14. Promised Land

May 22, 1998

Lane County Courthouse — Eugene, Oregon

Sheriff’s deputies led the Thurston High School shooter into his arraignment with his hands cuffed behind his back, and wearing a black University of Oregon Ducks sweater they had given him after they seized his trench coat. Meanwhile, across town in Shangri-La, the bomb squad was still busy clearing his house; they had found a large explosive made from the casing of a fire extinguisher in the shooter’s bedroom, and several pipe bombs stashed in a crawlspace. It would be days before they could declare the home safe.

The judge read 58 felony charges. The shooter pleaded guilty, by reason of insanity.

News reports gave a preview of what was to come once the trial was called: Oregon prosecutors said that the shooter had fancied himself “the next Unabomber,” and indeed the freshman had told his friends on the school bus that he idolized Kaczynski, along with the Oklahoma City bomber — one kid claimed of the freshman, “He always said it would be funny if someone blew up the school and went on a rampage.” Meanwhile, a search of school records showed that the shooter had turned in a creative writing assignment depicting exactly that, about a year before the attack. His appetite for destruction had been an open secret at Thurston High; the caption under his yearbook photo had jokingly deemed him “most likely to start World War III.”

The shooter was a minor, so the death penalty was off the table. He had pleaded guilty in the hope of somehow getting less than a life term without parole, or — if he really got what he wanted — a bed in one of the state’s crowded mental institutions. But that wasn’t an easy task; his defense would have to convince the jury that he was very, very sick.

* * *

The Thurston shooter said he had been hearing “voices” ever since he was twelve years old, commanding him to kill. There were three of them: the first voice always put him down, and wrecked his self-esteem. During the ride home from the police station the day before the attack — what his father had experienced as nothing but silent tension — the shooter was hearing the voice say, You stupid piece of shit, you’re worthless.

The second voice gave commands; on the night before he attacked the school, as he stood waiting in the darkened garage, watching his mother park her car, the voice told him, Kill her, and — with his father already lying under a sheet upstairs — Look at what you’ve done. You have no other choice.

The third voice never had anything original to say; it only quoted the first two. But the shooter knew it when he heard it. All three were distinct, like different individuals, all taunting him along the path to destruction. The torment they inflicted was reflected in the shooter’s tearful confession, recorded by police minutes after they had pried the knife from his hands. On the tape, the teen sobs maniacally, “I had no choice! God damn it…these voices inside my head!”

The prosecutors weren’t buying it. They planned to make the case that the shooter was just a coward, trying to get away with doing what he had always wanted to do. There were no “voices” at all; even the statement, “Damn these voices inside my head,” was just a quote from the shooter’s favorite Nine Inch Nails song. He was faking it, pure and simple. After all, he had been to a psychiatrist before the shooting, to whom he never mentioned anything about the supposed voices — and he had committed numerous “volitional acts” when he ambushed his parents, all of which suggested a clarity of thought that would be impossible if he were delusion. He hadn’t somehow just stumbled into creating a tragedy; he stole a vehicle, and drove straight there.

The Shangri-La shooter’s trial was thus set to unfold as an inverse of the Unabomber’s: with the accused trying to convince everyone he was mentally ill, while the state argued that he was actually sane.

But the Thurston High School shooter’s case would never make it to trial. Just three days before jury selection was set to begin, he abruptly withdrew the “insanity” claim from his guilty plea, and threw himself on the mercy of the court. The judge could have given him as little as 25 years under the circumstances of this plea, but instead, he sentenced the freshman to 111 years in prison, with no possibility for parole. The state of Oregon locked the shooter away for the rest of his life. They could only pray that the voices, if they were real, could be banished along with him.

May 23, 1998

Roosevelt Room — The White House

With 1998’s memorial day weekend approaching, President Clinton devoted part of his weekly radio address to the community in Springfield, and the latest tragedy to visit an American school:

Like all Americans, I am struggling to make sense of the senseless, and to understand what could drive a teenager to commit such a terrible act. And like all Americans, I am profoundly troubled by the startling similarity of this crime to the other tragic incidents that have stunned America in less than a year’s time.

We must face up to the fact that these are more than isolated incidents. They are symptoms of a changing culture that desensitizes our children to violence; where most teenagers have seen hundreds or even thousands of murders on television, in movies, and in video games before they graduate from high school; where too many young people seem unable or unwilling to take responsibility for their actions; and where all too often, everyday conflicts are resolved not with words but with weapons, which, even when illegal to possess by children, are all too easy to get.

But it was still a mystery, exactly why the same irrational crime kept repeating itself. That meant the cycle could well continue.

June 7, 1998

Pennsylvania Convention Center — Philadelphia

The National Rifle Association held its 127th annual convention in the City of Brotherly Love, and more than 40,000 NRA members turned out for the occasion. As part of the proceedings, they would ultimately elect a new president of the association: Hollywood actor Charlton Heston.

At one point during the ceremonies, the NRA’s chief lobbyist, Tanya Metaksa (who would often remind reporters of the spelling of her last name, “it’s ‘ak’ as in AK-47 and ‘sa’ as in semi-automatic”), delivered a speech in tribute to the students from Thurston High School. Two of the students were even onstage alongside her: Jacob Ryker, the teenage wrestler who had tackled the shooter and sustained two gunshot wounds himself, and Jacob’s brother Josh, who had joined the struggle moments later. The Rykers were from an “NRA family,” and Metaksa invited them to the convention as “a team of heroes that showed all can be well and right and proper in American youth.” She challenged the audience to show the same courage, should they ever face a crazed shooter: “If you’re trained by the military or the NRA, do you take cover, or take charge?”

After her speech, Metaksa and the hero brothers from Springfield were joined onstage by Charlton Heston himself, in one of his first acts as NRA president. All joined in a prayer for “the land of the strong, the land of the vigilant, the land of the active, [and] the home of the brave.”

Later in the convention, Heston returned to the stage to deliver his acceptance speech. He expressed his firmly-held belief that the trend of school shootings was “a child issue, not a gun issue,” and took the opportunity to direct some words at President Clinton (then in the midst of impeachment proceedings, after lying in a civil deposition about his sexual involvement with a young intern). “Mr. Clinton,” he proclaimed, “America doesn’t trust you with our 21-year-old daughters, and we sure, Lord, don’t trust you with our guns!”

The crowd roared.

As the new standard bearer of the NRA, Heston’s professed goal was to bring sportsman shooters back into the fold; many of them, identifying as traditionalists, had followed in the path of former President Bush in drifting away from the gun lobby since Oklahoma City, but it was a rift that went all the way back to the “coup” in Cincinnati, and the abandoned move to Colorado. And now that Clinton was getting his big gun laws passed, and talking about passing more, Heston felt it was time to come together.

In his speech, the new NRA president told the members, “Freedom has only one enemy it cannot defeat: negligence.” He looked to the future, laid out the political struggles before them, and then asked every gun owner in attendance to declare their allegiance to his vision, and to the fight ahead: “Before we go any further, I want to know: who is with me, and who is against me?”

Again, the crowd roared, hunters and sportsmen included. Faced with what looked like an existential threat, the NRA was finally reunified, and reborn.

* * *

It would not be long before Heston’s leadership was tested; passing a national assault weapons ban had been a major victory for the forces of gun control in America, perhaps their biggest triumph yet. However, as their critics had argued, the vast majority of gun violence was still being perpetrated with handguns — the availability of which had changed little, beyond the waiting periods and background checks brought by the Brady Bill. And whatever the firearm used, the underlying fact was, Americans were still getting shot far, far too often.

* * *

It was by chance that, around this same time, the major tobacco companies in the United States were finally surrendering to their own legal pressures, faced with seemingly endless lawsuits from nearly every state in the union. Their battle was over liability for the products they sold, and recompense to the various municipalities nationwide for the staggering costs of treating health problems associated with smoking.

Desperate, “Big Tobacco” had gone to Congress for relief, and ended up signing an unprecedented settlement, in the hundreds of billions dollars, to be paid out to the states in perpetuity. Smoking would never be seen in the same light again. And many of the same lawyers who took down Big Tobacco were, by 1998, looking to the firearms industry as their next target.

October 30, 1998

New Orleans, Louisiana

It started in New Orleans, a city with one of the highest rates of gun crime in the nation: the mayor held a press conference, and announced that he was suing an array of gun manufacturers — including Colt, Sturm & Ruger, Beretta and Smith & Wesson — in addition to a number of Louisiana pawn shops. On behalf of the municipality of New Orleans, he alleged that the defendants were “companies and organizations who manufacture, distribute, promote, market, sell and/or instruct in the use of firearms,” which were being sold without “the means to prevent [the gun from] being fired by unauthorized users,” and other safety features. It was as a result of these failures, the mayor claimed, that his city was left to “pay out large sums of money” for emergency services to victims of gun crime, while also suffering a loss of “substantial tax revenue due to lost productivity.”

Two weeks later, a second legal skirmish erupted, in Chicago: announcing the city’s lawsuit against 23 gun manufacturers, 12 local gun dealers, as well as a number of middle-men distributors, the mayor declared, “We are going to hit them where it hurts, in the wallet.” Handguns had already been effectively banned within Chicago city limits since 1982, but the ban wasn’t working; the mayor alleged that the gun industry “created a public nuisance” by knowingly making and distributing handguns to dealers in the suburbs surrounding their city, who in turn would sell them to Chicago residents. “This is not a product-liability suit,” he said. “The problem is the guns work all too well.”

Two months later, the battle lines came through Colt territory. The mayor of Bridgeport’s lawsuit sought damages “in excess of $100 million,” and focused on an issue that New Orleans first introduced to the fight: “smart guns,” that would detect the owner’s hand before allowing the gun to be fired. Despite all the advances in consumer technology in recent years, smart guns were still totally absent from the market. The city argued, “The defendants have the ability to make guns safer by incorporating locks and other safety features that would prevent children from shooting guns and killing themselves or others, but they have chosen not to do so.”

On it went, with municipal lawsuits much the same as these, filed by the mayors of cities like Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, and dozens more by the end of 1999.

January 23, 1999

Georgia World Congress Center — Atlanta, Georgia

When Atlanta’s mayor announced that he was planning to join the anti-gun fight, it brought a special conflict for the gun industry; the 21st annual “Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade” (SHOT) show was set to take place at the World Congress Center that year. Suddenly, the gun companies didn’t feel so welcome in a city that was suing them, and attendees were having second thoughts about spending any of their money in Atlanta.

The SHOT show was hosted by an industry trade organization, the National Shooting Sports Foundation. The foundation had been expecting attendance to top 25,000 that year, before the lawsuits came; with rumblings of a boycott suddenly growing louder, the organization sent out a letter to calm their vendors, and in it, revealed part of their plan: “It is, perhaps, appropriate that the First Annual State of the Industry Report, announcing the launch of historic outreach and legal responses to these lawsuits and other challenges to our industry, will take place in Atlanta,” the NSSF wrote. “Your absence will send no message or the wrong message to our adversaries and to your allies in our industry.”

At the inaugural State of the Industry dinner that weekend, NSSF President and CEO Bob Delfay first reminded the attendees, “We are not just merchants and manufacturers, but also the heirs to, and the current stewards of, our 200-year-old hunting and shooting-sports heritage.” With that, he unveiled the NSSF’s new “Hunting and Shooting Sports Heritage Fund” — a legal and legislative defense initiative “based on a voluntary manufacturer contribution of 1 percent of hunting-and-shooting-related sales.” More than seventy gun companies would join the foundation before the year was through, an army mustering against the cities that had promised to “hit them where it hurts.”

The NSSF strategy was simple: hit back. But they were, as always, careful to check the NRA’s strategy before plotting their own. The NSSF had been doing that, informally, since their beginning. It was just good business sense.

* * *

The NSSF was formed in 1961, as a trade organization devoted expressly to “the development within the American public of a better understanding and appreciation of the Shooting Sports.” It sprang from a recognition at the time that American society was changing, and spending less time outdoors; hunting was in decline, and gun sales were down. And the NRA (this being before Wayne and the hardliners seized power in Cincinnati) was spread too thin. “In the past a tremendously unfair burden has been placed on one or two associations which have had to fight some lonesome battles,” the NSSF’s founding Chairman said at their 1961 inaugural banquet. Since the NRA represented gun owners, it was time for the gun makers and gun sellers to step up.

But even as the debate over gun rights narrowed, so did the perception of guns themselves in American culture, the chairman explained. With the homicide rate just starting to rise in 1961, ending decades of welcome statistical decline, guns were suddenly being portrayed in a negative light in America. Too much effort was being expended “solely to fighting anti-gun legislation,” rather than “taking the POSITIVE approach and promoting the shooting sports for the beneficial and recreational activities they have been in the past… and can and should be in the future.”

The NSSF’s first Executive Committee included an executive from Colt, and — representing Sturm & Ruger — Bill Ruger himself. But the focus was on more than just gun sales. The governor of South Dakota also spoke at the banquet, and said that as an avid hunter himself, he believed “that in the some-25,000,000 gun owners of the United States rests a political forcefulness which, if ever mobilized, could swing the entire country.” Such voters lived in places where — as the Guns & Ammunition reporter in attendance put it — “the shotgun behind the door is standard equipment, [and] where its loss as a daily tool and instrument of country fun would be unthinkable.”

* * *

In the decades since, the NSSF had kept a relatively low profile. They focused on expanding the market for hunting and target shooting, while the NRA did the dirty work in Congress and the state legislatures — protecting the individual’s access to guns. Now, with the alliance of mayors on the rise, and signaling that the theater of battle would be shifted to the court of liability law, the NSSF created the Heritage Fund — to protect the gun industry’s access to consumers.

The launch for the Heritage Fund raised everyone’s spirits. The high point came when Charlton Heston took the stage, invited to the SHOT show that evening to represent the NRA. For him, it was the culmination of his months of effort to unite the forces of America’s gun-rights communities — but their show of solidarity raised a few eyebrows as well. Of this, Heston was aware; in his speech, he attacked the suggestion that there was a conflict of interest: “For a century the NRA and the firearms industry have thrived independently of each other’s influence. You make firearms, we preserve the right to bear them — but now your fight has become our fight. Your legal threat has become our constitutional threat. What is at stake is not just your livelihood, but liberty.”

With the historic NRA/NSSF alliance in place, the 21st annual SHOT Show came to a close. The vendors and buyers went back to their home states, and President Bob Delfay went back to the NSSF’s headquarters — located in Newtown, Connecticut, since 1993. The foundation’s offices were located in a stately colonial-style building on Mile Hill Road, off of Main Street, just down the street from the town’s flagpole.