There's not much about what happened last week at 101 California Street, a sparkling skyscraper in the center of this city's financial district, that can be described as novel. Yes, the details were different, but mainly this was a movie that has played many, many times before and by now everyone in the audience should be able to predict all the plot twists and recite, even before they're spoken, all the key lines.
It opens, of course, with a madman. In this case, his name was Gian Luigi Ferri, a 55-year-old business failure who drove up from the San Fernando Valley last week with three high-powered weapons, a grudge and a plan. He had lived in many places, leaving a trail of witnesses who later, when the reporters came calling, could express shock. "That butterball!" one woman who knew Ferri exclaimed when informed he had stormed a law office, killing eight persons and himself.
"We liked him and took pity on him," offered another acquaintance. "He was very much a loner."
And aren't they always? Ferri was but the latest version of that most familiar of crime news characters: the guy who always had a kind word for the neighborhood kids, but who also "pretty much kept to himself." Until the day he started shooting.
Protagonist established, we move to the atrocity. Here is one place where the imagination can still flower. You never know where it will happen next. One killer exercises his madness inside a crowded McDonald's, another stalks a grade school, spraying rounds from an AK-47. A homely teen-ager takes aim through her living room window at schoolmates who snubbed her. The motives are as varied as the settings; uniformity comes in the high body count.
With Ferri, the complaint had to do with business. More specifically, it had to do with lawyers who, in his paranoid version of history, had a decade before done him wrong. It was the lawyers' fault he had invested in trailer parks situated on an Indiana flood plain. It was the lawyers' fault he had attempted to build a subdivision in a city in which new subdivisions were forbidden. Ferri typically had recorded his grievances in a long, rambling letter. It was full of bad grammar and tangled logic. It was typed in capital letters. They always are.
WHEN YOU HIRE A CONSULTANT OR AN ATTORNEY (it concluded) YOU DON'T HIRE FOR THE PURPOSE OF GETTING RAPED AND THAN HAVING ALL YOUR EFFORTS TOWARD LEGAL RECOURSE TOTALLY THWARTED BY A CORRUPT LEGAL SYSTEM OF 'ESQUIRES.' ESQUIRES IN THE DARK AGES ROMED THE COUNTRYSIDE TO STEEL FROM THE WORKING PEOPLE AND GIVE TOTHE PRINCE. DO ATTORNEY WANT US TO CALL THEM ESQUIRES BECAUSE THEIR ALLEGIANCE IS TO THE MONARCHY?
Blood from Ferri's self-inflicted wound was still dripping down the high-rise stairwell when the obligatory search for larger meaning--some issue to take the sting out of senseless death--was begun by survivors, politicians, editorial writers and radio talk show hosts. Sometimes, these rampages produce calls for more mental health care or condemnations of a porous criminal justice system. Ferri's 15 minutes of madness, as it happens, brought immediate calls for tighter gun laws. Everyone from the mayor down now is demanding to know how a nut got his hands on semiautomatic weapons. The answer is simple.
"He had a valid Nevada driver's license," said the owner of Pacific Tactical Weapons, the Las Vegas gun store where last spring Ferri purchased one of his two TEC-DC-9 combat pistols--weapons, incidentally, that also are legal in this state. "Everything checked out. There was not a single reason not to sell him that gun. Of course, I feel bad. But I had no way of knowing what he would do with it."
Six days have passed since Ferri's rampage, and now the funerals have begun. The eulogies uniformly offer wrenching accounts of good lives cut short--the heroic young attorney who took the bullets aimed at his wife, the labor law expert with a zeal for life and a "crazy sense of humor," the 30-year-old client "who just had that little, lovely baby 10 months ago."
It's powerful stuff. It always is. The emotional power of the moment will propel brave proposals for new weapons laws. These will advance quickly at first, but eventually, surely, the lobbyists will do their work. Contributions will be made, technicalities attacked, purpose diluted. And in the end, if we're quite lucky, madmen might be required to wait an extra day or two for delivery of their firepower.
How do I know this? As I said, this is a movie we all have seen before. And we all will see it again.