Once upon a time, in the wild, wild West, men would shoot one another over the smallest things: an insult, a broken promise, cheating in poker, a bad glass of whiskey. It was pioneer justice; shoot and ride away. If your horse was fast enough, you left the consequences behind.

In time, we tried to grow more civilized. We put streetlights on corners and carpet on floors; we took jobs and wore neckties, elected officials and bought stocks. We built a tidy America where we live by the alarm clock, drive cars, not horses; and there are laws and rules, all these things you cannot do.

And we still suffer from pioneer justice. A whole new wild, wild West. People kill as they please, they fire at will. But instead of riding off after the bloodshed, they stick a gun in their mouth and pull the trigger.

In the past few weeks, it’s been terribly harsh reality. On a national scale, we had the showdown in Waco, where religious fanatics murdered several federal agents, and then, after months holed up in an arms-loaded complex, set fire to themselves. The remains of their leader, David Koresh, were found burnt and with a bullet hole in his head. His personal exit.

And here in our own backyard, a disgruntled worker named Larry Jasion walked into the Dearborn Post Office with three guns in a donut box and opened fire. He killed a supervisor and wounded his boss and a woman he felt was unfairly promoted. Then, for the climax, he put the gun to his head and squeezed the trigger.

He made his getaway. Pioneer justice. People kill with guns

There are two lessons to be learned here. The first has to do with people and guns. Koresh, a major sicko, was able to stockpile arms like some Third World militia leader. And Jasion, clearly disturbed (his coworkers often complained about him), was nonetheless able to acquire 13 gun permits. Thirteen! What is one man doing with that many guns? What justification can you possibly find? He needed them for protection? He has the right to bear arms? This is the type of argument you’ll get from NRA fanatics. They are the same people who hand out bumper stickers reading “Guns don’t kill. People do.”

Such nonsense. People with guns kill. It’s the deadly combination, like fire and gasoline. Each is OK by itself. Which do you blame when they mix into explosion?

Which is why you keep one away from the other. And why our nation needs new gun-control laws as desperately as it needs economic reform. For the rights of the few, the safety of the masses has been compromised. It is one of our most frustrating debates. Maybe Jasion gets his hands on guns even if they are illegal. But maybe he doesn’t. The argument to tighten gun control isn’t about solving every bullet-holed situation. It’s about decreasing the odds.

And it’s only half the solution. Alienation helps create monsters

The other half is far less tangible. The motive. The creation of these monsters. What spawns the anger or the alienation behind a Koresh, or a Jasion, or Gunter Parche, that lunatic in Germany who stabbed tennis star Monica Seles during a recent match — just dug a knife in her back — because he wanted a rival player to get the No. 1 ranking?

All the lonely people, where do they all come from? The Beatles wrote that lyric in “Eleanor Rigby,” about sad souls who live and die alone. But today, those souls often want to take a few corpses with them. It is no accident that Koresh, often described as a “loner,” built a following of disenfranchised people. Or that Jasion and Parche lived like shut-ins with only a TV set to fuel their fantasies. In our rush to progress, we’ve made a world of take-out food and home movies where you can lock yourself away for years and still appear normal as a sickness takes over your mind.

In the old days, neighbors would notice if someone wasn’t coming around — Was he seen at the market? Was he farming his land? Did he stop at the bank? Life was with people.

Now you can have your food delivered and get your money from a drive-thru machine, and neighbors are only too happy if you leave them alone. Everyone is busy. In New York City, you ask people the time and they pretend they don’t see you, because they don’t want to show you their watch out of fear you’ll steal it.

Ultimately, I believe, the random shooters — the ones who just snap — are people who didn’t get the right love and attention during childhood. This is where alienation begins and parents often have no idea the damage they are doing with even small violations.

But from there it can get worse. A world that fans bitter flames, a world that drives a mad man even madder.

On top of that, we let them have guns.

We talk about progress. We talk about civilization. But for all our computer chips and space shuttles, we have not come very far from the wild, wild West. We still hear bullets out of nowhere, and when we rush to the scene, all we see is a cloud of dust.

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