On December 16, 1988, Nicholas Elliot, barely sixteen, walked into the Atlantic Shores Christian School, in Virginia Beach, Virginia, with a semi-automatic handgun hidden in his backpack. By midmorning a forty-one year-old teacher had been shot dead, and another teacher, struck by two nine-millimeter bullets, was extraordinarily lucky to be alive. Two other teachers narrowly escaped Nicholas Elliot’s bullets. One found herself running a zigzag pattern through the school yard as Nicholas fired round after round at her back. The other, a man who tackled Nicholas and in the process saved the lives of a roomful of crying and praying teenagers, felt a bullet breeze past his head.
In a nation accustomed to multiple murders, the shootings received little out-of-state coverage. But the story of how Nicholas wound up firing away on the grounds of a peaceful suburban school says a great deal about America’s gun crisis. Nicholas in effect carried with him the good wishes of a gun culture whose institutions and mores have helped make commonplace in America the things he did that morning.
A none-of-my-business attitude permeates the firearms distribution chain from production to final sale, allowing gunmakers and gun marketers to promote the killing power of their weapons while disavowing any responsibility for their use in crime. Nicholas carried a gun that should never by any reasonable standard have been a mass-market product. He acquired the gun from a federally licensed dealer, using a means that puts thousands of guns into the hands of illegal users each year, yet that existing federal gun-trade regulations do much to encourage. His story describes a de facto conspiracy of gun dealers, manufacturers, marketers, writers, and federal regulators which makes guns—ever more powerful guns, and laser sights, silencer-ready barrels, folding stocks, exploding bullets, and flame-thrower shotgun rounds—all too easy to come by and virtually assures their eventual use in the bedrooms, alleys, and school yards of America.
I am not opposed to guns per se, not even handguns, provided that the owners acknowledge the responsibility conferred by ownership. When I see rural road signs perforated with large-diameter holes, I realize that this responsibility is not universally acknowledged. I routinely ask the parents of my daughters’ playmates if they own guns and, if so, how they store them. If they store them loaded, even in a locked cabinet, my children do not play at their homes. I can appreciate the lethal appeal of weapons and the fine craftsmanship evident in such premium handguns as the Colt Python and, yes, the Smith & Wesson Model 29 used by Dirty Harry. When I go to gun shows, as I do in my new capacity as a federally licensed firearms dealer, I am drawn, as are most of the browsers around me, to the guns spread so invitingly across the exhibitors’ tables—especially the notorious weapons, the AK-47s, Mac-lls, and pistol-grip Mossbergs. I recognize, too, that membership in America’s gun culture occurs along a continuum, from collectors who buy non-firing replicas to inner-city gunslingers willing to kill for a fancy jacket.
In writing this article I deliberately avoided including the predictably angry voices of traditional pro- and anti-gun forces, such as the National Rifle Association and the Violence Policy Center, in Washington, D.C., which occupy opposing poles in the debate. Where my views run counter to those of the NRA is in my belief that people should be allowed to acquire guns only after going through procedures at least as rigorous as those involved in getting a driver’s license. As the laws are now written, a blind man can buy a gun.
America is currently in the midst of a gun crisis that can no longer be considered just a manifestation of the pioneer spirit; instead, it has become a costly global embarrassment. That a crisis does exist should be well beyond dispute by now, given the bleak statistics on gunshot death and damage—yet these statistics, capable of kindling outrage in a stone, have failed to impress America’s gun industry and the gun culture that supports it.
Over the past two years firearms have killed 60,000 Americans, more than the number of U.S. soldiers killed in the Vietnam War. Handguns account for 22,000 deaths a year. In 1991, well before the Los Angeles riots, the guns of Los Angeles County alone killed or wounded 8,050—thirteen times the number of U.S. casualties in the Persian Gulf War, according to a survey by the Los Angeles Times. Handguns terrorize far more people than they kill: Department of Justice statistics show that every twenty-four hours handgun-wielding assailants rape thirty-three women, rob 575 people, and assault another 1,116.
A relatively new phenomenon, originating in the 1980s, is the appearance of young children on the list of urban gunshot casualties. In 1987 a team of researchers from the UCLA School of Medicine and King/Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles found that King/Drew hadn’t admitted a single child under ten for gunshot wounds before 1980. From 1980 to 1987 the center admitted thirty-four. The study, published in the American Journal of Diseases of Children, included a macabre table of wounds and complications which hinted at the true horror of gunshot injuries—a horror spared us in daily news coverage, which devotes little space to the merely wounded. A five-year-old lost a hand. A three-year-old, shot in the rectum, endured a colostomy. Other children on the list lost fingers, eyes, and brain tissue; at least one—an eight-year-old girl—was consigned to an institution for the rest of her life. These children were shot by grandfathers, cousins, friends, robbers, snipers, and—in a particularly cruel twist—by gang members seeking only to exact revenge on an elder sibling.
Despite the carnage, guns continue to proliferate. The nation began arming itself in earnest in the roaring sixties, amid race riots and assassinations. From 1967 to 1968, the two most tumultuous years, the number of handguns made available for sale to civilians in the United States rose by 50 percent—some 802,000 pistols and revolvers—to 2.4 million, the greatest single annual leap in American history. As of 1989 there were 66.7 million handguns (and 200 million firearms of all kinds) in circulation in the United States.
If these guns were controlled by a legion of sober adults, we’d have far less to worry about. One study of 11,000 teenagers in ten states found that 41 percent of the boys and 21 percent of the girls said they could obtain a handgun whenever they wished. A University of North Carolina study of adolescents in suburban and rural communities in the Southeast found that nine percent of the boys actually owned a handgun, despite federal laws prohibiting anyone under twenty-one from buying one. Boys typically received their first firearm—usually a shotgun or a rifle, but seven percent of the time a handgun—at the age of twelve and a half, but more than a fifth of this juvenile militia received their first guns around the age of ten.
Increasingly, you don’t need to own a gun or be the intended target of someone else’s gun to get shot. As guns have proliferated, the rate at which bystanders are wounded and killed has soared. In 1985 stray bullets killed four New Yorkers; in 1990 they killed forty.
Gun merchants and hobbyists steadfastly protest that guns aren’t the problem and that even if they were, gun ownership is explicitly endorsed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution—the much cited right-to bear-arms clause—and is therefore as much a part of the American way as, say, voting. A comparison of international homicide statistics proves that guns do indeed set America apart from the rest of the developed world.
In 1987 America’s civilian guns were used to murder 3,187 young men aged fifteen to twenty-four, accounting for three fourths of the annual homicide rate of 21.9 per 100,000 people.
In Canada only seventeen young men were murdered with firearms, for an overall rate of 2.9 per 100,000.
In Japan, with 0.5 homicides per 100,000 people, gunshot homicides totaled eight—as many as New York City police officers encounter on a single robust weekend.
Mounting evidence suggests that the mere presence of a gun can lead to injury or death. An especially damning kind of data is just now becoming available and is certain to make its way into some of the growing number of lawsuits that seek to make the gun industry accountable for firearms injuries and deaths. In 1989, rather late in the computer revolution, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) was finally able to say which gun manufacturers turned up most often in trace requests. The company whose handguns were traced most often from January of 1990 to December of 1991 was the giant Smith & Wesson.
However, when the frequency of traces is considered in proportion to each company’s production, a tiny Atlanta company, S. W. Daniel, Inc., shows a tracing rate far higher. By 1989 S. W. Daniel had produced some 60,500 handguns and an untold number of accessories, including silencers and machine-gun kits. Among the guns it produced was Nicholas Elliot’s weapon, the Cobray M-l1/9, which it fondly advertised as “The gun that made the 80s roar.”
Condemned by the police, reviled even by those who sell it, the gun has been remarkably controversial ever since its creation as a cheap, reliable submachine gun meant specifically for close military combat. How that gun went on to become a readily available consumer product—something S. W. Daniel once even gave away free in a monthly contest—provides a clear example of the culture of nonresponsibility prevailing in America’s firearms industry; it is but one example of how this commercial ethos governed the gun’s progress from conception to its use as a murder weapon in a Virginia Beach classroom.
“The reality that bothers me is there is no self-control, no self-policing, in the gun industry itself,” says Colonel Leonard Supenski, of the Baltimore County Police Department, a nationally recognized firearms expert who early last year testified in a pathbreaking liability suit stemming from Nicholas Elliot’s rampage. “The premise seems to be that if they’ve got the right to do something, then that’s the right thing to do.”
The Baltimore county police shooting range occupies a wooded compound just north of Towson, Maryland, where the six-lane strip roads of Baltimore taper to rolling two-lane highways. When I visited there recently, I heard firing the moment I stepped from my car—a sound something like what you’d get if you put a stethoscope beside a cooking package of microwave popcorn. The range was carved from a hillock, leaving a plane half the size of a football field bordered on one end by an earthen cliff that keeps stray rounds from bounding north into Baltimore County horse country. Supenski arrived carrying a gray attache case, and led me onto the range.
Supenski is a big fan of guns and shooting. “I grew up in the era of the B westerns,” he told me. “Loved them, still love them. My single most prized possession is an original Colt single-action ‘cowboy’ gun. Nickel-plated, hand-engraved, ivory stock.”
But he also believes in more-stringent controls to force a heightened level of responsibility in the sale and use of firearms. This has not won him many friends among the gunslingers of America. One pro-gun group twice threatened to kill him, prompting a mischievous female assistant to don a bulletproof vest one afternoon before joining him for lunch. His is a pragmatic stance. He worries that irresponsible behavior by gun dealers, manufacturers, and the NRA may soon lead to controls far more restrictive than the simple regulations now sought by proponents of moderate gun control.
He considers the Cobray pistol made by S. W. Daniel, and the means by which Nicholas Elliot came to own it, a case study of irresponsibility in the gun marketplace, and testified to that effect in the liability suit. The Cobray pistol, he argues, serves no useful purpose—certainly none of the purposes traditionally cited by the gun camp when opposing new controls. It’s not a hunting gun: most states limit magazine capacity for hunting to three to five rounds, and the Cobray carries thirty-two. Moreover, most states require that hunters use a far higher caliber. The gun would never satisfy a target shooter: it is heavy, clumsy, and prone to rock up and down when fired, and its two-inch barrel makes it painfully inaccurate. Nor is it desirable for self-defense. “About the only thing you can do with it,” Supenski says, “is hold it someplace in front of you, pull the trigger as fast as you can, put as many bullets out as you can, and hope like hell they’ll hit something. Now, that may be nice on a battlefield. It isn’t so nice in an urban environment, where that bullet may go through your bedroom into your child’s bedroom or into your neighbor’s bedroom, or may go outside and kill a passerby.”
Supenski opened his attache case. Inside, against a thick layer of foam, was a Cobray pistol confiscated during an arrest, and a slender gray magazine packed with brass nine-millimeter cartridges.
I picked the gun up. It was a dull black, with none of the gleaming machined beauty of more expensive weapons. To picture it, imagine a black steel ingot with a pistol grip jutting from the center of its bottom face- not the rear, as in most pistols—and a stubby barrel protruding from the front.
It was undeniably if darkly appealing in its lethality. It was heavy, about the weight of a newborn baby, and it was cold. Its grip had none of the close-fitting contours of more costly guns, like the Smith & Wesson nine millimeter that Supenski himself carried.
I held the Cobray out in front of me with one hand and tried to line up the sights. My wrist sagged under its weight. It looked evil, a Darth Vader among guns.
Its reputation matches the look. A 1989 study by the Cox Newspapers found that the pistol ranked fourth among assault guns most often traced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. A study of all guns confiscated in Detroit from January of 1989 through April of 1990 put the Cobray first among assault guns, fifth among all models—higher in the rankings than guns made by Beretta, whose production dwarfs that of the entire S. W. Daniel company. The head of the ATF’s Atlanta office estimates that his agents conduct twenty to thirty traces involving S. W. Daniel guns each month.
The Cobray and its ancestors became the favorites of drug gangs nationwide in the 1980s. A variant on it was used by the Order, a neo-Nazi group, to kill the Denver talk-show host Alan Berg. Joseph T. Wesbecker, the man who walked into a Louisville, Kentucky, printing plant in 1989 and murdered eight people with an AK-47, had packed two Cobrays in the gym bag he carried with him to the plant.
In February of 1990 the gun came up for review by Maryland’s Handgun Roster Board, a body created by legislation whose purpose is to restrict the sale of “Saturday-night specials.” Cornelius J. Behan, the chief of the Baltimore County police and a member of the board, found himself forced by the law’s strict guidelines to vote to approve the gun for sale in Maryland, but he told the board, “It’s a terrible killing instrument.”
The gun’s direct lineage begins in the 1960s, when Gordon Ingram, an engineer and gunsmith, set out to design a submachine gun specifically for use by Latin American guerrillas. One of Ingram’s friends, a Peruvian emigre hard at work illegally making submachine guns for anti-Castro exiles training in Costa Rica, told Ingram, in the words of Thomas Nelson, a respected machine-gun historian, that what his guerrilla clients most wanted in a combat weapon was “small size, to facilitate concealment; sound suppression, to deter detection; and low cost.”
A note here on terminology: A machine gun fires rifle-caliber bullets; a submachine gun fires pistol-calibers. Both are fully automatic, or “full auto,” weapons, meaning that they continue to fire for as long as you pull the trigger. A semi-automatic fires one round per pull. That the term “automatic” is sometimes applied to a pistol like the Colt Army .45 confuses the issue. In this usage it is short for “automatic reloading,” which means the gun uses the explosive force of each cartridge to load and cock itself after each shot. Such pistols are in fact semi-automatics.
Ingram succeeded in developing a combat weapon, his M-10, with an astonishing rate of fire of more than 1,000 rounds per minute, or sixteen per second—too fast to control, according to technical experts at the ATF, and thus of little value for anything but mow-’em-down military use. Ingram and a partner, Mitchell L. WerBell III, a soldier of fortune who founded a paramilitary training camp outside Atlanta, formed a new company, Military Armament Corporation, to bring the gun to market. They developed plans to build two models of Ingram’s gun: for military markets, the full-auto submachine gun, whose sales would be tightly controlled by the National Firearms Act, which requires that anyone wishing to buy a machine gun first submit to an extensive background check; and for consumers, a semi-automatic version.
The gun’s formal name became the MAC-10, although gun aficionados would soon come to know it simply as “the Ingram.” It attracted minimal interest from the U.S. military, but its speed and evil good looks captured the imagination of Hollywood. In 1974, in the movie McQ, John Wayne himself gave the company a welcome burst of publicity, in the process turning the gun from an obscure novelty into a weapon coveted by gangs and drug rings across the nation. Big Lon McQ, a Seattle police detective played by Wayne, visits the shop of a gun dealer he knows and is invited to “squeeze off a burst” with a brand-new weapon. With obvious reverence the dealer calls it “the Ingram.”
McQ blasts away, rupturing a trash can filled with water. The camera cuts to McQ’s face, his expression one of bemused awe. McQ looks down at the gun. He looks back at the pail.
“How about that?” the dealer says. “Those thirty-two slugs came out in a second and a half.”
Ruggedly, slowly, McQ says, “Yeah.”
“You ever see anything like it?” the dealer asks.
Just in case anyone in the audience had any doubt about where to buy this wondrous weapon, Warner Brothers provided a full-screen credit that read “Special Weapon: Military Armament Corp.”
This enthusiastic bit of advertising wasn’t enough to save the company, however. It filed for Chapter 11 protection under federal bankruptcy laws in mid-1975, without ever having produced a consumer Ingram. Its guns and other assets were sold at auction, mostly to a group of three investors who had formed another Atlanta company, RPB Industries. They, too, planned to bring Ingram’s weapons to full-scale production, but in 1978 sold out to yet another group of investors, this one headed by Wayne Daniel, the son of a Georgia minister.
Under its new managers RPB had more success selling the Ingram line to foreign governments, but domestically it faced a set of daunting business obstacles. One partner was convicted of bribing a prosecutor to drop a customer’s drug charge. Two others, Robert Morgan and Jack Leibolt, were involved in the narcotics-smuggling operations of Pablo Escobar-Gaviria and the Medellin cartel. In 1980 Morgan was sentenced to thirty years in prison for smuggling two tons of marijuana into Florida. Leibolt, according to a sweeping 1989 indictment of Escobar, once piloted a plane for the cartel and, in September of 1979, supplied the group with six silencer equipped machine guns. (He pled guilty in August of 1990 to conspiracy to import cocaine.)
Despite all this, RPB succeeded in at last transforming the Ingram from a limited-circulation military weapon into a semi-automatic handgun for general use. “It became available everywhere,” says Earl Taylor, a twenty one-year veteran of the ATF and now a vice-president of Norred and Associates, an Atlanta security concern that counts among its many assignments the protection of Colonel Oliver North. “All gun shops everywhere were selling it. Everywhere.”
The gun proved easy to convert to fully automatic operation—so easy that even inexperienced gun owners could make the change in a matter of minutes, using only a file. Demand for the gun soared nationwide, and black markets formed as middlemen, including one Georgia policeman, bought large quantities, converted the guns, and resold them to the drug underworld.
In October of 1981 Wayne Daniel married Sylvia Williams, a striking young woman from Alabama. The next month she became a member of RPB’s board of directors. She would soon prove to be a feisty, outspoken opponent of the ATF.
Relations between the company and the ATF and other law-enforcement agencies deteriorated throughout 1981 and 1982. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the FBI began an intensive hunt for Jack Leibolt, who, according to minutes of an RPB board meeting, had gone “underground.” Citing Leibolt’s activities, the ATF threatened to pull RPB’s firearms manufacturer’s license. Moreover, the agency persuaded a federal judge that the RPB semi-automatic handgun, so easy to convert to fully automatic operation, was a machine gun and should be made subject to the strict registration provisions of the National Firearms Act.
To sever his ties to Leibolt, Wayne Daniel in October of 1982 liquidated the company. An auction house sold its assets for half a million dollars.
A reasonable person might expect that at this point the MAC-10 would have been allowed to disappear from America’s arsenal and consigned to Thomas Nelson’s history books. But RPB Industries rose quickly from the tomb, this time as S. W. Daniel, Inc., named for Sylvia Williams Daniel. After the ATF’s ruling, the Daniels set out in earnest to develop a weapon that could be sold readily to the public. They succeeded—introducing by 1983 the Cobray M-11/9—but nonetheless continued sending prototype after prototype to the ATF’s technical branch in Washington, as if probing for holes in the law. Once, for example, they sent a prototype of what they claimed was a single-shot weapon. It was the same weapon that the judge had ruled was a machine gun, but with a plate over the bottom of the grip where the clip would otherwise be inserted. The ATF, however, found that the plate could be removed, and classified this weapon, too, as a machine gun.
The company also sold machine-gun “flats,” stamped and notched pieces of steel that could be bent to form the frame, or “lower receiver,” of a machine gun. Under federal law a machine-gun receiver is treated as if it were a complete firearm. The flats were legal—provided that certain holes were left undrilled. The Daniels sold their flats legally. All a consumer had to do to commit an instant felony was to drill out a single hole—but that was the consumer’s problem.
Referring to Wayne Daniel, Earl Taylor says, “He’ll come close to the edge of the envelope—maybe not blatantly doing something illegal, but he’s very anxious to test and see how far he can go in the weapons field.”
This attitude, Taylor believes, was a marketing posture that made the Daniels’ products all the more attractive to gun buyers. Wayne Daniel, he says, “can kind of feel the pulse of this gun culture out there and kind of say things and do things and market things that appeal to those people.”
One episode in particular illustrates the lengths to which the company was willing to go. In January of 1983 the Daniels invited two men, Joseph Ledbetter and James Travis Motes, to their home to make the men a proposition. Ledbetter and Motes had installed air-conditioning in the RPB offices and electrical wiring in the S. W. Daniel headquarters. The Daniels suggested that they diversify into the business of making the outer tubes for silencers. S. W. Daniel would make the internal parts. The two companies would advertise in the same gun publications and travel to the same gun shows. By selling only parts, both would stay on the right side of federal law requiring registration of completed silencers. Indeed, no law barred the sale of silencer parts. In the eyes of the law, however, any consumer who merely took delivery of both internal parts and tubes would automatically possess a completed silencer—a felony if the silencer was unregistered. But again, that was the consumer’s worry.
Wayne Daniel went so far as to give Ledbetter and Motes a gauge to guide them in fashioning the tubes, and an advertising layout that S. W. Daniel had used earlier to sell a line of completed registered silencers to approved buyers through Shotgun News, a thick tabloid often referred to as the gun owner’s bible.
Ledbetter and Motes founded L & M Guns and began selling their tubes through Shotgun News and at gun shows around the country. The Daniels, meanwhile, began advertising their internal-parts kits and displaying them at the same gun shows. On at least one occasion the two companies found themselves facing each other across an aisle.
The ATF began an investigation after a detective with the Mono County, California, sheriff’s office discovered an unregistered silencer during a search. The investigation quickly gained momentum. At one point an ATF special agent, Peter Urrea, posed as the president of the Widow Makers Motorcycle Club and ordered silencer components from L & M Guns. He also said he had a criminal record. The components were sent, no questions asked.
The investigation widened to include machine-gun flats sold by S. W. Daniel and L & M. Urrea continued buying silencer parts and machine-gun kits from S. W. Daniel, L & M, and a third company, La Vista Armaments, of Louisville, Kentucky, and won a warrant to search S. W. Daniel headquarters. On July 19, 1984, ATF agents raided the company, seizing firearms, components, and, most important, customer lists and shipping records.
The ATF used the seized records to launch some 400 individual investigations relating to arms trafficking and illegal possession of restricted weapons. In June of 1985 ATF agents arrested the Daniels and, using an experimental tactic, charged them with conspiracy to sell illegal silencers. (By now the Daniels had divorced, but they had continued to have a close working relationship.) Later, in formal court arguments, they would claim that they were simply trying to fill a valid need for replacement parts for silencers owned by legitimate users.
The ATF’s investigators found a rather different story. All in all, from November of 1983 to July of 1984, the government charged, S. W. Daniel had mailed some 6,000 silencer and machine-gun kits. Only four buyers had bothered to register the devices. When the ATF ran the customer lists through the FBI’s National Crime Information Center databank, it found that more than fifty customers had prior criminal records or were believed to be involved in drug peddling and other forms of organized crime. Posing as IRA gunrunners, Mexican narcotics smugglers, and assorted ne’er-do-wells, undercover ATF agents were welcomed by international arms traffickers, narcotics smugglers, and assorted ne’er do-wells, among them a New York group that accepted an order for some $15.6 million worth of silencer-equipped machine guns, hand grenades, and rocket-propelled grenades. A confidential ATF report noted that the leaders of the group “were dealing directly with Sylvia and Wayne Daniel…for the purchase of the machine guns and silencer kits.” Agents also arrested an Oregon man who had provided machine-gun lower receivers to the Order, the group that had assassinated Alan Berg.
“There are literally thousands of persons now in the United States and probably outside the United States who have a fully operable silencer which is not registered to them and which is possessed unlawfully,” Brian C. Leighton, an assistant U.S. attorney assigned to the case, wrote in a pretrial statement. “It was incredibly easy for these people to receive the silencer; they merely had to order the internal-parts kit from SWD and order a tube from one of the many tube distributors—all of whom advertised in Shotgun News.” These were “assassin-type weapons,” he said, and posed “a definite danger to the community.”
As the case approached the trial phase, however, the government found itself compelled to admit that no law forbade the sale of the silencer components sold by S. W. Daniel. Indeed, federal law expressly excluded silencer parts from ATF regulation. The Daniels pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. They were sentenced to six months’ probation and forced to pay $900 in taxes and fines, but because they had escaped felony charges, they were allowed to retain their federal firearms license.
The investigation had not cowed the Daniels. On May 1, 1985, Wayne Daniel placed an ad in Shotgun News headed “Now It’s Happening in AMERICA” featuring a large photograph of Hitler and Mussolini. The ad recounted the ATF’s raid on S. W. Daniel and listed the names and home cities of the agents involved. “The uniforms of this new ‘Gestapo’ may not be taylored [sic] and bear the eagle and swastika on the sleeve, rather they choose to wear a business suit or sport jacket and slacks from the racks of a cut rate department store—but their purpose is the same, they want total control and YOU, as an American citizen, DISARMED!”
The agents named in the ad, among them Earl Taylor, demanded that Daniel retract the advertisement. He refused. In a handwritten letter he said, “I am at a complete loss of words perhaps from bending over laughing.”
The agents filed a private libel suit against Wayne Daniel and Snell Publishing, the publisher of Shotgun News. Taylor says, “It was, by God, to let them know that they couldn’t do that to law-enforcement officers who were doing their mandated duty.”
The court ruled in the agents’ favor and ordered Wayne Daniel to pay each agent $1,000 in damages, but found Snell not liable.
Undaunted, the Daniels branched out into other firearms. They introduced a pistol-grip shotgun with a high-capacity drum magazine and a forward grip, resembling a shotgun version of a tommy gun, and called it the Street-Sweeper. “Delivers Twelve Rounds In Less Than Three Seconds!!!!” one ad proclaimed in Shotgun News. The ad continued, “Time for spring cleaning. Why try cleanups with inadequate equipment?? Buy the machine designed to clean thoroughly on the first pass.”
The company’s latest innovation is the Ladies’ Home Companion, apparently intended for use by women to protect themselves and their homes. A variation on the Street-Sweeper, it is just under two feet long, has a twelve-shot revolving drum, and fires a heavy .45-70 “government” cartridge that causes explosive recoil—yet the gun has only a rear pistol grip and no other handle. Moreover, the trigger requires thirty to forty pounds of pressure. S. W. Daniel advertised the gun as being “ideal for use in confined spaces,” yet Don Flohr, a Maryland State Police firearms expert who tests weapons for the roster board, refused to test-fire it for fear of damaging the state’s testing range. An official with Maryland’s Handgun Roster Board calls it “a sick joke.”
I’d have liked to ask the Daniels why they seemed hell-bent on skirting firearms laws, but neither returned the many calls I made recently to their Atlanta headquarters.
At the Baltimore county pistol range, Leonard Supenski had me slip on pistol earmuffs and safety glasses. Then he shoved a clip into the Cobray and passed it to me. He invited me to blast away.
The trigger was quick—no more demanding than that of a cap pistol. I fired with abandon at a series of steel man-shaped targets called Pepper Poppers, after their inventor. The targets are designed to fall backward when struck by a bullet. The earthen wall came alive as if a tribe of beetles had suddenly decided to decamp. I downed all four targets and then turned the gun on a loose piece of wood embedded in the earth behind them. Shards blew off in all directions. Shell casings rocketed past me, one striking the rim of my safety glasses and bouncing off my eyebrow. In a matter of seconds I’d used up all thirty-two rounds.
Watching the dirt fly, one can be lulled into believing that this is, after all, just fun and games. I wanted to fire off another clip; hell, I wanted to “rock and roll,” the gun culture’s euphemism for firing a machine gun in full auto. This WAS fun. Remote destruction is a dynamite rush.
“You put a gun like this in the hands of a juvenile,” Supenski testified at the civil trial, “and you’ve got death waiting to happen.” The judge struck his testimony from the record, ruling it prejudicial and inflammatory.
“It should have been inflammatory,” Supenski told me. “A whole lot of people should have heard it and they should have been inflamed.” He pushed his glasses higher on his nose. “You know the part of that case that really bothered me? The clerk who sold the kid that goddamn gun was an ex-cop.”
To be a gun dealer in America is to occupy a strange and dangerous outpost on the moral frontier. Every storefront gun dealer winds up at some point in his career selling weapons to killers, drug addicts, psychos, and felons; likewise, every storefront dealer can expect to be visited by ATF agents and other lawmen tracing weapons backward from their use in crime to their origins in the gun-distribution network. One must be a cool customer to stay in business knowing that the products one sells are likely to be used to kill adults and children or to serve as a terroristic tool in robberies, rapes, and violent assaults. Yet gun dealers deny at every step of the way the true nature of the products they sell and absolve themselves of responsibility for their role in the resulting mayhem. Guns used in crime are commonly thought to have originated in some mythic inner-city black market. Such markets do exist, of course, but they are kept well supplied by the licensed gun-distribution network, where responsibility is defined as whatever the law allows.
Guns Unlimited demonstrates the kind of position every legitimate gun shop must eventually find itself in. Guns Unlimited considers itself a “good” dealer. Indeed, in the view of Mike Dick, the general manager of the company and the son of its founder, Guns Unlimited is not just a sterling corporate citizen but also a de facto deputy of the ATF and a vital bulwark in the fight against crime and civil-rights abuse.
Nonetheless, Guns Unlimited sold Nicholas Elliot a gun under circumstances that led, early last year, to a jury verdict against the dealer in a civil suit, brought by the husband of the slain teacher, which charged the dealer with negligence.
Federal law bars anyone under twenty-one from buying a handgun, but Nicholas acquired his with ease through a “strawman” purchase three months before the shootings, when he was fifteen years old. Straw-man purchases, in which a qualified buyer buys a handgun for an unqualified person, are the primary means by which America’s bad guys acquire their weapons, and one the ATF cannot hope to put an end to, given the implicit and explicit restraints on its law-enforcement activities.
One peaceful September weekend Nicholas Elliot, apparently at loose ends, asked his second cousin, Curtis Williams, a truck driver in his thirties, to take him to look at guns in a gun store. Nicholas had pestered Williams before, calling “all the time,” as Williams remembered it. Williams didn’t want to go—he was busy stripping wax off a floor in his home and wanted to finish the job that day—but he felt guilty. Williams decided that he could be back in plenty of time to finish stripping the floor. He suggested Bob’s Guns, a few minutes away.
When he arrived at Nicholas’s house, however, he learned that the boy had other ideas. He didn’t want to visit just any gun store, according to Williams’s court testimony. He wanted to go to Guns Unlimited, in Carrollton. Williams didn’t know the store, but he did know Carrollton. It was little more than a wide space on Route 17 in Isle of Wight County, a rural wedge of land bordered on the north by the James River and on the east by the Portsmouth-Norfolk metropolitan area. It was a long drive from Nicholas’s house, on Colon Avenue in Norfolk’s Campostella neighborhood: a round trip of ninety minutes minimum, and that was just travel time. Williams told Nicholas he didn’t have enough gas for the trip. Nicholas passed him $20.
On the way the boy talked about a gun he’d come to appreciate, the Cobray M-l1/9 made by S. W. Daniel. “Man,” Williams recalled Nicholas’s saying, “you’ve got to see that; it’s a nice gun.”
The easy, fluid commerce of guns embraced them the moment they entered the shop. An elderly couple browsing in the store approached almost immediately and offered to sell Williams a gun in a private sale. “My husband has plenty of guns,” the man’s wife said. “He’ll sell you a gun, if you want to buy one.” Williams declined.
With the help of Tony Massengill, a firefighter and former policeman now moonlighting as a gun salesman, Williams and Nicholas looked at numerous guns, Nicholas acting more and more like an earnest shopper, not some kid infatuated with guns. Soon, Williams testified, Nicholas was asking to see particular guns and peppering Massengill with detailed questions about muzzle velocity and comparative power. When Nicholas asked to see the Cobray, Massengill obliged. “They got in such a lengthy conversation about that,” Williams recalled, “I just kind of moved away from them a little bit, looking around on my own.”
Williams returned, and he and Nicholas browsed until they reached the far end of the store, where Nicholas peeled off $300 and gave the money, from his savings, to Williams, instructing him to buy the Cobray. This did not surprise Williams. He knew a lot of adults who had bought guns for their kids; he knew a lot of kids who had guns.
The store was larger then, and configured a bit differently from the way it is now, but it was still small enough that anyone watching would have been aware of the exchange. What Massengill did see, however, became a matter of debate. He claimed he did not remember the sale at all, although, curiously, another employee, present in the store at the time but not actually involved in the transaction, testified later that he remembered seeing the buyers in the store. This clerk, Christopher Hartwig, also testified that he and Massengill had discussed the purchase after the shootings.
Williams testified in court that when the money changed hands, Massengill was still behind the counter at the place where he had last talked with Nicholas, some eight or nine feet away. “He was still standing there, waiting to wait on us, looking at us.”
Nicholas and Williams returned to the counter to buy the Cobray. Massengill passed Williams a copy of Form 4473. Everyone who buys a gun from a federally licensed firearms dealer must fill out this two-page form, which, among other things, asks the would-be purchaser if he is a drug addict, is a convicted felon, is mentally ill, or is an illegal alien; if he has renounced his U.S. citizenship; whether he has been dishonorably discharged from the armed forces. The form goes nowhere. It is kept in the dealer’s files (provided the dealer in fact keeps such files, and keeps them accurately) for later reference should the gun be used in a crime and traced by the ATF. By federal law, the buyer need present only enough identification to prove that he is twenty-one or older and resides in the state in which the dealer is located. (State and local laws may add requirements.)
Williams testified that as he began filling out the form, Massengill told him, “The only thing that will keep you from buying this gun here in this store is you put a ‘yes’ answer to these questions. Everything should be marked no. If you put a yes up there, that will stop you from getting the gun.” Williams completed the form and concluded the purchase.
Nicholas, meanwhile, had taken the gun from the counter and begun looking it over. He left the store carrying the gun.
Immediately after the Atlantic Shores shootings ATF agents arrested Williams and charged him with making a straw-man purchase. He was tried promptly and served thirteen months in prison. During the trial the federal prosecutor asked him, “What would ever possess someone who’s thirty-six, thirty-seven, years old to arrange for a fifteen-year-old young man to get a weapon like that?”
What no federal authority ever bothered to ask, however, is what would possess Guns Unlimited to allow this sale to be made, given the apparent level of Nicholas’s involvement.
I met Mike Dick—his full name is J. Michael Dick—on a hot morning in June at Guns Unlimited in Carrollton, on the north side of Route 17. The store is one of seven in a tiny mini-mall fronted with a white-gravel parking lot that blazed in the morning sun.
Mike and his father, James S. Dick, hold two of the nation’s 245,000 federal firearms-dealer licenses—two of the 7,000 licenses issued to residents of Virginia, where gun controls are virtually nonexistent.
Dick was late, but two of his clerks arrived and invited me inside to wait. The shop, no larger than a suburban living room, was a fortress. The Dicks had embedded steel “tank traps” in the sidewalk out front, to prevent a recurrence of what has become a fairly routine kind of burglary at the gun stores of America: crashing through the front display window with a truck. The Dicks installed the tank traps a few years ago, after a thief backed a dump truck into the store. Now an alarm system guards the place at night. The front door has been reinforced with steel. Steel herringbone grates cover the inside surfaces of the two large plate-glass windows. A big Pepsi machine stands against the grate just inside the door as a barrier to anyone hoping to cut through the glass to reach the door locks. The day I was there, the two clerks wore large-bore handguns strapped to their hips, one a revolver, the other a semi-automatic pistol. One clerk, dressed in black and wearing tinted glasses, told me that he and his partner were careful to stand at different points in the shop so that no one could get the drop on them simultaneously. He untacked a brief news clipping from the bulletin board behind him and proudly handed it to me. The item reported how just that week a Portsmouth gun-shop owner had shot and killed a would-be robber. No charges were filed.
Mike Dick arrived, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He is a young man whose prior career was in the hospitality (hotel and restaurant) industry. He joined Guns Unlimited to help his father salvage the business, which in the three years since the shooting had suffered badly—not from public condemnation but from the recession and the sudden decampment of so many military men from the Hampton Roads area during the Gulf War. The domestic gun industry as a whole has likewise experienced declining sales over the past few years, and last March one of the country’s highest profile arms makers, Colt’s Manufacturing, filed for protection from creditors under Chapter 11. At the time of the shooting, however, the industry was enjoying a robust surge in sales, and Guns Unlimited was thriving. As of 1990 James Dick owned three Guns Unlimited stores. By the time I met his son, however, Guns Unlimited had also been placed in Chapter 11; the Carrollton store was the only one operating.
At its peak the company advertised aggressively on television and with huge billboards featuring a giant handgun and proclaiming, “NO PERMITS,” a reference to the fact that in Isle of Wight County, as in most of the rest of Virginia, you don’t need a permit to buy a handgun. Regulations are much stiffer in individual cities in the Hampton Roads area, however: Portsmouth, for example, requires that buyers first get a city police permit. Guns Unlimited used the placement of its three stores to defeat these laws. In a deposition the aforementioned Christopher Hartwig, a clerk at the company until May of 1991, said that if a customer at the Portsmouth store needed a gun right away, a clerk would drive the gun to the Carrollton store and meet the buyer there. “Most people don’t want to wait,” he explained. “It would be like waiting two weeks to buy a nice car. You would want it today if you got the money. So they’d send the gun, you know, to the other store and then all the paperwork, everything, would be done right there.”
This bit of retail sleight of hand was legal.
“Guns Unlimited is very well respected,” Mike Dick assured me over coffee in the convenience store at the end of the mini-mall. He told me he’d been invited to join the state police firearms advisory board, and had assisted the ATF in numerous investigations, often calling the regional office after—or even during—suspicious transactions.
“In fact,” he told me, “I would venture to say if you talked to the local office of ATF, you would find that no one in this region assists them, whenever possible, as much as we do.”
At the same time, Guns Unlimited sold an especially lethal weapon to an adolescent—a weapon, moreover, that its own staff said served no useful purpose. At one point in the deposition process that preceded the civil trial of Guns Unlimited, Randy Singer, the plaintiff’s attorney, asked Hartwig what he thought of the Cobray M-l1/9. “It’s good for nothing,” Hartwig said.
Hartwig added that one kind of customer did seem drawn to the weapon. “Your blacks are real impressed with them. We usually joke around about it because that’s the first thing they want to look at when they come in, or we get phone calls, ‘Do you have an Uzi, do you have an M-11,’ because they see it on TV. They feel pretty powerful having one of those.”
Nicholas, who is black, was adamant about going to Guns Unlimited. Traffickers, gang members, and other killers have likewise chosen Guns Unlimited, a fact that has given the dealership a certain notoriety in Virginia’s Tidewater region—unjustly, perhaps, but also unavoidably, given the peculiar nature of firearms retailing.
In two cases in the 1990s gun traffickers recruited straw-man buyers to acquire large numbers of guns. In both cases, according to documents in Norfolk federal court, the traffickers specifically directed their recruits to Guns Unlimited; in both cases Guns Unlimited did indeed act as an exemplary corporate citizen.
In one case, Amir Ali Faraz, a twenty-two-year-old student, asked a friend of his, Matthew Jones, about buying “a couple of firearms”; Faraz couldn’t buy the guns on his own, he knew, because his permanent residence was in Pennsylvania and he had only a Pennsylvania driver’s license. Jones got him a Virginia license belonging to a man of roughly similar appearance who had lost it earlier in the year. Jones took Faraz to Guns Unlimited, where Faraz bought six high-caliber handguns—four for himself and one each for Jones and a friend of Jones’s who had accompanied them to the store. A week later Faraz sold three of his to Jones for $1,200. “Matthew told me he could sell these firearms for a ‘big profit’ in the Tidewater area to people who would take them up North and make even a bigger profit from them,” Faraz said in a written statement to the ATF.
In the gun trade buying more than one handgun at a time automatically raises a warning flag; in fact, the ATF requires dealers to mail in a multiple-purchase form any time a customer buys two or more handguns within a period of five working days. Nonetheless, in the absence of specific local regulations, anyone can walk into a gun store and buy a hundred handguns. The dealer is under no obligation to telephone the ATF, or even to inquire why anyone would want so many guns. All the dealer must do is mail the form by the close of business on the day of the purchase. The buyer, meanwhile, is free to scoop up his hundred handguns and start selling.
The ATF will investigate high-volume purchases, provided it learns of them. If a purchase takes place on a Saturday night, however, the ATF won’t see the form for several days. Meanwhile, the guns will begin their rapid migration through the illicit-arms network. Guns trafficked from Norfolk, Virginia, for example, typically wind up in the hands of crooks in Washington, Philadelphia, and New York, half a day’s drive up Interstate 95—nicknamed the “Iron Road” for all the illicit weapons that make the trip. That the notification procedure takes place by mail in an age when virtually every ordinary consumer transaction involves some immediate form of computer verification is but one of the peculiar ironies that characterize arms commerce in America.
Mike Dick managed the first sale to Faraz, and was immediately suspicious, enough so that he telephoned the Norfolk office of the ATF to alert them to Faraz’s purchases. (He also mailed a multiple-purchase form.) Over the next two weeks Faraz returned three times and bought twenty-nine more guns, selling twenty-five to Jones, according to court documents. On the last of these shopping trips Faraz placed an order for thirteen more handguns, all high-quality Glock pistols. Dick telephoned the ATF while Faraz was still in the store, and helped choreograph an undercover operation against Faraz. Dick allowed the ATF to choose the day on which Guns Unlimited would notify Faraz that the guns he had ordered were ready for pickup.
Agents arrested Faraz and, after allowing him to deliver ten guns to Jones, arrested Jones as well. Both men were convicted of violating federal firearms laws.
“I don’t just send the forms in and hope it takes six months for ATF to get around to them,” Dick told me. “If there is something that’s obviously a problem—and this obviously was—my opinion is the best way to correct the problem from society’s standpoint is to get these people off the street. If I just refuse to sell them weapons, nothing’s going to happen. They’re just going to go to someone less ethical than myself. And he may send the multiple-purchase form in; he may not send it in. Not all dealers are good.”
Society did not make out in this deal quite as well as Guns Unlimited did. The store booked at least $15,000 in sales. Yet twenty-nine of the forty eight high-caliber handguns that Faraz bought wound up in Matthew Jones’s hands and presumably in the gun-trafficking network. (Some of the guns were kept by Jones, Faraz, and Faraz’s friends.)
In the second trafficking case a local college student, Dean Archer, was recruited to buy guns by a convicted felon. He made his first purchase on December 1, 1990, when he bought four handguns from Guns Unlimited- four pistols made by Davis Industries, a favorite of traffickers who buy them cheaply in Virginia and other jurisdictions with lax controls and then sell them at a steep markup to inner-city buyers.
No one at Guns Unlimited seemed particularly concerned about the purchase. No one felt moved to call the ATF. Indeed, the store sold Archer the guns on the strength of a rent receipt for a Virginia apartment and his driver’s license—a NEW YORK driver’s license.
When the ATF learned of Archer’s purchase—three days later—the agency was instantly suspicious and launched a preliminary investigation. A few days after the first purchase Archer reappeared at Guns Unlimited, this time accompanied by a young woman, Lisa Yvonne Scott. Scott bought seven cheap Davis handguns. Again, the ATF learned of the sale only through a multiple-purchase form mailed by Guns Unlimited. Again, the form arrived three days after the purchase—more than enough time for those guns to make their way from hand to hand, state to state. And again, the ATF immediately assumed that something illicit had occurred.
The ATF called Guns Unlimited to get more details and learned that Scott had been accompanied by an unidentified male later identified as Dean Archer. By this point, however, eleven of the country’s favorite crime guns were on the street.
A few days later Scott appeared again and bought thirteen Davis pistols. This time Mike Dick telephoned the ATF. Nonetheless, Archer and Scott left the store with their new purchases. The total of cheap and deadly Davis pistols bought by the pair had risen to twenty-four. Four days later Scott and Archer made yet another buying trip, but at last the ATF was waiting. The two were arrested and convicted.
Clearly the store had been helpful to the ATF. But why would Guns Unlimited even consider selling a handgun to a buyer presenting an out-of state license for identification?
Dick explained that the clerk accepted the license as identification only because it had a photograph of Archer and established the link between his face and his name. A Norfolk rent receipt and an ID card from a local college established that he lived in Virginia. The fact that he was enrolled in college explained why he would have a New York license and be renting an apartment in Virginia.
Federal law grants a licensed gun dealer broad discretion to refuse to sell to anyone; a brochure mailed to licensees states in bold print, “Know Your Customer.” Wouldn’t prudence have dictated that Guns Unlimited simply refuse to sell weapons when the nature of the sale provides clear grounds for suspicion—clear enough, certainly, for the ATF?
“They tell me I have the discretion to do that,” Dick said. “But in practical terms, that doesn’t give me the right to infringe on anyone’s civil rights.”
I asked him how he felt knowing that Nicholas Elliot and various gun traffickers had specifically sought out Guns Unlimited as the place to acquire their guns.
“Well, actually, good,” he said. “I don’t know how to describe it without sounding…bad. Because I come out of hospitality, customer service is my number-one concern. Period. Beyond all others. The ethnicity of an individual, in my restaurants, my hotel rooms, my store, is absolutely unimportant. I don’t care what part of town you live in, what race you’re of, you’re going to be treated like a human being.”
“But I’m not talking about race,” I said. “All I—”
Dick cut me off. “But that’s the point,” he said. “I have a stronger black clientele than any store in Tidewater and I would bet any store in the state, and maybe any store in the Southeast, because—and word gets around—I treat people like human beings, and they can’t always get that elsewhere.”
On March 29, 1991, Jean-Claude Pierre Hill, a young Virginia doctor with a history of mental-health problems, bought two Colt .45 pistols from Mike Dick at Guns Unlimited. Dick remembers the case well. “In that particular situation there was something wrong about him,” he told me. “I called ATF while he was in the store; I said, I can’t put my finger on it but there’s just something not right here.” Despite his unease, however, he failed to notice that Hill never signed his Form 4473—an absolute requirement of federal firearms law. Dick would later testify that he “somehow missed” that omission.
The ATF ran a background check on Hill through the National Crime Information Center, but found nothing. No one at the agency’s Norfolk office knew of Hill or had any reason to worry about him. Dick sold him the guns.
I asked Dick why, given his concerns, he made the sale. “Couldn’t you have just said, ‘You worry me; I’m not going to sell you these weapons’?”
“You’re absolutely right: that’s what I could have said. But do I trample on somebody’s individual rights simply because I feel bad and the ATF says I have the discretion to do it?”
A week after Hill bought the guns, he fired into a crowded street in Philadelphia, killing one man and wounding two. (He was found guilty of first-degree murder early last year and sentenced to life imprisonment.)
“How did you feel when you heard about this?” I asked. “That this guy had taken these guns you sold him, even though you had doubts, and killed somebody—the ultimate deprivation of somebody’s rights? Did it cause you any sleepless nights?”
“No. I did everything I possibly could have, short of compromising something I feel very strongly about. And that is, I’m not going to decide if you are a worthwhile person or not. He gave me red flags. I checked him out. Had there been anything, had ATF found mental instability in his background, had ATF said he was [dishonorably] discharged, I could have gone to him and said, ‘Jean-Claude, I’m not going to sell you these guns.’ But I’m not going to decide somebody’s character based on my impressions of him—I’m just not gonna do it. It’s not necessarily tied to any Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms—it’s not tied to my right as a retailer not to do business with somebody. I just would not want to put myself in the position of deciding someone else’s character arbitrarily based on my own opinion. Empowering people to do that is dangerous.”
In most jurisdictions in America, however, there is little else to keep guns out of the wrong hands. Form 4473, far from helping, has become a conduit for the evasion of responsibility. You’d have to be naive indeed to answer yes to any of the eight questions about your criminal background and mental health. And in most jurisdictions no formal channel exists to check the truth of your answers. (In 1989 Virginia changed its gun laws, establishing an “instant-check” system that requires dealers to run a quick criminal check on every purchaser. But the system tells nothing about whether a buyer has been committed to a mental institution.) One can argue that it is unfair to ask America’s gun dealers—businessmen, after all—to go beyond what the law requires of them. Nevertheless, dealers and their official lobbyists—the NRA in particular—played a large role in shaping existing firearms regulations and in making Congress squeamish about establishing anything even faintly resembling a centralized, automated registry of all the nation’s gun owners.
Blame aside, Form 4473 is flimsy protection indeed for an enterprise under assault from all quarters. Mike Dick must defend against trucks. He must be vigilant for traffickers, killers, and other felons seeking to buy his wares. He wears a handgun to work 40 percent of the time but concedes that it provides only limited protection from robbers.
So why, I asked, did he stay in the business?
“I come out of the hospitality industry—hospitality is my first love. I came here out of necessity to help my father. It has become a challenge to me, taking a declining business under constant siege by various aspects of society—it is a monumental challenge. My goal is to become profitable enough that at some point we can sell and I can go back to what I do best, and that is run hotels.”
I asked Raymond Rowley, the ATF special agent who investigated Nicholas Elliot’s acquisition of his gun, how he would describe the ATF’s relationship with Guns Unlimited.
“I would say it’s a good relationship,” Rowley said. “We try to deal with all these firearms dealers as fairly as we can. They are selling a legal commodity. Obviously guns can be used in crimes. We try to deal with them fairly.”
Leonard Supenski was a bit less circumspect. Of James Dick he said, “That guy is a pariah. He ought to be turned out of that industry. But ATF didn’t do anything. ATF should have nailed him to the cross.”
Gun aficionados may liken the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to the Gestapo, but in its relationship with America’s gun dealers the ATF behaves more like an indulgent parent. This is partly the result of restrictions imposed by budget and statute, and partly an institutional reluctance to offend its primary source of investigative leads or to provoke the cantankerous gun lobby. The ATF is in the business not of seeking to prevent the migration of weapons, a spokesman told me, but of building and preserving a paper trail for the day when those weapons will be used to commit major crimes.
In fairness, the ATF, like the dealers it monitors, is in an almost untenable position. It must police the nation’s 245,000 licensed firearms dealers with only 400 inspectors, each of whom must also conduct inspections of wineries, breweries, distillers, liquor distributors, tobacco producers, and the country’s 10,500 explosives users and manufacturers.
At the same time, the agency is obliged by law to grant a firearms license to virtually anyone who asks for one, provided that the applicant has never been convicted of a felony and has $30 to cover the minimum licensing fee. In 1990, of the 34,336 Americans who applied for a license, only seventy five had their applications denied.
Depending on one’s stance in the gun debate, the application process is either too stringent or appallingly easy. An applicant doesn’t have to demonstrate any knowledge of firearms, not even whether he knows the difference between a pistol and a revolver. It is much harder to get a license to operate a powerboat on Chesapeake Bay, to become a substitute teacher in New Jersey, or to get a California driver’s license—and far, far harder to get a Maryland permit to carry a single handgun—than it is to get a license that enables you to acquire at wholesale prices thousands of varieties of weapons and have them shipped right to your home. Roughly half of federal firearms licensees don’t maintain bona fide stores, according to the ATF, but operate instead out of their homes. Many sell guns at gun shows; many don’t deal guns at all but hold a license simply in order to buy their guns at wholesale prices. A small but obviously important proportion use their licenses to buy guns wholesale for distribution to inner-city arms traffickers.
My neighbors may not want to hear this, but last May 15 I applied for a federal firearms license as part of an effort to inject myself as deeply as possible into America’s gun culture. The two-page application, ATF Form 7, asked which grade of license I wanted. I could choose among nine levels, costing from $30 to $3,000, the most expensive qualifying the holder to import “destructive devices” such as mortars, bazookas, and other weapons with a barrel-bore diameter of half an inch or more. The form asked the same eight questions about a person’s criminal past and mental health which appear on Form 4473.
I received my license on June 22, well within the forty-five days in which the ATF is required to accept or deny an application. No one called to verify my application. No one interviewed me to see if in fact I planned to sell weapons. And I was not required by federal law to check with authorities in Maryland and Baltimore about specific local statutes that might affect my ability to peddle guns in the heart of my manicured, upscale, utterly established Baltimore neighborhood. As far as the federal government was concerned, I was in business, and could begin placing orders for as many weapons as I chose.
If the current rate of licensing continues, the number of federal firearms licensees will double in the next decade, to well over half a million—even though the fortunes of domestic arms manufacturers are likely to continue their current decline. With more-intense competition for the shrinking gun-consumer dollar will come far greater incentive to do only the minimum required by law to keep guns out of the wrong hands.
Dealers who violate the law WILL get caught, the ATF is fond of saying. And that’s largely true. When law-enforcement officials actually request a federal trace, the ATF tracing network often proves a very effective investigative tool, both in solving crimes and in identifying renegade dealers. A fundamental problem with this approach, however, is that by the time the ATF tracing network gets involved, the guns in question have been used in crime, typically serious crime involving homicide, assault, or narcotics peddling.
Current statistics suggest that the ATF is reluctant to police the vast dealer network. From 1975 through 1990 the ATF revoked an average of ten licenses a year. The low was in 1978, with none, and the high in 1986, with twenty-seven. This rate seems low given the sheer numbers of licenses and the rate of violations discovered whenever the ATF’s skeleton crew of inspectors does routine compliance audits. In 1990, for example, inspectors conducted 8,471 of these routine inspections; they found violations in 90 percent of them.
The ATF publicly argues that the vast majority of licensees are honest, law-abiding citizens, and that only “one or two” go bad. Even if true, this argument would hardly be comforting, given the speed with which guns migrate. A single illicit dealer can put hundreds, perhaps thousands, of weapons into the hands of would-be killers and felons before a sufficient number of his weapons are used in crimes, and enough of these are traced, to raise the ATF’s suspicions. The fact is, many dealers do operate illegally, as the ATF discovers on those rare occasions when it takes a preventive approach to firearms-law enforcement. A classic example of such enforcement, and the kind that ought to be pursued as a matter of routine, is Project Detroit, an ongoing effort by the ATF and the Detroit police to trace as many guns confiscated in that city as possible.
In its report on the first phase of Project Detroit, covering guns confiscated by the Detroit police from January of 1989 to April of 1990, the ATF, typically, was careful to note, “just because [a federal firearms licensee] has sold a large number of weapons that were subsequently used in crimes does not necessarily indicate the [licensee] is intentionally diverting weapons to the criminal element.” Large-volume dealers, the report explained, would necessarily experience more traces.
Yet of the five licensed dealers who turned up most often in Project Detroit traces, four became the targets of full-scale ATF Investigations. The worst offender was Sherman Butler, of Sterling Heights, Michigan, near Detroit, whose Sherm’s Guns accounted for twenty-nine traces stemming from a range of crimes that included at least two homicides. Butler’s specialty was the sale of S. W. Daniel semi-automatics modified to include a sixteen-inch barrel and shoulder stock, thus qualifying them as long rifles and allowing customers to avoid more-stringent federal and state rules governing handgun sales, such as Michigan’s requirement that anyone buying a handgun must first have a state license to purchase. For $125 extra, however, Butler threw in a pistol-length barrel and enough of a pistol frame—a pistol “upper receiver”—to allow buyers quickly to turn their carbines into semi-automatic pistols.
In all, this first phase of Project Detroit involved the tracing of 1,226 weapons, leading to investigations of thirteen licensed dealers and successful prosecutions against ten. Two suspects died. One case is pending. The ATF discovered that three of these dealers had, as a routine business practice, obliterated the serial number on every gun they received from wholesalers. “We estimate,” the report said, That over 3,000 firearms were sold by these dealers, and that law enforcement officers will be recovering them in various crimes for years to come.”
The Project Detroit report failed to note what ought to be the most troubling finding of its investigations: that apparently honest dealers accounted for the remaining 1,000 traces, a fact that testifies again to the high costs imposed on the rest of us by even legitimate gun shops. Indeed, of the top ten dealers, four weren’t investigated by the ATF but nonetheless accounted for ten to twenty traces each, including traces involving at least four homicides. In all, Project Detroit traded guns sold by legitimate dealers from New York to Alaska and used subsequently in AT LEAST two kidnappings, thirty-four homicides, and scores of narcotics offenses—again, from only 1,226 traced weapons.
In his introduction to the report, Bernard La Forest, the special agent in charge, wrote, “What would the results indicate if we had the capability of successfully tracing 10,000 to 15,000 weapons seized by all law enforcement agencies in this metropolitan area?”
Raymond Rowley, the Norfolk ATF agent, initiated the ATF’s search for the source of Nicholas Elliot’s gun. He heard about the shooting on the news and quickly volunteered his help to Detective Donald Adams, the Virginia Beach homicide investigator. Rowley ordered a trace. The serial number was relayed to Tom Stokes, the special agent in charge in Atlanta, who managed after considerable effort to reach Sylvia Daniel by phone. In a departure from the usual frosty relations between her company and the ATF, Daniel agreed to stop by her office on the way to her company Christmas party to look up the serial number herself.
The number led to a distributor, who in turn said he had shipped the pistol to Guns Unlimited. By eleven o’clock that evening Rowley, another agent, and Adams were at Curtis Williams’s door.
As noted, Williams went to jail. As far as federal law was concerned, however, Guns Unlimited did nothing wrong when it sold the Cobray to Williams, even under such obviously suspicious circumstances. Williams had shown the appropriate identification and had filled out Form 4473 properly, dutifully writing “no” after every background question on the form.
No one thought to investigate Guns Unlimited, not even after the suit for negligence yielded a judgment against the company.
“We’re always looking for, and sensitive to, violations of federal law, regardless of who may be the individual or entity involved,” Rowley told me. “In this case, no, we did not go back and reinvestigate. Nothing that came up during the investigation of Williams pointed to wrongdoing on the part of Guns Unlimited.”
When Nicholas Elliot arrived at the Atlantic Shores Christian School that cold December morning, he came prepared for a fire fight. The most striking thing about his cargo, however, was not the inherent firepower, which was indeed prodigious, but rather the weapons savvy evident in what he had done to the gun and its ammunition to make them even more efficient at killing.
Nicholas loved guns. “The only friend I had was my gun,” the boy told Detective Adams as he was led from school after the shootings, “and you already took that from me.”
He read books and magazines about guns. He papered the interior of his school locker with glossy photographs of big-bore revolvers and pistols, the kind that dominate the pages of such magazines as American Handgunner and Guns and Ammo. His love of guns was common knowledge among the other students at Atlantic Shores, and it served to increase his alienation from his peers. In conversation, according to a fellow student, Nicholas had a passion for discussing “which bullets had more firepower.” His classmates worried about Nicholas. One told a Norfolk newspaper, “All the kids said he was going to shoot someone.”
Nicholas carried his Cobray M-11/19 to school in his backpack, along with an array of accessories and extra ammunition. From a length of rope he had fashioned a combat sling similar in concept to slings that anti-terrorist commandos use with the compact Heckler and Koch submachine gun to help control the weapon during combat. He carried a crude silencer made from a pipe wrapped in fabric, and a “brass catcher” he had made from cloth and tape, to be attached to his gun to catch ejected cartridge cases. “A gun enthusiast might use a brass catcher to catch the brass for reloading,” Adams told me. “A murderer or a person about to commit a crime might use one to collect the evidence.”
Nicholas also brought six 32-round magazines, each long and thin and made of gray plastic, giving him a total of 192 bullets ready to fire. He had “jungle-clipped” the magazines—that is, he had taped them together in pairs so that the instant he expended one magazine he could yank it out, flip the assembly, and ram in the fresh end.
Nicholas came prepared for the possibility that he might use up the 192 rounds stacked in the six magazines. He carried hundreds of extra cartridges, including several boxes containing thirty-two rounds each- exactly enough to refill an expended clip. To speed the process of refilling, Nicholas had inserted a thin but strong piece of white string through the base of each magazine. When tugged, Adams told me, the string would pull down the spring-driven feeder inside the magazine, thus easing the resistance. “He could hold the string down by clamping it under his foot,” Adams explained. He could then insert each cartridge more quickly and with less strain.
Finally, Nicholas modified even the bullets themselves. He filed a groove into the tip of at least one bullet, apparently in the hopes of turning it into a “dumdum”—a bullet that breaks apart on impact, thereby in theory becoming considerably more deadly. Nicholas modified other bullets by drilling from the tip downward to form “hollowpoints.” On impact, hollowpoint bullets spread into lethal mushrooms that produce bigger holes and more potent neural disruption than solid rounds.
“This guy,” Adams says, “was ready for war.”
Homicide, or rather the homicide fantasy, is one of the engines that drives America’s fascination with guns. Target shooters spend hour after hour firing into human silhouettes. Practical shooting competitions held nationwide test civilian competitors’ ability to hit silhouettes after leaping from a car. In this context, models of guns used in grisly crimes actually gain popularity. After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, sales of the otherwise undistinguished Mannlicher-Carcano rifle used by Lee Harvey Oswald soared. Even the murder of schoolchildren can increase sales. After Patrick Edward Purdy opened fire on a school yard in Stockton, California, with an AK-47, sales of the gun and its knock-offs boomed. Prices quadrupled, to $1,500. Guns Unlimited felt the surge in demand. “I didn’t sell an AK until Stockton in California; then everybody wanted one,” James Dick said in a deposition.
This passion for lethality suffuses the gun and ammunition design process. Manufacturers routinely test their prototypes by blasting away at blocks of goo—”ordnance gelatin”—intended specifically to simulate human tissue. Their enthusiasm for gore can lead to some vivid advertising. In the March/April, 1992, issue of American Handgunner, the Eldorado Cartridge Corporation ran a full-page ad for its Starfire cartridge under the bold headline “IF LOOKS COULD KILL.” The ad called the Starfire the “deadliest handgun cartridge ever developed for home or personal defense, and hunting,” and went on to describe how the bullet expands on impact, “resulting in a massive wound channel.” Its deep penetration, the ad crowed, “helps assure fast knockdown.”
On a recent visit to a gun show at the county fairground in Frederick, Maryland, I stood beside a man and his young son who, like me, were intently watching a promotional video produced by Power-Plus, a maker of exotic ammunition. The narrator, dressed in a dark T-shirt and speaking in that laconic back-country drawl that characterizes today’s notion of toughness, demonstrated his company’s rounds by firing a sample of each into a fresh block of yellowish gelatin, with the camera then moving close to offer a side view of the depth of penetration and the jagged wound channel coursing through the translucent plasma. Each round did more damage than the last, until the narrator fired a sample of the company’s Annihilator high-explosive cartridge, which slammed into the gelatin, exploded, and knocked the quivering block from its stand.
He did not stop here, however. Next he demonstrated the effects of the company’s bullets on a pail packed with clay. This time those of us watching were treated to the additional audio enticement of the wet slapping sound of the clay as the bullets entered, fragmented, and ruptured the surrounding muck, gouging caverns the size of pumpkins.
“Still watching, son?” the father asked softly, his hands resting on his son’s shoulders.
His son, clearly entranced, nodded slowly.
A few men walked the aisles wearing little signs on their backs listing the guns they owned and wanted to sell. Another man had stuck a “For Sale” sign in the barrel of the rifle slung over his shoulder. Seated behind battered folding tables, dealers sold guns, books, accessories, and ammunition. Several dealers sold books on how to kill and, for those who knew how already, how to do it more effectively—including books on how to make silencers, military manuals on how to make booby traps, Army manuals on how to make “improvised munitions,” and a nifty little tome, courtesy of the Pentagon, on how to polish up your sniper skills.
Gun writers, too, help orchestrate the mood that so infuses the gun culture. They know what their readers want. The newsletter Gun Tests routinely rates the penetration power of handguns and ammunition the way Consumer Reports rates new cars. American Handgunner’s 1992 “Combat Annual” reviews six high-caliber revolvers, calling them “The Ultimate Manstoppers!” Regular issues of the magazine are full of tales of combat tactics and police shoot-outs, part of a running series by Massad Ayoob, the magazine’s star reporter. “Gory True Story,” the cover of the October, 1991, issue announced. “REAL-LIFE TERMINATOR! Soaking up bullet after bullet, a cop-killing PCP freak just won’t die! Massad Ayoob’s chilling account on page 70.”
Gun writers often skirt the gory reality of gunplay by deftly avoiding such words as “kill,” “murder,” and “death,” using instead “knockdown,” “stopping power,” and—my favorite—”double-tap,” meaning to shoot a man twice. (Double Tap also happens to be the name of a Virginia Beach gun store, whose sign features a black silhouette with two red holes over the heart.)
To the gun writers, no firearm is unworthy of praise, not even the Saturday-night specials made by the now defunct RG Industries, one of which was used by John Hinckley to shoot President Ronald Reagan and permanently disable James Brady, his press secretary. In its most recent Combat Annual, American Handgunner includes a defense of RG’s guns written by Mark Moritz, the special-projects editor. Moritz tested a .22 caliber RG revolver against an expensive Smith & Wesson .22, comparing their performance on both head and body shots. The RG was a little slower.
However, Moritz writes, “even out of the box we are only talking about two tenths of a second for multiple head shots at the relatively long range of seven yards.”
Moritz won’t win any awards for sensitivity in journalism. Early on in the article he denounces the “slime-bucket” lawyers who sued RG Industries and put them out of business after the Reagan-Brady shootings. He continues:
When John Hinckley shot James Brady, with an RG .22 revolver, his wife Sarah, head spokesnut at Handgun Control, Inc., sued RG. She was offended that her husband was shot with a cheap, low-powered gun. I guess she wanted him to be shot with an expensive, high powered gun.
The Cobray M-11/9, Nicholas Elliot’s gun, gets its share of praise. The Gun Digest Book of Assault Weapons includes a chapter on the pistol and its heritage. The author describes it as “a plinker’s delight and the bane of all tin cans, milk jugs, clay pigeons, and other inanimate objects.” He sees its primary practical value as being home defense. “Appearance alone should cause most burglars and intruders to consider instant surrender if brought before its muzzle.”
America’s entertainment media provide the last ingredients in the perverse and lethal roux that keeps the body count climbing even as the domestic arms industry shrinks. Just as McQ promoted the Ingram, Dirty Harry promoted the Smith & Wesson Model 29 and Miami Vice such assault weapons as the Uzi, Bren 10, and members of the Ingram family. Park Dietz, a California forensic psychiatrist, studied the effect of Miami Vice on gun prices and demand, and found that the appearance of the Bren 10 in the hands of Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) in early episodes of the show immediately boosted demand for the weapon. Dietz told the Cox Newspapers that Miami Vice “was the major determinant of assault-gun fashion for the 1980s.”
Our movies and TV shows do far more damage than simply enhancing the appeal of exotic weapons, however. They teach a uniquely American lesson: When a real man has a problem, he gets his gun. He slaps in a clip, he squints grimly into the hot noon sun, and then he does what he’s gotta do.
This is the lesson that Nicholas Elliot absorbed: When all else fails, maybe a gun can solve your problem. And Nicholas had a problem or thought he did. He believed that some of the teachers at Atlantic Shores didn’t like him. His fellow students, one in particular, picked on him, occasionally shoving and hitting him and taunting him with racial slurs. One week before the shooting his main tormentor, a boy I’ll call Billy Cutter, had called him a “nigger.”
“It’s just people picking on me,” Nicholas told Donald Adams, when Adams questioned him just after the shootings. “That’s all it is. If God would have just stopped them—if I was nice enough and He would have made it so they were nice to me and didn’t hit me, everything would be fine. That’s as simple as it is, or He could have just made them keep their hands to theirselves. That’s very simple.”
Nicholas claimed that his classmates teased him about his love of guns. “They were always making fun of me. They always said stuff, ‘You know so much about guns. You never even shot a gun in your life.”‘
That Friday morning he set out to prove a few things to Billy and the other kids. “I wasn’t angry,” he told Adams. “I was just trying to find [Billy]—I wanted to scare him, to make him see how much of a wimp he was in front of everyone.”
Nicholas awoke the morning of December 16 feeling sick, but for no particular reason. “I didn’t feel like going to school,” he told Adams, but I knew I would get in trouble if I didn’t, so I went….I was just so sick.” He packed his backpack and caught his usual bus.
The Atlantic Shores Christian School is run by the Atlantic Shores Baptist Church, whose 3,500-member congregation makes it the third largest church in the Hampton Roads area, where churches are about as ubiquitous as the U.S. Navy. The school, which consists of both permanent and portable classrooms arrayed around a courtyard, has an enrollment of some 500 students, only twenty-three of whom were black when Nicholas was a student there.
Nicholas attended his first classes as usual. On his way to Bible class he encountered Billy Cutter, his nemesis and, according to some informants, his part-time friend. Nicholas, by his own account, had hoped to come across Billy. And Billy, true to form, again called him a name. Nicholas went into a bathroom and took his Cobray from his backpack. He left both there, however, and exited the room. His account gets vague at this point. He wandered to the band room and at one point helped a man named Mike Lucky move a box.
Nicholas soon appeared at a trailer occupied by two teachers, Sam Marino and Susan Allen. He told Marino that he had come to take an oral French test, but Marino asked him to return later. He did return, almost immediately. During his absence he retrieved his gun and one of his six 32-round clips.
Forensic investigators later test-fired Nicholas’s gun repeatedly, inserting each of his clips. Of the six, this one alone proved faulty. It misfed rounds to the gun, but only to a point about halfway down the magazine, the fifteen-round point, where it began feeding bullets correctly. Before he was stopped that morning, Nicholas fired fifteen rounds.
Marino had his back to Nicholas when the boy announced, “I have this really neat toy I want to show you.”
Nicholas fired once through a window.
Marino, shocked at the roar behind him, turned. His first thought was that the gun was indeed only a toy, and he told Nicholas to hand it over. But Nicholas coolly took aim. The teacher raised a French textbook as a shield. (Adams told me that victims of gunplay hold up articles of all kinds in their last moments, in the magical belief that even a sheet of paper might save them.) Nicholas fired again, the shot blowing through the textbook as if it were made of foam, though it didn’t hit Marino.
He fired a third time. This bullet ripped into Marino’s shoulder.
Susan Allen bolted past Nicholas and down the trailer steps, with Nicholas following. She had the good sense to run serpentine fashion, like a character in a Grade B war movie, as Nicholas fired shot after shot at her back, sweeping the courtyard with a back-and-forth motion, stopping his pursuit now and then to clear a jammed cartridge. The sound was deafening, for both Allen and Nicholas. Her ears rang. His hurt.
She reached the end of the courtyard. With nowhere else to go, she made a sharp turn around the end of a trailer. Something struck her with shocking force and she fell to the ground. She had sprinted face-first into a utility shed. Breathless and petrified, she wriggled under the trailer. “It was not the smartest thing to do, if you think about it,” Adams told me.
But two things distracted Nicholas. A loud thumping noise nearby, and Marino, who had risen and was clinging now to the doorjamb of his trailer.
“All of a sudden, there he was again,” Marino recalled. Nicholas aimed a bit lower this time. The “gun that made the 80s roar” roared again. There was an elliptical flare. The bullet penetrated Marino’s abdomen and catapulted him backward into the room.
The thumping got louder. Nicholas knew the noise—he had heard it before during a class, when kids in a trailer across the courtyard had been playing a game to see who could stamp hardest on the floor of the trailer.
In this case, however, the thumping was the sound made as terrified students scrambled to the rear of the trailer. On any other Friday, Nicholas would have been in that trailer, attending the Bible class taught by H. Maurice Matteson, “Hutch,” the church’s youth pastor.
Nicholas climbed the steps and tried the door, but someone inside had locked it. “I don’t know how I got in,” Nicholas told Adams. “I did not shoot the door. I did not shoot the door or the knob itself. I shot the glass in the door. I don’t know how I got it open….when I shot the glass, I guess it shaked the door and got it open.”
Once inside, he spotted Billy Cutter. “I know I said his name,” Nicholas said. “I don’t remember exactly what I said about him, because I was mad.”
Others, however, do recall: “Billy Cutter,” Nicholas said, “this is for you. I’m going to kill you.”
Nicholas leveled the gun at Billy as three dozen other kids huddled at the far end of the trailer, weeping and praying.
Nicholas pulled the trigger.
The gun jammed. The magazine apparently had misfed another round.
He struggled to clear the jam, succeeded, and raised the gun again, just as Hutch Matteson charged.
Nicholas fired one last round. It blew harmlessly past Matteson’s head.
Matteson tackled him, forcing him to the floor. “What in the world would make you want to do something like this?” Matteson screamed.
“They hate me,” Nicholas said.
Police and medical help arrived soon afterward. An ambulance took Marino to the hospital. George Sweet, the senior pastor of the Atlantic Shores Baptist Church, followed to be with Marino, who, for good reason, was convinced he was going to die.
At school the faculty gathered everyone together in the church auditorium for a head count. Many students, among them Will and Lora Farley, still didn’t know what had happened. “I was, like, wondering where my mom was,” Lora recalled, before a dead-quiet courtroom. Her mother was Karen Farley, a teacher. “We weren’t really concerned or anything, but when I first entered the auditorium, this girl said to me—me and my friends were laughing and stuff because we didn’t really think anything was going on—and this girl said to me, ‘Someone has been shot,’ and it wasn’t my mom. It was another teacher, and I was like—I couldn’t understand. I was like, Somebody has been shot at school?’
“We prayed and stuff that everything would be all right, and then we just, like, left it up to the Lord. We just sat there really being quiet and stuff. I asked Will—I said, ‘Have you seen Mom?’
“And he said, ‘No.'”
One teacher told her that her mother was tending to the wounded teacher; another said that she was comforting a teacher who’d been chased. “I was like, ‘Well, that sounds right too. I can see her doing both of them, but I don’t know how she could do it at the same time.'”
A teacher asked Will and Lora to come out into the hall. “And one of my teachers was standing there and she was staring off down the—like out into where all the trailers were. She like gave me a hug and then they said, ‘Take them back in the auditorium.’
“So we went back in the auditorium, and then about ten or twenty minutes later, they came and got us and they took us into Pastor Sweet’s office, and my pastor was there, and they never said that, you know, your mom has been shot or your mom is dead. They just—my pastor was crying, and then, I mean, we just sort of knew what had happened.”
One of Sweet’s colleagues had reached Sweet at the hospital. “George,” he said, “you need to get back here right away.”
“Why?” Sweet asked.
“They found Karen Farley, and she’s dead.”
Bill Farley, Karen’s husband, learned of her death about one o’clock that afternoon, from his own pastor and a policewoman.
The police had not found Karen Farley until ninety minutes after the shootings, after the head count showed her missing. They discovered her body in a locked trailer; she was still wearing her winter coat. The first bullet struck her forearm before entering her torso, suggesting to investigators that she had raised her hand either to ask for the gun or to plead for her life, or perhaps merely in another of those magical efforts to defend against the bullet. Nicholas stood over her and shot her again, firing downward—”execution-style,” as the press delighted in saying. It was then, apparently, that he moved on to Sam Marino’s trailer.
The next night Lora and a friend picked out what Lora’s mother would wear for her funeral. They also wrapped Christmas presents that Karen Farley had hidden in a closet. Months later Lora and Will would find another cache of presents hidden away. Nicholas pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
The more Bill Farley learned about the gun Nicholas had used and how he had acquired it, the more angry he became. Farley keeps a handgun for home defense; even Karen Farley practiced with it. But, Farley says, the Cobray is different. “There’s just no reason for those kinds of weapons to be sold in the United States,” he told me one recent evening. “If you need something like that to protect your home, you better move.”
He filed a negligence and product-liability suit against Guns Unlimited and S. W. Daniel, Inc.—one of a growing number of such suits being brought in courthouses around the country, including one filed by the family of the actress Rebecca Schaeffer, the murdered co-star of My Sister Sam, against the dealer who sold the murder weapon. The jury ordered Guns Unlimited to pay Bill Farley and his children $105,000. “I guess what I really wanted to do was get the attention of the gun shop, and say, Hey, you all did something wrong,” Farley told me. “Just because ATF didn’t do anything to you doesn’t mean a thing. You shouldn’t have done it.”
Long before the trial, the Virginia court cut S. W. Daniel free of the case. Judge John K. Moore argued that reigning legal theories concerning negligence and product liability dictate that the “plaintiff must first show ‘goods were unreasonably dangerous for [the] use to which they would ordinarily be put or for some other reasonably foreseeable purpose.'” Farley, he wrote, hadn’t made any allegation that the gun was defective.
Even if he had, his argument might have failed. “Unfortunately,” Judge Moore wrote, “the weapon worked.”
At the time of the shootings, business was brisk for James Dick and Guns Unlimited—so brisk that within a year Dick expanded the Guns Unlimited empire and added his third store. One must be cool indeed to be a gun dealer. The site Dick chose was a small shopping plaza on Kempsville Road in Virginia Beach. The Atlantic Shores Christian School was across the street.