Watching the news in Los Angeles can be mystifying and depressing, and it had an effect on Tom Petty. Explaining this song to Melody Maker in 1981, he said: "I mean I hate to look like a moralist, but it's just living here and watching the news every night is just like starting to bother me. There's so many people killed every day... these gangs and stuff, their one big pastime is to get a pistol and to go around and pick people off street corners from their car window.
The way the song came about was actually from seein' this Vietnam veteran, he died the other day, who drove his jeep through the front door of the veterans hospital, saying 'I'm dyin' from Agent Orange, I'm crazy and I'm tryin' to tell you' - and they wouldn't treat the guy or somethin'. And he killed himself.
I was on the road somewhere and we were stopped in the freeway traffic, and I looked out the window, and sittin' next to me in this kind of f--ked up old Ford was this guy. And you could just look at this guy's face and you could tell that this guy is trouble. And then I noticed that round his mirror he had his Army dog tags, like they hang dice. I would have bet money he was a Killer, y'know, and it just stuck with me and we did that one tune. I just thought it fit the album, that we should get into that for a second."