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The nation and its capital were rudely introduced two weeks ago to the mass terror of a sniper dealing random death at long range. The natural order of things stands on its head when innocent victims are struck down with no apparent rhyme or reason. But the horror doesn’t end there. The Washington-area killer is not alone in his deadly specialized skill. A large and growing civilian subculture in the United States is devoted precisely to promoting the sniper’s terrible motto: “One Shot, One Kill.” This subculture sometimes intersects with and often seeks to emulate, in a “groupie” sort of way, the professional world of military and police sniping. But the civilian enthusiast literally has no business sniping. Instead, this subculture romanticizes the role of the sniper — even as it propagates the skills and equipment needed to kill another human being at long range from concealment, and then escape without detection. A growing clutch of shooting schools teaches civilians the hands-on skills of sniping. Books and videos lay out in great detail the specific techniques of dealing death from afar. There are organized sniping competitions and periodicals catering to sniping aficionados. A constellation of Web sites keeps busy with sniper-related chat rooms, bulletin boards and networking. And the gun industry’s aggressive marketing of so-called precision rifles and equipment to civilians has elevated the potential of this subculture from mere fantasy to tangible peril. The D.C.-based Violence Policy Center warned about this subculture in a 1999 report, “One Shot, One Kill.” The report cautions that the combination of specialized firearms and violence has the deadly potential “to roil troubled minds and teach home-grown terrorists or impressionable juveniles how to use the destructive capabilities of sniper rifles to maximum effect.” Unfortunately, we are now witnessing the horror of that potential realized in the facts of lives taken, families shattered and communities frightened. Whatever the specific motivation, background and weapon of the Washington-area sniper — or snipers — turn out to be, the inescapable fact is that this person’s deadly actions embody perfectly what the sniper subculture teaches and, indeed, honors. TEACHING A SKILL Tangible evidence of the burgeoning sniper subculture can be found throughout the information society and entwined in the warp and woof of the broader American gun culture. Major Internet book dealers offer such detailed, professionally written, slickly packaged publications as “The Ultimate Sniper: An Advanced Training Manual for Military & Police Snipers,” by retired Army Major John Plaster, and “The Complete .50-Caliber Sniper Course,” by retired Special Forces Sgt. Dean Michaelis. Other sniping texts can be obtained from publishers and book clubs that specialize in firearms or military matters. For instance, a specialized press in Connecticut publishes “The Military and Police Sniper: Advanced Precision Shooting for Combat and Law Enforcement,” by former infantry officer Mike Lau. These and other manuals describe at length — and with helpful instructive illustrations — the arcana of sniping. Among the 22 chapters in Plaster’s 451-page manual are “Stalking and Movement,” “Mantracking,” and “Sniping in an Urban Environment.” In addition to these how-to guides, a plethora of books explores the lore and legend of sniping. These range from dry tomes detailing the history of sniping from Colonial times forward, to hagiographic works about cult heroes such as the late Carlos Hathcock, a Marine gunnery sergeant credited with 93 confirmed sniping kills during the Vietnam War. The written literature is filled out with articles about guns and techniques in periodicals such as Soldier of Fortune and Guns & Ammo. The literature of the sniper is mirrored in widely available videos. For example, Plaster offers companion instructional videos to his book “The Ultimate Sniper.” Other videos are analogues of the historical and hagiographic books that glorify the calling of the sniper. One even purports to show the handy person how to make a .50-caliber sniper rifle at home. All these sources of civilian learning about sniping are supplemented through a network of Web sites, such as www.snipercountry.com, that are devoted to what the Sniper Country site calls “the sniping community.” These sites typically feature chat rooms or bulletin boards through which information and commentary is exchanged; links to manufacturers of guns, ammunition and optics; and books, videos and sniping paraphernalia for sale.

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