One afternoon near the end of the sniper's reign, I was busily plotting -- for the second time that day -- the safest route to get my 7-year-old across his school parking lot. Then it hit me:

I hate the sniper.

Not "I hate feeling frightened for my kids," but I hate the man who's picking off my neighbors like so many state fair game targets. Whatever his supposed mission or actual problems, I realized, I hated him.

Now that there are suspects with faces and identities, I'm more bewildered than hateful.

Because I don't get it. It seems that neither anti-American zealotry nor drool-inducing madness spurred this cruelty. Our fantasy of an uncommonly bright and organized villain has evaporated before images of a thieving wife-threatener who appears to have held a teenager -- and the world -- in his thrall.

Could an unremarkable thug become this?

My bewilderment took me to a store I'd passed dozens of times but never visited, an establishment just four blocks from where Lori Lewis Rivera was shot dead while vacuuming her minivan.

At Potomac Trading Collectibles, I found knives, dueling pistols, ammunition and rifles lined up against the walls like soldiers at attention.

And I found two very pleasant men who earn their livings selling firearms.

Rivera's slaying "was just terrible -- it's horrendous that a family has to endure something like that," said longtime owner Bill Printz, whose Kensington shop sells new and antique weapons and, in an area upstairs, Lionel trains and toys.

The slaying "made me feel just as bad as it made you feel, if not worse," Printz continued. "Anybody could have been a target. You would have thought I was a kid with a boom box, the way my head kept moving.

"I wasn't giving anybody a target."

No, I thought. But you'd sell them a weapon.

But life isn't that simple. In fact, I found Printz and salesman Harry Andre{acute}e Jr., engaging and amusing -- despite their penchant for making disingenuous comments about cars killing more people than guns.

Would Washingtonians have been as terrorized by men wielding a rogue Explorer?

I visited the store because I hated guns -- and had no idea why others love them.

Now, I would never confuse millions of law-abiding gun owners with brutes who'd mow down innocents at gas pumps. But as an urban girl too familiar with gun-related agonies, I find hunting distasteful, the NRA's bullying disgusting and the entertainment media's gun-lust outrageous.

I wanted Printz to show me the weapon that stole 10 decent lives. And perhaps to help me comprehend why some will never blame guns for their absence.

A half-hour later -- after examining a Civil War Spencer carbine whose Gettysburg-bound owner carved his name onto its stock and marveling at an 18th-century Japanese "smooth bore" as graceful as calligraphy -- I realized:

Immerse yourself in any aficionado's passion -- antique buying, Thai cooking, guns and other weapons -- and you'll get a glimmer of understanding.

Whatever its object, love's expansiveness pulls you in.

As a boy in Northwest Washington, Printz fashioned weapons from walnuts, tire pumps and firecrackers. "I've always enjoyed history -- guns are part of history," he says. Most owners have personal gun histories -- "my dad had a gun, my uncle. . . . "

Printz paused. "You'd be surprised at the people you know who own guns," he said.

"And who'd never admit it," Andre{acute}e added.

Having no Bushmaster rifles -- the sniper suspects' gun -- in stock, Printz handed me a near-identical Colt AR 15. Hefting its six pounds, I positioned its curved stock between my collarbone and shoulder. I lined up a window as a target. I held a .223 bullet as the men spoke knowledgeably about impact, velocity and kick.

But experiencing what the sniper felt physically -- the metal's unyielding heaviness, the narrow peer down the barrel's length -- felt eerie. Felt . . . wrong. It brought me no closer to fathoming why anyone would target any living thing.

"I still don't get the appeal," I confessed, returning the Colt to Printz.

"Just fire one," he responded. "Visit a shooting range; you might understand."

Of course. The point of a gun is to shoot it. To reduce the distance between the snipers and me, between decent people who adore guns and equally nice people who question their sanity, I'd have to shoot one.

Long before we learned about marksmen accurate across five football fields, this ordeal was about distances. The distance between a rifle barrel and an unsuspecting body, between the victims and us, between a killer's logic and his walled-off heart.

Between what we love and what we hate.

We expect the distances between people to explain things. Yet the chasms created by nations, ethnicities and economic groups -- the distance between us and everyone who's different, between our better and lesser selves -- are rarely as wide as we make them.

I still hate guns.

To be sure I keep hating them, I won't be trying target practice anytime soon.