May 20, 1999
Senate Chamber — United States Capitol Building
The Senate had been debating the “Gun Show Loophole Amendment” for weeks, and finally, the moment of truth had arrived. If this amendment passed (and then also passed in the House), the loophole would be closed: private merchants at gun shows would be bound by the same rules as licensed dealers, and that meant they would have to run a background check through NICS whenever they sold a gun.
From his bench overlooking the chamber, Vice President Al Gore called for the vote, and a clerk handed him a long slip of paper: 50 ayes, and 50 nays. Only Gore could break the tie, and with the end of Clinton’s second term approaching, Gore was also heading for a tough contest to succeed him. Every move counted.
The basis for this amendment was a report put together by the ATF the year before, GUN SHOWS: Brady Checks and Crime Gun Traces. In it, the bureau presented statistics showing that disqualified buyers, especially felons, were still regularly making illegal purchases of firearms at gun shows. And at that moment, everyone in the chamber knew how significant the loophole had become: it had been exactly one month since the Columbine attack. The opportunity to prevent that disaster had already passed… but what about the next?
One senator (a war veteran who had lost an arm and both legs in Vietnam) had made headlines when he switched his vote to support the amendment, causing the tie. “What’s happened has touched a raw nerve, and people have reached the point where enough is enough,” he said. “The normal gun politics of pro-gun, anti-gun are not going to be looked at as connecting with anyone. Now we’re talking about children getting shot.”
Gore raised the Senate’s ivory gavel. “I personally would like to dedicate my tie-breaking vote to all of the families that have suffered from gun violence.” When he brought the gavel down, the amendment to close the Gun Show Loophole officially passed the Senate. Halfway home.
Dakota Ridge High School — Littleton, Colorado
At the same moment the white gavel came to a rest, the President of the United States was visiting Littleton. Taking the stage in the school auditorium, the students and staff who greeted him were chanting their school’s name — “we are CO-LUM-BINE!!” — but the place where they were standing was actually miles away from Columbine, at Littleton’s other high school, Dakota Ridge. Columbine itself was still a crime scene.
“Something profound has happened to your country because of this,” Clinton told the crowd. “I want you all to understand that. I’m not even sure I can explain it to you.” He was detecting the same energy that the group of Newtown High School students sensed, as they planted the weeping cherry tree in the soil at their own school. “You have a unique chance, a chance to make sure that the children of Columbine are never forgotten.” He challenged the community in Littleton to lead the way in envisioning a brighter future, “a future where society guards our children better against violent influences and weapons that can break the dam of decency and humanity in the most vulnerable of children.”
For a few moments, he discussed the gunmen. He was still getting updates from the FBI task force, and he knew what the profilers were learning about the school shooters. And what he had heard seemed to match his own theories about the phenomenon:
One thing I would like to share with you that I personally believe very much: These dark forces that take over people and make them murder are the extreme manifestation of fear and rage with which every human being has to do combat. The older you get, the more you’ll know that a great deal of life is the struggle against every person’s own smallness and fear and anger, and a continuing effort not to blame other people for our own shortcomings… or our fears.
As the president left the stage, an aide handed him his next set of prepared remarks: a reaction to the latest school shooting, which had just unfolded, in Georgia.
Heritage High School — Conyers, Georgia
The skinny white boy had somehow accessed his parents’ locked gun safe that morning. Before heading out to catch the school bus, he tucked a .22 rifle down the leg of his jeans, and put a .357 revolver in his book bag. He knew — like the president and the vice president knew — that exactly one month had passed since Columbine, and he wanted to mark the occasion. He left a note under his bed:
One big question I leave behind for you to find is why. But for the sake of my brothers and sisters related to the Trench Coat Mafia, those answers will have to remain out of the public eye.
This has nothing to do with Hitler, and it is not because I was picked on.
Then he went to school, walked into the commons, pulled out the rifle, and fired every shot. When it was empty, he ran outside and fell to his knees, taking the revolver from his backpack. He put the barrel to his own head. But then he hesitated.
Behind him, he heard a voice speak softly: “It’s going to be alright. Give me the gun.”
He turned, and saw the school’s assistant principal, waiting with his hand outstretched. The boy dropped the revolver into the man’s palm, and then hugged him tightly, crying, “Oh my god. I’m so scared.”
There were only injuries, minor ones, at Heritage High School. It easily could have been a heavier toll, but witnesses said they saw the shooter aiming low, targeting legs and feet; most victims were out of the hospital in a day. Police determined that although the shooter attacked his school, he didn’t actually want to kill. He did it because he wanted to die.
May 27, 1999
Rayburn House Office Building — Washington, D.C.
Wayne LaPierre was scheduled to deliver testimony to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime. With the Gun Show Loophole halfway closed, he was there to spread the NRA’s latest public relations campaign: “Be Reasonable.”
He presented it as a compromise; he outlined which gun control measures the NRA could support — what was “reasonable” — and surprisingly, closing the Gun Show Loophole was on his list. He said he felt it was reasonable to “provide for instant checks at gun shows just like at gun stores and pawn shops.”
But despite Wayne’s conciliatory tone, the NRA was in fact very much opposed to Clinton and Gore’s amendment. It was all nuance; gun shows were held on weekends — often holiday weekends, when courthouses were closed — and so Wayne knew there was no way to guarantee any such “instant” background check. When the bill came to the House, that was exactly the weak point that the NRA’s representatives would attack.
Wayne left the microphone, and the next speaker in line stepped up. He was a father from Littleton, and he had something to say about the NRA: “The first recorded act of violence was when Cain slew his brother Abel out in the field. The villain was not the club he used. Neither was it the ‘NCA’ — the National Club Association. The true killer was Cain, and the reason for the murder could only be found in Cain’s heart.”
The man’s daughter had been the very first victim at Columbine, and although he faulted the shooters for taking her, he came to the hearing that day to warn that the two teenagers in black were as human as anyone there in attendance. “We all consist of body, soul, and spirit,” he said. “When we refuse to acknowledge a third part of our make-up, we create a void that allows evil, prejudice, and hatred to rush in and wreak havoc.” His appeal was for spiritual healing, rather than legislation. “No amount of gun laws can stop someone who spends months planning this type of massacre,” he said. “The real villain lies within our own hearts.”
* * *
The NRA purchased a full-page ad in USA Today, with the text of Wayne’s “Be Reasonable” speech. But he sent a different message directly to NRA members, in that month’s mailing: “None of this has a thing to do with the Littleton or Georgia school attacks or any violent crime anywhere in America,” Wayne said. “It has everything to do with an attempt by gun haters and the enemies of your Second Amendment freedoms to dismantle the Second Amendment, one step at a time.” Background checks at gun shows would amount to a gun registry, he warned, one that “gives the Federal Government authority to keep names and addresses of citizens in FBI files, even after they are cleared as honest people entitled to buy firearms.” If the government knows who is armed, so the precaution went, the government knows who to disarm. Americans had to resist.
Hall of the House of Representatives — Washington, D.C.
The bill came to the House floor, to face its final hurdle. As in the Senate, both sides were dug-in. It would come down to only a handful of swing votes.
One representative, from New York, watched the debate over the loophole amendment with more interest than most. Until December 3, 1993, she had been a hospital nurse; her husband had boarded the 5:33pm train to Long Island on that night, along with her son, but he never came home. A man on the train had pulled out a handgun, and shot everyone that he could, before the passengers restrained him as he was reloading. Her husband hadn’t done anything wrong; it was just bad luck. (Her son was also wounded, but survived.)
She had been a nurse her whole adult life, until then. But she couldn’t just let it pass. She ran for her district’s congressional seat, campaigning on gun control, and she won.
When the Vice President dropped his ivory gavel in the Senate that year, and passed the Gun Show Loophole amendment, she was proud to then sponsor it in the House. But now she watched in growing frustration, and then anguish, as the built-to-fail “instant” background check requirement had its intended effect. Just seconds before the final, now-doomed vote was called, she pleaded with her colleagues, with tears in her eyes, to vote yes:
We have an opportunity here in Washington to stop playing games. That is what I came to Washington for.
I am sorry that this is very hard for me. I am Irish, and I am not supposed to cry in front of anyone. But I made a promise a long time ago. I made a promise to my son and to my husband. If there was anything that I could do to prevent one family from going through what I have gone through and every other victim that I know have gone through, then I have done my job.
Let me go home… Let me go home.
Before she could wipe her tears, the chorus of “no” votes came cascading down. Wayne LaPierre chalked up another win. The “Gun Show Loophole” amendment was stricken from the bill, and so the nation’s gun show attendees could continue buying guns from private parties with just an ID, to verify they were eighteen. There would be no background check, instant or otherwise.
NSSF Headquarters — Newtown, Connecticut
A reporter from the Newtown Bee came down to the headquarters of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, for an interview with “America’s other gun lobby.” Knowing that NSSF President Bob Delfay was a close ally of Wayne LaPierre, the journalist wanted to know if Delfay had any response to some recent comments from his colleague: that Clinton “needs a certain level of violence in this country,” and that the president is “willing to accept a certain level of killing to further his political agenda, and his vice-president too.”
Delfay did not waver. He told the Bee that the NRA was “saying some unpopular things that needed to be said,” and left no doubt that he saw the political reality just as starkly as Wayne had; he predicted that the upcoming election would be “one of the most important in the history of the [firearms] industry,” and he was confident that a President Gore would only be “delighted” to put gun manufacturers out of business. The NSSF, of course, were not going to sit by and let that happen.
* * *
Ever since forming the Heritage Fund at the ‘98 SHOT show, the NSSF had been “batting 1000” (as they put it in their company literature). Some 150 gun companies had signed onto the fund, and the results had proven to be worth every cent they poured into it, as the NSSF’s attorneys beat back municipal lawsuits from Bridgeport, Miami-Dade, Chicago, and more. The lobby was even going on the offensive: taking the municipalities back into court, and suing them for conspiracy. The litigious mayors, so smug just a year before, now were witnessing their dreams crumble before them.
There was only one problem — and its name was Columbine. On the night of April 20, as the magnitude of the tragedy was becoming clear, Bob Delfay had dispatched a memo to the entire Newtown office:
Because firearms were used and because we represent firearms manufacturers, it is understandable that the NSSF staff may feel more concerned and more disturbed by this tragic incident than our fellow citizens.
Incidents such as this have no logical explanation and perhaps no means of explanation. Our society has had firearms, troubled people, and a sensationalist media for generations.
The NSSF never wavered, and now, with the Gun Show Loophole amendment sunk, the gun lobbies had once again soldiered through the aftermath of another mass shooting.
Meanwhile, there was still the war to fight against the nation’s mayors, and their municipal lawsuits. The Heritage Fund’s directors planned to keep the pressure on — but they were starting to plan for a victory maneuver on that front, too.
June 18, 1999
Texas State Capitol Building — Austin, TX
There wasn’t a single mayor in the Lone Star state that had even hinted at suing a gun company, but the NRA had felt the climate there was right. They pushed the Texas legislature to be the latest state to pass a new kind of gun law: one granting special exemption to all gun manufacturers, from any product liability lawsuit — in effect, a liability shield.
The only real exceptions were for malfunction, and “negligent entrustment” — when a gun dealer sells to someone even though the dealer “knows, or reasonably should know, the person to whom the product is supplied is likely to, and does, use the product in a manner involving unreasonable risk of physical injury to the person or others.”
This was a high standard to meet, and otherwise, as long as the gun worked as intended, you could not take the manufacturer to court if someone got shot. Period. (When Georgia passed a law like this, the mayor of Atlanta’s lawsuit against the gun companies suddenly disappeared. Same with Louisiana, and New Orleans.)
Suzanna Gratia was watching. She had never dreamed of suing Glock, or Ruger, for what happened at Luby’s. “These lawsuits are ludicrous. They’re nothing but a backdoor attempt at gun control,” she said from the floor of the State House. And this time, she was not there as a guest; she was the elected State Representative from Bell County. She had already helped stop Texas’s state-level version of the “Gun Show Loophole” bill, and with the gun-shield bill, she would carry the gun industry to victory in Texas once again.
Governor George Bush signed his state’s new gun-shield bill into law in June. There was no public ceremony, and no comment; he was the front-runner for his party’s presidential nomination, set to face off against the sitting vice-president, and it wasn’t popular to be be a gun industry supporter after Columbine. The NRA commented to CNN, simply, “Governor Bush has always been good on this issue.”
September 15, 1999
Wedgwood Baptist Church — Fort Worth, Texas
In the sanctuary of the red-brick church, some 150 teenagers were watching a Christian rock band perform, swaying to-and- fro with their arms outstretched.
Leaning against the far wall was a nineteen-year-old named Jeremiah. He had once been a loyal Boy Scout, but his life since then had taken some bad turns: he dropped out of high school, was on probation for theft, and his shifts at a fast-food restaurant were barely covering the bills. Back home, his girlfriend was pregnant. He was praying for a miracle.
With the rock band playing loudly in the closed sanctuary, Jeremiah didn’t hear the old Pontiac pull into the parking lot outside.
The driver was a thin man, middle-aged. As he stepped into the church hall, he had a black jacket on, a black hat on his head, and a cigarette dangling from his lip. In each hand, he held a semiautomatic pistol: a Ruger P85 9mm, and a cheap .380 “Saturday night special” revolver.
The security guard saw the man’s cigarette first, and told him he had to put it out. The man in the black hat shot him, and then began shooting everyone in the church that he could, starting at the merch table and moving into the sanctuary.
The band dropped their instruments, and ran. Most of the audience fled, too, while others ducked under a pew — as had Jeremiah’s friend, who was whispering for him to “get down.” But instead Jeremiah did the only thing that occurred to him: he sat down in the pew, folded his hands in his lap, and prayed.
The band had left their video camera running, on its tripod. It picked up a good portion of what happened next, according to the Chief of Police in Fort Worth; on the tape, the man in black was deliberate, controlled: “He ejects the magazine, reloads and continues firing. It wasn’t rapid. It was slow and methodical, picking a target, aiming and shooting. He didn’t seem in a panic. He would stand in one place, shoot and then move to another position and shoot again.”
Soon, the gunman came to Jeremiah, and took aim. But Jeremiah didn’t look up at him. He just said, “Sir, you don’t have to be doing this.”
“Shut the hell up,” the gunman spat back. “What’s your religion?”
“Christian. I’m a Baptist.”
“That sucks,” the older man said, sneering that it was a “stupid religion.”
“No sir,” Jeremiah said. “It doesn’t suck. It’s a wonderful thing. God put me on this earth for a reason. I’m certain of that.”
The gunman pivoted, and fired a few shots into the sanctuary walls. “This religion is bullshit!”
“Sir,” Jeremiah replied, “what you need is Jesus Christ in your life. You can shoot me if you want. But I know where I’m going. I’m going to heaven. What about you?”
The shooter stared at him for a few seconds, in silence. Then he told Jeremiah “fuck off,” sat down in the pew, and shot himself.
Jeremiah ran out the front door, along with most everyone else. He wasn’t a hero.
One man, a youth minister, stopped at the shooter’s body, finding it slumped over on its side, still holding the Ruger. The minister delicately took the pistol from the gunman’s limp hand, and walked it to the front hallway before setting it down. “I guess I’ve seen too many movies where the bad guy keeps coming back to life.”
* * *
The investigators identified the gunman and headed for his home address, nine miles across town. They passed four other churches along the way, each just as well-attended as the concert had been; even though they would never find any indication that the shooter had been to Wedgewood Baptist Church before, something apparently drew him there.
The police made their entry into the shooter’s small home. Everything inside was smashed to pieces; there were huge holes knocked through the drywall, apparently with a shovel, sometime before he attacked the church. He had punched through every door, and dumped cement in the toilets, and motor oil in the shower heads. He had smashed the family photos in the living room, and even torn apart the family bible, page by page.
Holy Redeemer Catholic Church — Grand Rapids, Michigan
Governor Bush took a briefing about the Texas attack while at a campaign stop. In his speech afterward, he said a prayer for the victims, and, sensing the anxiety in the country, said that the gunman who attacked the church “obviously was acting as a result of evil in his heart.” Bush continued, “There seems to be a wave of evil passing through America now, and we as a society can pass laws and hold people accountable for the decisions they make, but our hopes and prayers have got to be that there is more love in society.”
He did not think that restricting guns would solve the problem: “I don’t know of a law — a governmental law — that will put love in people’s hearts.”
One reporter asked Bush if the gunman had a concealed-weapons permit, under the law he himself signed as governor back in 1995; Bush said that no, the man did not. “I don’t know [the shooter’s] background,” he continued, “but it sounds to me like he’s mentally deranged.” Bush said that people like the shooter were the ones he didn’t want getting guns. But like the father from Columbine, he blamed Cain, not the club. The problem went beyond the laws we make on earth.
San Diego, California
The Vice President was at a campaign stop of his own, at a high school in California, when he heard about the church shooting. He fundamentally disagreed with the Governor of Texas: “A hurricane is something we cannot do anything about. It is an act of God. But this shooting is something people do to people.”
He found himself thinking back to the legislation he and Clinton had gotten passed when they first took the White House together. “We do know that the availability of assault weapons and deadly weapons in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them contributes to a repeat [of such] incidents, to having these things happen over and over again… we have to respond to the flood of guns.” The Gun Show Loophole Amendment had ultimately slipped through his fingers. But he knew if he could just make it to the Oval Office, he would have another four years to get it right.