Book Review: Don't Tread On the NRA

Human Rights

Reviewed: Outgunned: Up Against the NRA, Peter Harry Brown and Daniel G. Abel, The Free Press: 352 pp., $26

On April 9, while America's attention was fixed on its troops conquering Baghdad, the National Rifle Assn. was celebrating a different victory. That day the U.S. House of Representatives quietly passed a bill that would ban most gunshot victims from suing gun makers and dealers. If the Senate follows and President Bush signs the bill, it will be a resounding defeat for gun victims who put their faith in the courts.

Only a few years ago, gun control activists and lawyers were terrifying the gun industry with their legal crusade. In "Outgunned: Up Against the NRA," Peter Harry Brown and Daniel G. Abel tell the story behind that movement and explain how the NRA battled back with its profound political influence.

"Outgunned" joins a slew of recent gun books by John R. Lott Jr., Wayne LaPierre and James Jay Baker, Sarah Brady and others. While most authors take strong partisan positions, "Outgunned" coauthors Brown and Abel cover both sides of the story. Brown is a seasoned investigative reporter; Abel is an attorney with experience suing gun makers but the voice of the book sounds more like a journalist's than a lawyer's. The authors draw on the work of other reporters to cover multiple fronts. Anyone who wants to better understand contemporary gun politics should start with this book.

The narrative begins in New Orleans with the 1998 murder of gospel singer Raymond Myles. Myles, a local legend, was shot and robbed while driving home at night. The weapon that killed him was the pistol he carried for self-defense. The city's mayor, Marc Morial, was shaken by the death and angered by political deadlock over guns. He turned to attorney Wendell Gauthier for a fresh approach.

The late Gauthier, dubbed the "king of torts" by reporters, was best known for successfully suing Big Tobacco. He approached guns with a simple proposition: If cigarette makers can be held responsible for deaths caused by their products, then why not gun makers?

Gauthier calculated that shootings cost taxpayers millions of dollars in police, medical and other city services. "We are taking the gun dealers to court because the political process has failed us," Gauthier announced to the press. "If lawyers hadn't launched Brown v. Board of Education, you would never have had school integration." Gauthier assembled a coalition of 37 law firms. Their suit accused gun makers of ignoring safety devices and smart gun technology that would prevent unauthorized shooters like Myles' killer.

As Gauthier was bringing his suit, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley was testing out a different legal theory. Chicago had banned the sale of handguns, but Daley claimed the gun industry compensated "by shipping thousands of guns a year to suburban gun shops which operated just outside the city limits." The Chicago suit, filed in 1998, accused the gun industry of creating a "public nuisance" by flooding the city with an "excess of handguns." More than 20 American cities incorporated Chicago's "public nuisance" theory into their own gun suits.

Until then, gun makers had comfortably ignored pinprick attempts to regulate gun distribution. But they couldn't afford to ignore the lawsuits. The gun industry's annual earnings, estimated by the authors as ranging between $1.9 billion and $3 billion a year, were a fraction of Big Tobacco's $1 billion a day. The industry was divided over whether to fight or compromise. The arguments for compromise gained momentum during 1999 as one massacre after another made headlines: homicidal teens at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.; a racist targeting minorities in Illinois and Indiana; a psychotic day-trader in Atlanta, Ga.; a neo-Nazi in Granada Hills. "Outgunned" shows how this confluence of tragedy and lawsuits created a unique opportunity for changes in gun distribution.

Gun lobbyist Robert Ricker decided the industry should bend before it broke. His organization, the American Shooting Sports Council, was known as the "kinder, gentler gun lobby" in contrast to the hardline NRA. In the months after Columbine, Ricker held meetings with President Clinton and Gauthier's legal team to find middle ground. Ricker was a former NRA counsel, and his old bosses were not pleased with his behavior. As recounted in "Outgunned," the NRA pressured ASSC members to fire Ricker and merge the organization into another foundation that was more NRA-friendly. "Any gun company who ventures outside the fold is kicked back into line," Ricker told the authors. "They go along with the NRA to save their factories. In fact, they are held hostage by the NRA leadership."

Smith & Wesson Chief Executive Ed Shultz attempted his own compromise. Holding secret talks with Clinton officials, Shultz conceded to signing a public "code of conduct," a 21-page document that stipulated strict regulations intended to prevent weapons from reaching criminals. Shultz hoped that by accepting the code his company could squirm out of the city suits.

But the NRA would brook no compromise and used every tactic to strong-arm dissenters into silence. Its lobby sent a fax alert to members titled "Smith & Wesson Surrenders," deriding Shultz and publicizing his phone number. Thousands of gun owners called Shultz with complaints, boycotts and death threats. No other gun maker dared follow in those footsteps. With the 2000 presidential election a half-year away, the industry was counting on regime change. Campaigning for George W. Bush during the presidential election, NRA Vice President Kayne Robinson promised a crowd in Los Angeles, "If we win, we'll have a Supreme Court that will back us to the hilt. If we win, we'll have a president where we work out of his office."

Pressing for a different future, the Million Mom March amassed hundreds of thousands of gun control supporters in Washington, D.C., for Mother's Day 2000. On that sunny afternoon, celebrities and survivors took the stage demanding child safety locks, gun registration and licensing. The event closed with the playing of the song "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now." But they were stopped. Louisiana's pro-NRA governor retroactively banned Gauthier's lawsuit with legislation, and more than 25 other states passed similar laws.

When Bush took office, his administration dissolved Smith & Wesson's "code of conduct" and ordered the FBI to destroy all data on gun purchases within 24 hours of a sale, including information that could help track terrorists. These moves bowed to the NRA's opposition to anything resembling a national registry of guns. NRA membership swelled with true believers. "Let me state unequivocally," John Ashcroft wrote in an open letter to the NRA a few months after becoming attorney general, "that the Second Amendment clearly protects the right of individuals to keep and bear firearms." As Brown and Abel write, Ashcroft's remarks "wiped out thirty years of judicial practice, thirty years in which the United States Justice Department had hardened its position that the Second Amendment only guarantees the right to keep and bear arms to members of government militias."

"Outgunned" reminds us how innovative legal maneuvers almost caused unprecedented change in the gun industry. Ricker, the lobbyist turned whistle-blower, recently filed an affadavit in California testifying that the gun industry willfully turns a blind eye to the illegal gun trade. "60 Minutes" called him the "star witness" for gunshot victims. But if the NRA gets its way with pending legislation, the victims' day in court may never come.

Thom Powers is the director of the documentary "Guns & Mothers," airing on PBS' Independent Lens this month, and is the author of a forthcoming history of American documentary filmmaking, "Stranger Than Fiction."

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