58. Modern Sporting Rifle

May 14, 2009

Greater Phoenix Convention Center — Phoenix, Arizona

A brand-new model of firearm was announced at the NRA’s Annual Meeting and Exhibits in 2009. It was called the SR 556 — the “556” because, like all standard AR-15s, it was chambered for the 5.56 NATO round (while also accepting the similarly-shaped .223 Remington.)

But by then, it was tough for the convention crowd to get excited; the “AR” platform was the hottest gun market in America, largely because of the high level of customization options and the generous array of accessories (which any new manufacturer of an AR-15 was vying to tap into.) The downside of such popularity was, practically everyone at the convention already owned an “AR.” Many of them, several.

It was the “SR” in the gun’s name that was more significant: Sturm, Ruger & Co. The NRA Edition of their Mini-14 had marked Ruger’s first step down this path, but this new gun was an official acknowledgment: Stockton was 20 years ago, and the gun industry had changed. Now, what were once labeled “weapons of war” were, more profitably, to be seen as household names.

August 15, 2009

Convention Center — Dayton, Ohio

“There’s no tax! There’s no paperwork! That’s worth something!” shouted a man from behind his display of guns. Colin Goddard approached one of the booths, with a friend at his side. He asked to see the rifle that one of the sellers had on display for $660. It was just what Colin was looking for.

Colin was from Blacksburg. Two years before, he had been in Norris Hall, in his French class, when he heard gunfire coming his way. He was on the phone with 9-1-1 when the gunman burst in. Colin was shot four times, fell to the classroom floor, and dropped his phone. A moment later, a girl picked it up, hid it under her long hair, and started relaying updates to 9-1-1.

Colin spent a long time in the hospital after that. When he emerged into the public eye, it was at the foot of United States Capitol Building in D.C., alongside several members of Congress, including the retired nurse from New York. “I was one of the few survivors of the Virginia Tech shooting two years ago,” he said to a gathering of reporters. “I’ve learned that something can be done to prevent dangerous people from obtaining dangerous weapons. And I’ve learned about closing the Gun Show Loophole.”

In Dayton, the hidden camera in Colin’s breast pocket recorded him accepting the unloaded rifle — an Egyptian-made semi-auto AK-47 — and looking over its features. “Collapsing stock, 30-round clip…” he tells his friend. The rifle wasn’t like the Glock pistol that the silent shooter had attacked him with in Norris Hall, and the bullets it fired weren’t the same size as the ones that he could still feel inside his body, as he stood there with the gun in his hands. And he knew that the man who shot him had passed all the background checks. But to Colin, it wasn’t about trying to prevent the exact scenario that led to his own trauma; it was about people who weren’t supposed to have guns, getting them anyway. Whoever bought this rifle, they would not have to undergo a background check. He knew he was holding, in his hands, the potential for the next tragedy.

Colin’s footage shows him turn to his friend, in clear view of the gun merchant, and ask the other patron to buy it for him: a blatant straw-purchase. The middle-aged merchant didn’t seem to care. “There’s no paperwork,” he confirmed. “You have to be over 18, though. So I need an ID.”

The straw-buyer shrugged. “I don’t have it with me.”

The merchant paused. He asked the young man for his birthday — his reply indicated that he was 18 — and for his address. The young man gave his answer, and the seller didn’t even write it down. He took the $660, and handed over the rifle. “Have fun with it.”

* * *

Meanwhile, the retired nurse from New York brought the bill to Congress: the 2009 Bipartisan Gun Show Loophole Closing Act. It was much the same as the one she begged her colleagues to pass after Columbine — “Let me go home…” — and after ten years, it was met with much the same result. The loophole would stay open. And to this day, it remains open.

November 2009

National Shooting Sports Foundation — Newtown, Connecticut

The gun industry noticed a trend by late 2009: things were getting back to normal. They had sold millions of guns in the year since the election of President Obama, most of them to people looking to stock up on the gun everyone expected the new administration to ban first: the AR-15.

At first, it seemed a plausible fear: Obama’s attorney general said at his first press conference, “There are just a few gun-related changes what we would like to make, and among them would be to re-institute the [federal] ban.” But a year later, the gun-grabbers still hadn’t come. They hadn’t even made a peep. Gradually, the panic buying died out, and sales went back down to near-normal levels. The “Barack boom” was over.

* * *

The AR was a vital segment of the firearms market, and the NSSF was, fundamentally, a trade organization. So, in 2009, they announced they were launching a “re-branding effort” — they wanted Americans to stop thinking of AR-15 style guns as “assault rifles,” and to instead see them as something more benign: a “modern sporting rifle.”

They pulled out all the stops this time, like they hadn’t done since the PLCAA shield law was proposed. Doug Painter went back out into the woods with his film crew, in his hiking boots and flannel, and sat perched on a tree-stump to impart his homespun firearms wisdom for the camera, a camo-painted AR-15 across his lap. “Never had anything against AR rifles like this one,” he smiles in the video, “but I frankly didn’t think they had a place in the woods.” Then he remembered, he says, that the “traditional” deer rifle was in fact a descendant of the 1903 Springfield — a World War I service rifle. Hunting rifle, infantry rifle… really it was all the same. Painter smirked as he framed the debate: “Anti-gun folks insist on calling these rifles ‘assault weapons.’ To label them as ‘bad guns,’ as opposed to more traditional-looking ‘good guns.’ Now I ask you: how can any rifle, any inanimate object, be inherently good or bad?”

The NSSF’s print campaign consisted of a list of tips for gun evangelists to help change the culture, including:

If someone calls an AR-15-style rifle an ‘assault weapon,’ he or she either supports banning these firearms or does not understand their function and sporting use, or both. Please correct them. “Assault weapon” is a political term created by California anti-gun legislators to ban some semi-automatic rifles there in the 1980s.

Since the 19th century, civilian sporting rifles have evolved from their military predecessors. The modern sporting rifle simply follows that tradition… These rifles’ accuracy, reliability, ruggedness and versatility serve target shooters and hunters well. They are true all-weather firearms. And, they are a lot of fun to shoot!

The NSSF wrapped up its embrace of the AR-15 with a reminder of the stakes, which were now right back to where they were when Clinton sent his letter to hunters in 1992: “Remember, that if AR-15-style modern sporting rifles are banned, your favorite traditional-looking hunting or target-shooting semi-automatic firearm could be banned, too.”

San Leandro, California

The neon-purple “GUNS” sign in the window was long gone, and the parking lot was bare. On the front door, there was just the outline of an NRA logo, a silhouette of the glue from the back of a scraped-away sticker, baked into the glass by decades of Bay Area sun. But the guns, and the panic buyers that had filled the aisles after Stockton, were long gone; gun crime still plagued Oakland, but the perpetrators had to find ways other than Traders Sporting Goods to arm themselves. Tony was out of business.

The writing had been on the wall for a long time. Traders already had their FFL revoked in 2003, but the appeals process had kept the doors open, for awhile. In its final year of operation, state law enforcement collected no less than 447 “crime guns” that would be traced back to Trader’s. The highest number in California.

Finally, in 2006, after at two decades of concerted effort by the ATF and local authorities, Tony’s license to sell firearms was revoked for good. He had sold his last gun.

Traders tried to adapt, and stay open — as just a sporting goods store. No guns. Unfortunately for Tony, the business brought through the door by sleeping bags, MRE’s and fishing tackle just wasn’t enough. Selling guns was always what kept the lights on. “It sucks,” one former customer told a reporter from the East Bay Times, standing outside the store shortly after it was shuttered. “The problem isn’t the person who sells the gun; it’s the person who uses it.”

December 7, 2009

Superior Court — Stamford, Connecticut

The State’s Attorney called a press conference, to announce the latest legal development in the “Travis the Chimp” case. After a careful review of all the facts and documentation, he explained, the state had determined not to bring any charges against the chimp’s owner, Sandy, as a result of what happened out on Rock Rimmon Road. Despite the controversy and sensational headlines about her, they found, “It was not evident that [she] had been deliberately reckless in handling the animal.”

Sandy had maintained as much, since day one. She deeply resented it when people said she cared more about Travis than her friend Charla — and not because she didn’t care about Travis. It had traumatized her, having to fight the ape she loved in those final minutes. Now living in an empty house, Travis’s bedroom still the way she left it, she would often call old friends in tears, sobbing, “I stabbed my own son.”

The police officer who had arrived at Charla’s house that day, and pulled the trigger on Travis, was himself an animal lover. He, too, was traumatized by the experience: both from killing Travis, and from seeing what Travis had done to Charla. His colleagues on the force knew he had no choice but to use lethal force. “We were not dealing with a human suspect,” the Chief of Police in Stamford told reporters. “Anything could have happened.”

The announcement of no charges didn’t mean the end of litigation. Charla herself gave her first televised interview that same month, appearing with Oprah Winfrey, where she expressed hope that her experience could help others. “These exotic animals are very dangerous and they shouldn’t be around,” her soft voice spoke from behind a veil. “There’s a place for them that is not in residential areas.” She was planning to sue the state, for not acting when they were warned about the beast.

In one interview, Sandy was asked if she regretted ever taking the chimp into her home in the first place. Not a chance. “They’re the closest thing to humans — to us. We can give them a blood transfusion, and they can give us one. […] He couldn’t be more my son than if I gave birth to him….”

If there was any lesson to learn, she couldn’t find it. “How many people go crazy and kill other people? This is one incident…. I don’t know what happened.”

FBI Criminal Justice Information Services — Clarksburg, West Virginia

In a small town four hours east of Washington D.C., in one drab office complex among many, FBI employees were arriving for another day of work: processing all the NICS background checks that flooded in from around the country every day. Boxes of records lined the halls, and filled storage containers in the loading dock, their paper contents waiting to be processed to microfilm; due to the 1986 restrictions on the government, designed to prevent “gun registries” that could weaken the power of the citizen militia to defend themselves against tyranny, the nation’s background checks of its gun buyers were all still done the old-fashioned way. No computers.

Two years after they were passed, the 2007 NICS Improvement amendments were still being implemented at the local levels, but there was a feeling at the FBI that the bureau could be doing more for its part; in studying “the rise of the recent lone gunmen [such as the] Pittsburgh fitness center shooter,” the FBI had found that while the shooters were generally able to pass a NICS background check, they nonetheless stood out, in the data, from the “traditional” gun buyers — rather than just buying one gun, or building up a collection over time, the rampage shooters typically purchased an arsenal in a relatively short period, not long before their attacks. An internal memo making the rounds that year suggested the bureau set up a new alert — a “tripwire” in NICS terminology — that would notify them when a citizen purchased more than one firearm in 30 days. Then they could subject that buyer to added scrutiny, of some kind.

The details never really got worked out; the text of the Brady Bill specifically stated that NICS could not “require that any record or portion thereof generated by the system [be] recorded at, or transferred to, a facility owned, managed, or controlled by” the government. The new program would have been, in effect, a thirty-day gun registry, so the logic went, and that was illegal. Shortly after it was brought up, the “two guns in one month” project was abandoned.