"It's happened again"

When gun-control advocates use mass shootings to push for a handgun ban, critics accuse them of exploiting tragedy. But there's a difference between exploiting a tragedy and learning from it.

Published November 4, 1999 1:00PM (EST)

Wednesday night, the door to our garage was open. And the last time either one of us remembered checking, it was shut. And padlocked. It wasn't hanging wide open, either, just cracked open a few inches, "suspiciously ajar." We couldn't see in, but the door was open just enough for someone inside the garage to see us standing on the back porch, about 20 feet away, looking concerned about our open garage door.

With three news choppers thumping away overhead, cop cars tearing up and down the street and our 20 month-old son, D.J., pulling newspapers out of the recycling bin, my boyfriend, Terry, turned to me and said, "You better go shut the garage door."

Earlier in the day a scruffy white guy walked into the office of a shipyard on Lake Union, about eight blocks from our house, pulled out a semiautomatic handgun and shot four people. Two men are dead, two men are in the hospital. And by dusk, the shooter was still at large, believed to be hiding somewhere in our neighborhood. Streets are blocked off, schools are locked down and police everywhere are checking cars, houses, trees, basements -- and garages. Seattle's police chief, Norm Stamper, even went on television to warn Wallingford residents to use caution when returning home from work.

Guns are everywhere in the United States, and I don't need to tell you that a week hardly goes by without someone walking into a school or an office building or a church or a day-care center and opening fire. When Peter Jennings, Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw begins the news with "It's happened again " they don't have to tell us what they mean by "it." Despite a comparatively piddling body count, the shooting in Seattle managed to knock the previous day's shooting in Hawaii off the top spot on every network news Web site, but I suspect that without the subsequent manhunt and school lockdowns, Seattle's shooting wouldn't have captured the attention of Peter, Dan, Tom, et al. Only four shot? Two dead? That's local news, "routine" gun violence. School lockdowns? That's sexy.

Now, the next time "it" happens, Seattle will be added to the list of cities that have hosted a mass shooting: Jonesboro, Paducah, Littleton, Pearl, Chicago, Atlanta, Conyers, Los Angeles, Fort Worth, Honolulu, Springfield, Seattle. Seattle is on the map now -- literally. After the next biggie, Seattle will doubtless appear on one of those four-color maps on the cover of USA Today.

There's no question that shutting the garage door was my job -- all the dirty work is my job. When a rat died in the crawl space under the living room, Terry handed me a flashlight and a pair of rubber gloves. This time, Terry handed me a flashlight, picked up D.J. and -- using caution -- went inside the house. Dead rats and live murderers are my job, Terry feels.

As I approached the garage, I thought to myself, "We should really call the cops." What kind of idiot points a flashlight into a dark garage and says "Hello?" when there's an armed murderer hiding somewhere in the neighborhood? But I calmed myself and kept walking, telling myself that A) Nothing interesting ever happens to me, so I'm unlikely to be victim No. 5; and B) Since it's already occurred to me that the shooter could be in our garage, he won't be.

There are only 10 steps from the back porch of our house to the garage door, but I took the scenic route, circling around to the side of the garage with a broken window. If the shooter wanted to run away I didn't want to be blocking the door. Standing to one side, I stuck my arm out and pointed the flashlight into the garage. "Anybody in there?" I called out, trying to sound tough without sounding anything like a cop. There was no sound, though, and no shots. I walked around to the door, slowly opened it with my foot, and stepped inside. Nothing. Only when the garage door was padlocked and I was heading back to the house did I realize how fast my heart was beating. By the time I made it inside, I was shaking.

Later Wednesday night, with the shooter still at large, a local TV anchorwoman clucked her tongue, shook her empty head and said, "Who would have thought something like this could happen right here, in Seattle?" I wanted to shoot my television set. How could it not happen here?

With so many guns, so many nuts and so many spineless politicians taking orders from the National Rifle Association, it's really only a matter of time before "it" will happen in every city in the United States. So common is gun violence that "routine" shootings don't even make news anymore. My boyfriend was robbed at gun point, and so was my older brother; a good friend of my sister's was standing on a street corner in Chicago with his fiancie when he was shot dead by gangbangers; a friend of my family was shot and killed on a subway platform. None of these events made the news.

Sadly, when the latest mass shooting is pointed to as evidence that we need tough national gun-control laws (and a complete ban on handguns and concealed weapons), professional gun huggers and their congressional apologists cry foul, accusing gun-control advocates of exploiting a tragedy. There's a difference, however, between exploiting a tragedy (as Columbine parent Misty Bernall did with her bestselling book "She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall") and learning from it.

When a plane drops out of the sky, we search for the cause and pass laws if needed to prevent similar tragedies in the future. Why do we not do the same with guns? To declare the scalding proof that we need tough gun-control laws off-limits when discussing gun control -- and the evidence builds with each new mass shooting -- makes about as much sense as declaring the crash of EgyptAir's Flight 990 off-limits during a discussion of airline safety.

So, another day, another mass shooting.

By Dan Savage

Dan Savage is the author of the widely syndicated sex advice column Savage Love, as well as the editor of The Stranger, Seattle's largest weekly newspaper. His most recent book, "Skipping Toward Gomorrah," is available in paperback.

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