Assault rifles and dejà vu

I was recently reading a book of F. Scott Fitzgerald's letters. If Scott, as his friends called him, is known at all these days, it is because of an almost perfect novel, "The Great Gatsby."

I came late to Fitzgerald. As a self-taught reader who attended college on the G.I. Bill at the age of 29, I preferred Steinbeck and Hemingway. I still like the early works of Big Ernie, all the short stories and "The Sun Also Rises." There should also be little disagreement about either "The Grapes of Wrath" or "East of Eden," the latter book so good even Oprah finally discovered it 50 years after it was first published, which recently made a bestseller out of it all over again.

Fitzgerald was a bit of a refined taste for me. But as I age (and, I hope, season a little), his great little (less than 200 pages) novel "Gatsby" is improving along with me. That's a long way around, so I can plug some great American literature, which is why I was whiling away a rainy night recently reading his letters.

I was brought up short when I read his critique of a younger writer's book. He said the only good thing about the novel was that the feelings were fresh. He noted that he could still remember when he "believed in things" with his heart and his mind. "The feelings fade," Fitzgerald wrote.

When I began my "career" as a journalist, I was already 30. But I still believed. After going to about 50 murder scenes - the cops-and-courts beat has always been my beat of choice - I was bludgeoned by the prevalence of handguns. I listened to at least five people apologize to the attending police officers for killing one of their nearest and dearest. "I didn't mean to kill him," to combine and paraphrase.

I was slow to come to the realization that maybe guns don't kill people but people with guns kill a hell of a lot of people. I hunted as a kid, qualified as Marksman with one weapon and Expert with another in basic training as a young adult, and believed carrying an illegal handgun one day in New York City saved my life: I displayed, and then cocked, my revolver to scare off a gang of youths who had menace in their mouths and eyes one very early morning in Brooklyn.

I'd always believed guns, even handguns, weren't adding to the problem.

Once I discovered how many Cincinnatians, mostly poor folk, were killing one another with cheap, often illegal firearms, I had to write about it.

I did with the fervor of a convert to a new religion.

Right in here somewhere, crazy Hinckley shot Reagan with a cheap handgun, making my point, I thought, naïvely.

I have received scores of angry letters over the years because I write what I think and feel, but I never received more angry mail than when I took up against handguns in Cincinnati 25 years ago.

There are a certain percentage of Americans who are insane when it comes to the Second Amendment. This was all brought home to me forcefully once again by two recent events, one national and one local, one receiving tons of press, one receiving a perfunctorily brief coverage.

The national news was that our brave leaders in Washington, D.C., most of whom live in gated communities and on vacation ranches, allowed the ban on assault weapons to run out despite the pleas of police chiefs (not anti-weapon folk usually) across the nation, including our own.

Money's to be made, so it shouldn't be a problem if someone you love is killed by a high-school dropout with a weapon that fires 30 rounds in less than 30 seconds. Get over it - it's a freedom issue, not a safety issue, proponents of the shooting-gallery mentality say.

To that I can only respond, Oh my God, you folks are truly mad!

Locally, King County's murder and suicide rates have risen for the third year in a row.

In 2003 there were 93 homicides (38 in Seattle) and 217 suicides (82 of which took place within city limits).

Fifty-six percent of the homicides were committed with firearms.

Forty-seven percent of the suicides involved firearms.

It takes a determined man or woman, deranged or not, to strangle another human being. It takes some persistence to beat a fellow citizen to death with a baseball bat (some of the current Mariners couldn't do it), but it takes less than a pound and a half of finger pressure for anyone to pull a trigger.

Registered long guns for hunting and shotguns for home protection - inside the home - are fine. Handguns are made to kill other people, and assault rifles were invented for the mass carnage we call war.

But, like the letter-writing Fitzgerald, I am older if not wiser. My feelings have been blunted.

I know that I am right, but I don't feel this column will convert anyone not already appalled by our gun-enhanced violence toward one another. But I still have enough feeling left to want to try one more time.

Oh yeah, in the week between my writing this column and your reading it, at least one and maybe two King County residents were probably shot to death. That's a statistical likelihood that can't be disputed. And we all know, except for unemployment figures, the numbers don't lie.

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