"I think I met the sniper online," a woman wrote in an America Online message board this week, saying a stranger had joined her during an online game of spades and said his card was "death."

"I think the sniper is either an active member of al Qaeda, a bin Laden sympathizer, or someone motivated by the same type of hatred," another man opined in an Internet newsgroup on culture.

A third man suggested the shootings might panic voters into supporting candidates who favor stricter gun controls and added: "A possible motive is beginning to crystallize: the U.S. Congressional elections on 5 November."

The Internet is abuzz with wild speculation and outrage over the rifle shootings that have killed 10 people and terrorized the Washington area. In a pattern that's becoming familiar when big news breaks, the Internet is where people turn to vent their emotions, share thoughts and drill down for information they might have missed or can't get from TV and newspapers.

Where else would you expect people to buy bulletproof vests, research sniper rifles and discuss shadowy suspects like the French army sharpshooter that Interpol reported missing this week? A check with popular Internet search tools reveals people are doing all of that and more online.

Google, the Internet's top search engine, said "sniper" has zoomed to the top of its list of fast-rising search terms. Lycos said "Washington sniper" was its 10th most common search query last week, and that searches pertaining to "sniper rifles" had tripled. More people also are entering "bulletproof vest" into the query box at Lycos.com.

So it's no wonder sales have soared at the Internet body-armor stores that pop up when people search for "bulletproof vests" at Internet search engines.

"We are absolutely swamped," said Nick Taylor, sales manager for Bulletproofme.com, a mail-order firm based in Austin. He said his purchasers are mostly Washington area residents and employers, along with some people planning to visit the nation's capital.

Some folks searching for "sniper rifles" are taken aback when they stumble upon Web sites devoted to professional snipers, people who are trained in long-range rifle shooting for law enforcement or the military. "One shot -- one kill," is the motto prominently displayed on SniperCountry.com, a site that says its mission is "education and friendship" for police and military shooters. SniperCountry posted a message to visitors acknowledging that it has received angry e-mails from people who equate the word "sniper" with crime rather than law enforcement.

"As is typical when tragedy and fear strike, people look for scapegoats to vent their understandable anguish . . .," the note says. "While the media currently loves to bandy about the term sniper in relationship to the murders in Maryland and Virginia, the truth is they are murders committed by a serial killer, not a sniper."

The breadth of information about sniping available online is apparent at Google, which spits up roughly 1 million matches for a search on the word "sniper." EBay, the Internet flea market, turns up 948 items for sale with "sniper" in the description, including rifle paraphernalia and cufflinks with a Marine Corps skull-and-bones death emblem.

The swapping of rifle gear on eBay is seen as routine in the United States but appalls some people overseas, where more than a few press reports about the killings have focused on America's "gun culture." The Times of London on Saturday ran such a story on Saturday under the headline "Serial sniper takes cue from US love affair with the gun."

The Internet makes it easy to read global news, of course, but equally interesting reading are the thousands of personal commentaries on the sniper that people are posting to message boards, chat rooms and Web logs, those personal journals that resemble diaries.

Theories on how the sniper gets away -- and what it might take to catch him -- abound. A Web site called SniperTheories.com speculates that the sniper or snipers hide out in a rented storage unit after the killings, listening to the nearby police hunt on a battery-operated radio until the coast is clear. Many military veterans speculate that the killings are the work of a mobile terrorist sniping team linked to al Qaeda. One AOL member suggested that police monkey with the region's traffic lights so they can simultaneously turn them all red if another killing takes place.

Still other Internet writers puzzle about what, if anything, it might mean that several killings took place near Michaels crafts stores, and that the shooting started with a bullet through the window of one store.

A screenwriter noted that a card left at one of the slayings said "I am God" and that Michael means "who is like god." Other scribes pointed out that St. Michael is the patron saint of policemen, and that in biblical writings, Michael was the archangel who served as the guardian of the nation of Israel.

Since this is America, you might expect commercial slants on terror in the nation's capital, too. The NewsFutures.com Web site delivers, turning speculation on the sniper's arrest into a sport. More than 16,000 "contracts" have been traded on the subject, with most "betting" there won't be an arrest before Saturday.

Chat rooms and Web logs reflect similar stabs at black humor: "How much money does the shooter want?" one person said in an AOL chat room. "Can't we give him coupons instead? I have some for McDonalds."

More common is the anguish of the posting at the Blogatelle Web log yesterday. It mimicked the "Dear Mr. Policeman" note police believe the sniper left behind at one of the killings.

"Dear Mr. D.C.-Area Sniper," it began. "Whether they catch you or not, whether you live or die, I curse your soul."

Leslie Walker can be reached at walkerl@washpost.com.