Richard Reeves

The Guns of November: No Big Deal

SEATTLE -- This beautiful city has always seemed to me a comfortable mix of the formal and the scruffy. Men and women in dark suits do business a few feet from other folks who look as if they were left over from some failed gold rush in the mountains. Certainly it was the only place I knew that started a national passion for fancy and expensive coffee on what used to be Skid Row -- and left the soup kitchens in place right there on Pioneer Square.

But it was not comfortable this week. Seattle had its office shoot-up only a day after Honolulu -- urban beauty is no defense against the guns of America -- but there was a frightening difference. In Honolulu, police quickly caught the man who gunned down seven co-workers at a Xerox office. That's the way it usually works -- or the gunman is killed or kills himself. As of this writing, the gunman in Seattle is on the loose.

Seattle police made a point of saying they believed or assumed that the killings here were not random. Even if the people at the office of Northlake Shipyard on Lake Union in an area called Wallingford did not know the man in camouflage fatigues and ragged beard who walked around firing a 9-millimeter pistol, authorities said there was little likelihood of the same guy walking in another door.

They may be right. Next time it will be somebody else. But the suited-up people on the streets here sure seemed to be looking differently at the bearded men, homeless probably, lounging in cool and rare sunlight on Thursday as I walked around town.

"Fearful Residents Lock Up as Manhunt Follows Rampage" was the lead headline of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The Seattle Times had a chilling photograph of Seattle's Swat team in helmets and flak jackets, poking automatic weapons into hedges as an armored car slowly rolled down a leafy pathway called the Burke-Gilman Trail in this greenest of American cities. The Times headline read: "The Trail Goes Cold."

We have become expert in covering these gun slaughters. The Times had a small box under the big headline saying:

"INSIDE (bullet) Schools acted fast. A18 ... (bullet) Rating the live TV coverage. A18 ... (bullet) President Clinton, others react. A19 ... (bullet) Wallingford becomes a war zone. A19."

The president expressed "shock and sorrow," of course, and added: "We need to do more to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and children." Officials at the National Rifle Association did not return phone calls from Seattle press. The usual. If the president feels he must go to funerals in Hawaii, he can conveniently stop here on the way back to the White House.

It happens that the killer here, as in Honolulu, was not a child. And probably he was not a criminal. The people we fear now are the guy next store or the guy at the next desk. The very routine of these stories now indicates that we are dealing (and living with) a new kind of threat.

The killings are in a way as predictable as potholes. The gunmen just snap under the pressures and isolation of modern American life. They know only two groups of people, sometimes only one. That is family and the people they work with. Other than that, their lives are empty vessels of or for television-driven fantasies and the other magical devices of our day, beginning with automobiles.

They do, as the Seattle police broadcast as assurance that all was well, usually kill people they know and passers-by who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They kill the people at either end of their commute.

The motive more often than not is tortured envy: Why do other people, real people and television people, seem happy and prosperous? Why is there nothing for me? They go over the edge. They get in a car, a necessity today, and grab a gun, easily available today. Maybe in the old days they had fistfights at work or went after their wives or their parents with kitchen knives. Now they have guns, and the result is more drastic than bruises or cuts.

So what's the big deal? Of course this is going to happen again and again -- at home, at school, at the office. But the odds are that the gunmen are not after you and me.

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