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Sunday, April 15, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Nicole Brodeur / Times staff columnist

'Gun-free zones' an answer?

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"You'll know the house when you see it," my friend told me, and she was right.

It is not the kind of place neighbors would describe as "neat" or "well-kept" or "modest."

I'm just glad that no one has to describe this Capitol Hill house or its owner as anything, to anyone. No quotes for the reporters, the cameras, the police.

And that's no small blessing when you consider that this house is home to 60 guns and 7,000 rounds of ammunition. When you see that it sits within shouting distance of St. Joseph School, where the playground is protected only by a chain-link fence. And when you learn that we as parents and law-abiding citizens are helpless to prevent our worst imaginings from coming true.

Let this be clear: The man who owns the house has done nothing wrong, so I won't name him or give his address. He has never been convicted of a felony or a domestic-violence offense, so he is free to own as many guns as he likes.

That may be hard to understand - why someone would collect cold steel and explosive powder the way some collect baseball cards or glass figurines.

But some things are not to be understood. Only worried about.

And at St. Joe, they are worried enough to call a meeting and ask a police captain to come out and tell them how this could be. How can there be "drug-free zones" to make dealers keep their distance, but no laws to prevent an arsenal from being stockpiled a few feet from where errant balls drift over the fence at recess?

School parents learned about the man several weeks ago when he got into a dispute with a neighbor. Police found guns and knives discarded like sections of the morning newspaper in the man's kitchen, the living room, the bedroom, "all over the place," said Seattle police Capt. Nicholas Metz of the East Precinct, where the school is located.

Police noticed that the man was "in distress," Metz said, declining to elaborate. The man agreed to be hospitalized for a couple of weeks for observation. He also let police seize his guns "for safekeeping," Metz told me.

"Here is someone who is potentially mentally ill and has all these weapons," Metz said. "And given everything that has been happening ... " he said, referring to recent school shootings in California, "people are justifiably concerned."

St. Joseph Principal George Hofbauer doesn't understand why a "gun-free zone" can't be established around his school, which is attended by 610 elementary students. All the term means now is that guns can't be brought into a school.

"It doesn't mean anything," Hofbauer said. "And there is no judgment on the stability of an individual when it comes to gun possession."

"There is no system of checks and balances," Hofbauer continued.

" ... I've never been anti-gun or anything, but for the first time in my life, I am wondering, what does this mean?"

It means that maybe the kids need to pray a little more in the morning.

It's been several weeks since there was a school shooting in America - a lull that has become as notable as a stretch of sunny days in Seattle."It's a different world," Hofbauer said with a sigh.

God knows it is.

Reach Nicole Brodeur at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com. She hates Peeps.

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