The Story of a Gun

After 60,000 deaths from firearms use over the past two years, America is in a gun crisis. Yet gun laws remain weak, gunmakers continue to promote killing power, and gun dealers accept no responsibility for the criminal use of what they sell
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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."

THE DEALER

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.

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