God Bless America

The right to bear arms comes under threat

In a woodland clearing, Jon Green takes a loaded gun and places it in my hand. I’ve never held one before, but the weapon seems familiar, because I’ve seen thousands like it in the movies. This one’s a revolver – a handgun, with a spinning barrel for the cartridges -and the name on the side is Smith & Wesson.

Turning to one side, I straighten my arm and wrap my free hand around the other one – achieving the kind of grip that might feel natural to a golfer. Then I close my right eye, slip my finger onto the trigger and – POW! – as if by magic I project a piece of lead towards the centre of a paper target at a speed of 2,700 feet per second.

Slightly less rapidly, birds scatter from the birch wood, clapping their wings in applause. Then I shoot again, five times, till the barrel is empty.

From a holster concealed beneath his loose shirt, Green pulls out another handgun. This one’s a semi-automatic, which means it has a mechanism for pushing the next available bullet into place – which makes a semi-automatic considerably less attractive than a revolver for a game of Russian roulette. It’s also more powerful, producing a louder bang when I squeeze the trigger, and bigger holes in the target. Shooting it, I find, is a blast.

When I was a child, I was not allowed toy guns. Some of my friends owned them, but most didn’t – and I grew up without giving guns much thought. Jon Green, on the other hand, thinks about guns all the time. That’s partly because he’s American – and Americans in general know a lot about guns. But it’s also because Green works at the Gun Owners Action League (Goal), a campaign group fighting to defend what it considers to be a fundamental right – as implied by the Second Amendment – for American citizens to bear arms. That’s why we’ve come to this shooting range, an hour’s drive from Boston: so Green can teach me the joy of guns.

According to current estimates, nearly 70 million Americans own around 230m guns. Goal’s executive director, Michael Yacino – a Vietnam veteran who’s used guns since he was six, and keeps several in his office – says his compatriots buy firearms for various reasons. Some take part in shooting competitions. Others hunt: Yacino himself is a keen hunter, as evidenced by the deer’s feet affixed to his wall, on which he rests his favourite rifle, the Grand. Others still have no interest in shooting, and buy guns strictly for self-protection.

But that’s not the whole story. Many gun owners apply their weapons to less legitimate purpose. Some attempt to assassinate politicians, others hold up corner stores. At the Boston Police Department they know all about criminals using guns. Having tasted for myself the thrilling power of Green’s handguns – and also Yacino’s booming Grand – I visited the police department. In the gleaming new HQ, purpose-built to withstand terrorist attack, I talk to individual officers who, unlike their British counterparts, carry guns as a matter of course.

In the 911 room, where civilian and police operators take calls about crimes as they occur – Sergeant Michael Fish tells me he still retains considerable affection for his first-ever gun: “It’s a Smith & Wesson, an M36 J-frame,” he says, “I bought when I was 18, for a hundred bucks, direct from the factory.” Ordinarily, Sgt Fish carries a Glock – like everybody else in the Boston force – but for ceremonial occasions he slips the Smith & Wesson into his holster.

But his colleague in the ballistics unit – where spent cartridges are scanned by a powerful computer to identify guns and help trace their users – has no particular favourite. Sgt James O’Shea lost his enthusiasm for guns in Vietnam. Even if he hadn’t, you can readily imagine why he might be sick of them now. He’s got guns on his desk, guns in his cupboards, and guns filling several large dustbins. Guns hang on his wall – each weapon labelled to specify the make, and the crime for which it was used. To the right, machine guns and rifles. To the left, pistols and revolvers – including a tiny one with pearl handles that would easily fit inside a cigarette packet.

Between them, the guns in O’Shea’s office – and in similar offices across the country – have been implicated in the deaths of some 34,000 Americans each year. That’s 94 every day: a toll so large that it becomes difficult even to notice the individual incidents. Another shooting – so what? But occasionally an event of truly exceptional awfulness takes place – such as last year’s massacre of 15 students at Columbine High School in Colorado – and Americans start to ask questions about the society in which they live. And when that happens, the traditional American resistance to gun control weakens.

But not much. At the first sniff of restrictions, gun owners and manufacturers put up stiff resistance. Last month, for example, when hundreds of thousands of worried mothers took part in the Million Mom March in Washington – calling for gun controls – the gun lobby dispatched a smaller, but not insignificant number of women, the Second Amendment Sisters, to oppose them.

At the federal level, gun control measures have been negligible, largely due to the energetic lobbying of the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA), which has 2.8m members and retains numerous friends in Congress. From state to state, gun law varies considerably. In Texas, for instance, there is no minimum age for children to possess handguns or rifles.

At the other end of the scale, with the strictest laws in the country, is Massachusetts -home state of the assassinated Kennedys, John and Robert, and also headquarters of the world’s largest handgun manufacturer, Smith & Wesson (from whose factory in Springfield, you will recall, Sgt Fish purchased his first gun). It’s here that a combination of product safety regulations, speculative litigation and corporate self-interest has produced an astonishing reversal in the fortunes of the once-mighty American gun lobby. And the most extraordinary thing is this: in the state which saw much of the action in the American war of independence – where the colonial minutemen humiliated the army of King George – one of the most influential roles has been played by the British.

The first breakthrough would seem, to visitors from overseas, to be modest. In April, Massachusetts’ attorney-general, Thomas Reilly, announced that guns must henceforth meet consumer protection regulations that have long applied to products such as hair dryers and toasters – and, indeed, toy guns. (Thanks to the lobbying of the NRA, Congress specifically exempted the gun industry from federal consumer product safety guidelines.) From now on, handguns sold in Massachusetts must include in-built child-proofing mechanisms, trigger-locks, tamper-resistant serial numbers, devices that show whether they are loaded, and safety warnings similar to the ones found on cigarette packets.

Additionally, the state has outlawed guns undetectable by metal detectors or x-ray machines; and also guns disguised to look like something else (cigarette lighters, say, or pens). Mail-order purchases have been banned, as has the sale of guns from a dealer’s home; and dealers have been made responsible for verifying purchaser’s permits and licences. Negligent storage of guns has become a criminal offence (amazingly, only three other states require guns to be locked or unloaded when not in use).

One of the leading proponents of these controls is state senator Cheryl Jacques, who first became aware of the high levels of gun crime after serving as assistant attorney general. “This state is now known as the model,” Jacques says proudly, chatting in her grand office at the State House in Boston. Another key figure is Sally Slovenski, of the support group Join Together, whose concern was raised after a period of study in the UK. “Living in England,” Slovenski says, “showed me how much we in the US tolerate violence.”

Then there’s John Rosenthal, founder of another pressure group, Stop Handgun Violence – but no stereotype radical. Rosenthal is Rosenthal a businessman (a property developer), with a deep tan and a bright red convertible sports car. One of his most successful initiatives was to convert the side of a building he owns into a giant advertising hoarding: occupying a prominent position on one of the busiest roads in Boston, the 252-ft poster is the largest poster site in America, he claims. Since 1996 it has featured a series of shocking messages. The latest poster shows the number 12 on the forehead of a sweetly smiling child. The boy is a gun victim – son of one of Rosenthal’s colleagues – and the number 12 indicates the number of children killed by guns each day. But Rosenthal opposes an outright ban on guns because he likes to shoot occasionally – he shoots skeet – and uses this fact with great effect to disarm his opponents.

In his office – a converted sail factory in Newton – Rosenthal lays particular emphasis on the consumer-product angle. “Imagine that we were talking about hamburgers killing this number of people,” he says. “Do you think congress would allow that? We don’t allow automobile manufacturers to sell cars without seat belts or head lights – but nobody is yelling [complaints] about ‘car control’.”

And this does seem persuasive, but as an outsider, I find it hard, initially, to take sides. After all, I enjoyed my shooting lesson with Goal’s Jon Green – hitting the bull’s eye was tremendously gratifying – and nor can I reject everything he says. For instance, though he firmly believes in the use of guns for self-defence, Green accepts that there are limits. “My bank was robbed recently,” he says reasonably. “Would I have used my gun if I was there? No, I would hand over my money.” At home, Green says, his first line of defence is his dog. Next he would use the mace which he carries with him at all times. “But if someone had a knife to your wife’s throat,” he asks, “and you had the means to stop them, would you use that?” Another Goal staffer, Nancy Snow, shuts her eyes and breathes deeply before answering my questions about the massacre at Columbine High. “But what does that have to do with me?” she asks with visible frustration. Then she offers an analogy. “If I want to have a glass of wine with dinner, that doesn’t mean I want to drink and drive.”

In their drive towards greater gun control, Massachusetts’ campaigners have benefitted considerably from several factors outside their hands. Most notable, perhaps, was the overseas origin of Smith & Wesson’s owner.

As the biggest, and least regulated gun market in the world, the US has long been attractive to foreign manufacturers. More than half the guns in the US came from foreign companies or were made by their subsidiaries located in the US. Among the better known are Glock (which is Austrian) and Beretta (Italian). But the greatest of them all, Smith & Wesson, has been owned since 1987 by… the British.

Specifically, it’s a subsidiary of Tomkins – better known in the UK for its cakes (it owns the Mr Kipling brand), bread (Mothers Pride) jam (Robertsons’s) and curry products (Sharwood’s).

In its corporate publications, the sprawling conglomerate rather awkwardly brackets Smith & Wesson alongside a bicycle manufacturer and a maker of law mowers. The gun division accounts for just one per cent of Tomkins’ turnover – but that’s enough to put off ethical investors who would prefer not to buy shares in arms manufacturers. Of course, there remain plenty of people happy to hold shares in Tomkins, but the ethical investment market is growing rapidly. According to Karen Eldridge at the Ethical Investment Research Service, it doubles in size every three years. That’s faster growth-rate than the unit trust market as a whole – and not something that Tomkins can afford to ignore. All things considered, it’s looks as if Tomkins might sensibly dispose of Smith & Wesson.

But that’s easier said than done, because the opportunity to offload the subsidiary has gone – overtaken by the growing American appetite for gun control. Smith & Wesson has become embroiled in litigation that could cost millions, and the chance of finding a buyer willing to take on that enormous liability is low indeed.

What happened, in brief, is this. A group of lawyers – many of them veterans of the successful battle against Big Tobacco – persuaded 30 or so major US cities to sue gun manufacturers to recover some of the considerable costs of gun violence – medical treatment for victims, prosecution and imprisonment costs for offenders.

As an incentive to the cities, the lawyers agreed to subsidise the litigation in return for a portion of any eventual winnings. By launching a series of cases all round the country, they gambled on the industry being unable to afford the legal fees – they fees, they calculated, could reach $1m a day. The cities were persuaded: one of them, Boston, launched its case against 31 manufacturers a year ago this week. Top of the list of defendants was Smith & Wesson, whose president and chief executive, Ed Schultz, summarised the situation like this: “If this thing progresses, the capital in the gun industry will move to one of two places – either to the lawyers that are bringing the charges or to the ones that are defending. In either case, the lawyers win.”

In pursuing manufacturers for third-party liability, the cities argue that the companies have negligently failed to take advantage of technology to enhance safety (such as triggers which recognise fingerprints), and also that manufacturers’ distribution and marketing allows – and even encourages – the wrong sort of people to get their hands on guns. (One of the weapons used in the massacre at Columbine High, the TEC-DC9, has been legally marketed as having “a finish resistant to fingerprints”, claims John Rosenthal, and also as being “tougher than your toughest customer”.)

Rather than focus on product liability, however, the cities’ lawyers have decided to emphasize the dangers of guns in the home. Each year 1,000 American children and teenagers commit suicide using firearms readily available to them in the home; and hundreds more die by accidental discharge. The problem is not just about guns in the hands of bad people, according to one of the cities’ attorneys, Dennis Henigan. “It’s also a problem of guns in the hands of good people, good people who have been lied to about the dangers of guns in the home and have been given cause to believe that their best security is to not only have a gun in the home but – the logical corollary – to have it loaded and accessible… The scientific evidence that is now pouring in indicates that the decision to bring a gun into the home actually increases a risk to the family.”

The effect of the latest campaigns has been dramatic. Last year Ed Schultz told the New Yorker: “In 1992, when I told somebody I was president and CEO of Smith & Wesson, they were tremendously impressed. Today… folks sort of look at me as if I’m some sort of person that goes out and delivers terrible, dark things. I’m depicted as a gun-runner, or as a trafficker in bad things.”

And the litigation put the company into the most appallingly delicate position. Should it stick with its allies in the industry – and the gun owners who buy its products – by fighting the court cases? Or settle, and save its money? In the event, Smith & Wesson decided to break ranks with its natural allies by agreeing to a number of measures relating to product safety and distribution arrangements. In return, several cities dropped Smith & Wesson from the litigation, and more than 30 major cities and the federal government have agreed to prefer the company’s products. (Smith & Wesson already supplies more than 5,000 agencies across the US.)

Stop Handgun Violence held a conference in Springfield to thank Ed Schultz for being a good corporate citizen. As Rosenthal describes the occasion, it is easy to imagine Schultz’s embarrassment on being honoured by the industry’s enemies. “He said, ‘We did not do this for any reason other than good business.’”

In effect, Smith & Wesson has accepted something that nobody in the industry has ever previously acknowledged: that manufacturers have some responsibility for their guns after they leave the factory. And the company’s agreement has repercussions for many others in the gun industry because any dealer who wishes do sell Smith & Wesson products must comply with Smith & Wesson’s terms.

Pro-gun groups have turned extremely hostile towards Smith & Wesson. The Gun Owners of America has urged a boycott of Smith & Wesson products. One of the largest wholesalers, RSR, has announced that it will no longer offer Smith & Wesson weapons. Others are said to have threatened to pull advertising from magazines which carry Smith & Wesson ads. This process has recently come under scrutiny by several of the states involved in the legislation. Connecticut’s attorney general has said that Smith & Wesson is under “unprecedented pressure, both financial and personal within the gun industry, with threats that are almost violent”.

The issue has assumed a strongly anti-British flavour. In April, the president of the National Rifle Association, Charlton Heston, told university students in Massachusetts he was “not comfortable” about “the Brits telling us how to deal with our Bill of Rights. I think we settled that in 1776, didn’t we?”

The NRA’s Washington lobbyist, James Jay Baker – perhaps less interested in the lessons of history than the morality of big business – blames Tomkins. “This is a futile act of craven self interest,” he has said. “In their rush to liquidate an inconvenient asset, executives at Tomkins are jeopardising an entire US industry and undermining a constitutionally guaranteed right.”

For what it’s worth, Smith & Wesson and Tomkins both diplomatically insist that the British company has kept its distance at every turn. That may be so, but as a Brit I rather like the idea that we can still exert some influence on the almighty Americans. And Goal’s Yacino, bluff advocate of gun ownership, inadvertently suggests that Brits like me can personally benefit from gun control in the US. “When people have the ability to defend themselves, criminals go elsewhere,” Yacino avers. In Florida a couple of years ago, he adds, numerous European tourists were murdered. “That’s because the [American] citizens were allowed to carry guns. The criminals were not stupid – they knew that tourists couldn’t defend themselves.”

3106 words. First published 10 June 00. © FT Magazine