared that "the real future of tactical shooting, like it or not, is at the civilian level."

In fact, I don't like it, and it strikes me as totally insane that such weapons should be legal.

God bless the NRA, tireless lobbyists for total insanity.

Years ago, before Charlton Heston and the heartwarming "I am the NRA" campaign, you used to see bumper stickers that said, "Guns Don't Kill People. Criminals Kill People." It was uniquely infuriating--only "Eat More Lamb - A Hundred Thousand Coyotes Can't be Wrong" came close--and since then, I've fantasized about having one printed up that said, "Guns Don't Kill People. The NRA Kills People."

The gun lobby has fought tooth-and-nail--not their weapons of choice, of course--against every attempt to restrict sales of high-tech weaponry and ammunition in this country, and, as far as I'm concerned, they're substantially responsible for the Beltway sniper's kills. This murderer is obviously too concerned about getting caught or too squeamish--or something--to kill up close. Without a long-range weapon, he'd be out of luck, and some horribly unlucky innocent people would still be alive.

The main trouble with guns, which goes double for long-range rifles, is not that they can be used to kill people, but that guns make killing too easy. There are lots of ways to kill--a knife, a baseball bat, a dose of poison, a good-sized rock will do the job--but if you're going to use a knife, say, to hurt someone, you at least have to get close to your victim. Close enough to feel his breath, to get his blood on you. Murder with a sword or club or knife takes conviction and physical effort, and that's a good thing.

During the five months that my husband and I spent in Florence, Italy, a few years back, there was exactly one big, shocking scary murder reported in our part of town--a drug dealer got knifed outside the train station. The Italian press, which is excitable, kept trying to frighten the populace with it, and may have succeeded. As Americans, we were just puzzled by the fuss: One murder? Involving drugs? With a knife? We felt that we could tolerate that level of danger.

A gun that kills from 200 yards away makes random murder tragically easy because of the god-like power of action at a distance it gives the shooter. It's too good a weapon to leave lying around.

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