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.
Finally, a number of schools offer sniper training to civilians, i.e., people who are not affiliated with any law enforcement or military organization but simply want to learn such high-precision shooting skills. Among them are Storm Mountain Training Center in West Virginia, Gunsite Academy in Arizona and Thunder Ranch in Texas. Major news outlets — including The Washington Post (“Killer Course: The Men in Storm Mountain’s Sniper Class Don’t All Have Their Sights Set on the Same Thing,” July 13, 2000) and The Wall Street Journal (“Killer Competition or How Real Snipers Spend the Weekends,” May 18, 1988) — have published feature articles about the schools. The articles treat these schools as amusing curiosities rather than as sinister places willing to train almost anybody in the techniques of killing other human beings at long distance.
PRECISION FOR SALE
Throwing gasoline on this cultural fire is the market in sniper rifles for civilians, which has grown dramatically in recent years. And this is no random phenomenon. It is, rather, the result of deliberate mass-marketing techniques by a gun industry hungry to create any new niche that will relieve the overall decline and stagnation of its customer base. Consider the advertising of a number of gun manufacturers who make specialized sniping rifles for military and police use, and then turn around and pitch these same products to the civilian market. Their sales rhetoric may seem subtle to the layperson not familiar with firearms markets, but to serious enthusiasts interested in sniping, the message is very clear.
The Web site of the Robar Cos., for example, describes its model SR90 as “the result of a collaboration between military and police marksmen and our world class gunsmiths working toward a common goal: to build the ultimate precision rifle system.” The site goes on to enthuse, “This rifle was used successfully by special-operations personnel in the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm.” You needn’t ask what they used it for. Other manufacturers employ similar language to give their rifles that alluring military or police cachet.
BEFORE MORE DIE
The ultimate question for all Americans is: What should be done about this thriving subculture of snipers? Some will argue that civilian sniping is a recreational phenomenon that presents no threat to society, or that it is better to punish those who use their skills to kill after the fact than to impede the “rights” of gun owners through prophylactic laws. The events of the last two weeks have shown these makeweight arguments for their fundamental foolishness. In fact, there is much that we can do at many levels to reduce the danger from the sniper subculture without infringing on First or Second Amendment rights, real or perceived.
No legislation is required for our political, spiritual and ethical leaders to find their voices, speak out and condemn the romanticization of sniping. Those whom we have elected to office and to whom we turn for guidance should say in no uncertain terms that (outside military and police purposes) learning, teaching or furthering the business of killing human beings by sniping is beyond our moral pale. Condemning such activities offends no rights, but would draw a clear line that might help prevent a further slide down a very deadly slope.
Congress and perhaps regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, should hold investigatory hearings or proceedings to document the breadth and depth of this subculture and to put on the public record the marketing practices of the gun industry. Those efforts may suggest specific legislative or regulatory steps that could be taken to stop the reckless sale of sniper rifles to civilians. States, too, should investigate the sniper subculture, particularly whether sniper classes already offend state laws against training private armies or should now be brought under those laws.
If we do nothing about this dangerous subculture of armed and trained civilian snipers, the ultimate commentary on the horrific events of the last few weeks may be this: Welcome to the future.
Tom Diaz is a senior policy analyst at the Violence Policy Center and author of the report “One Shot, One Kill,” available at www.vpc.org.