met Mike Dick -- his full name is J. Michael Dick -- on a hot morning in June at Guns Unlimited in Carrollton, on the north side of Route 17. The store is one of seven in a tiny mini-mall fronted with a white-gravel parking lot that blazed in the morning sun.
Mike and his father, James S. Dick, hold two of the nation's 245,000 federal firearms-dealer licenses -- two of the 7,000 licenses issued to residents of Virginia, where gun controls are virtually nonexistent.
Dick was late, but two of his clerks arrived and invited me inside to wait. The shop, no larger than a suburban living room, was a fortress. The Dicks had embedded steel "tank traps" in the sidewalk out front, to prevent a recurrence of what has become a fairly routine kind of burglary at the gun stores of America: crashing through the front display window with a truck. The Dicks installed the tank traps a few years ago, after a thief backed a dump truck into the store. Now an alarm system guards the place at night. The front door has been reinforced with steel. Steel herringbone grates cover the inside surfaces of the two large plate-glass windows. A big Pepsi machine stands against the grate just inside the door as a barrier to anyone hoping to cut through the glass to reach the door locks. The day I was there, the two clerks wore large-bore handguns strapped to their hips, one a revolver, the other a semi-automatic pistol. One clerk, dressed in black and wearing tinted glasses, told me that he and his partner were careful to stand at different points in the shop so that no one could get the drop on them simultaneously. He untacked a brief news clipping from the bulletin board behind him and proudly handed it to me. The item reported how just that week a Portsmouth gun-shop owner had shot and killed a would-be robber. No charges were filed.
Mike Dick arrived, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He is a young man whose prior career was in the hospitality (hotel and restaurant) industry. He joined Guns Unlimited to help his father salvage the business, which in the three years since the shooting had suffered badly -- not from public condemnation but from the recession and the sudden decampment of so many military men from the Hampton Roads area during the Gulf War. The domestic gun industry as a whole has likewise experienced declining sales over the past few years, and last March one of the country's highest profile arms makers, Colt's Manufacturing, filed for protection from creditors under Chapter 11. At the time of the shooting, however, the industry was enjoying a robust surge in sales, and Guns Unlimited was thriving. As of 1990 James Dick owned three Guns Unlimited stores. By the time I met his son, however, Guns Unlimited had also been placed in Chapter 11; the Carrollton store was the only one operating.
At its peak the company advertised aggressively on television and with huge billboards featuring a giant handgun and proclaiming, "NO PERMITS," a reference to the fact that in Isle of Wight County, as in most of the rest of Virginia, you don't need a permit to buy a handgun. Regulations are much stiffer in individual cities in the Hampton Roads area, however: Portsmouth, for example, requires that buyers first get a city police permit. Guns Unlimited used the placement of its three stores to defeat these laws. In a deposition the aforementioned Christopher Hartwig, a clerk at the company until May of 1991, said that if a customer at the Portsmouth store needed a gun right away, a clerk would drive the gun to the Carrollton store and meet the buyer there. "Most people don't want to wait," he explained. "It would be like waiting two weeks to buy a nice car. You would want it today if you got the money. So they'd send the gun, you know, to the other store and then all the paperwork, everything, would be done right there."
This bit of retail sleight of hand was legal.
"Guns Unlimited is very well respected," Mike Dick assured me over coffee in the convenience store at the end of the mini-mall. He told me he'd been invited to join the state police firearms advisory board, and had assisted the ATF in numerous investigations, often calling the regional office after -- or even during -- suspicious transactions.
"In fact," he told me, "I would venture to say if you talked to the local office of ATF, you would find that no one in this region assists them, whenever possible, as much as we do."
At the same time, Guns Unlimited sold an especially lethal weapon to an adolescent -- a weapon, moreover, that its own staff said served no useful purpose. At one point in the deposition process that preceded the civil trial of Guns Unlimited, Randy Singer, the plaintiff's attorney, asked Hartwig what he thought of the Cobray M-l1/9. "It's good for nothing," Hartwig said.
Hartwig added that one kind of customer did seem drawn to the weapon. "Your blacks are real impressed with them. We usually joke around about it because that's the first thing they want to look at when they come in, or we get phone calls, 'Do you have an Uzi, do you have an M-11,' because they see it on TV. They feel pretty powerful having one of those."
Nicholas, who is black, was adamant about going to Guns Unlimited. Traffickers, gang members, and other killers have likewise chosen Guns Unlimited, a fact that has given the dealership a certain notoriety in Virginia's Tidewater region -- unjustly, perhaps, but also unavoidably, given the peculiar nature of firearms retailing.
In two cases in the 1990s gun traffickers recruited straw-man buyers to acquire large numbers of guns. In both cases, according to documents in Norfolk federal court, the traffickers specifically directed their recruits to Guns Unlimited; in both cases Guns Unlimited did indeed act as an exemplary corporate citizen.
In one case, Amir Ali Faraz, a twenty-two-year-old student, asked a friend of his, Matthew Jones, about buying "a couple of firearms"; Faraz couldn't buy the guns on his own, he knew, because his permanent residence was in Pennsylvania and he had only a Pennsylvania driver's license. Jones got him a Virginia license belonging to a man of roughly similar appearance who had lost it earlier in the year. Jones took Faraz to Guns Unlimited, where Faraz bought six high-caliber handguns -- four for himself and one each for Jones and a friend of Jones's who had accompanied them to the store. A week later Faraz sold three of his to Jones for $1,200. "Matthew told me he could sell these firearms for a 'big profit' in the Tidewater area to people who would take them up North and make even a bigger profit from them," Faraz said in a written statement to the ATF.
In the gun trade buying more than one handgun at a time automatically raises a warning flag; in fact, the ATF requires dealers to mail in a multiple-purchase form any time a customer buys two or more handguns within a period of five working days. Nonetheless, in the absence of specific local regulations, anyone can walk into a gun store and buy a hundred handguns. The dealer is under no obligation to telephone the ATF, or even to inquire why anyone would want so many guns. All the dealer must do is mail the form by the close of business on the day of the purchase. The buyer, meanwhile, is free to scoop up his hundred handguns and start selling.
The ATF will investigate high-volume purchases, provided it learns of them. If a purchase takes place on a Saturday night, however, the ATF won't see the form for several days. Meanwhile, the guns will begin their rapid migration through the illicit-arms network. Guns trafficked from Norfolk, Virginia, for example, typically wind up in the hands of crooks in Washington, Philadelphia, and New York, half a day's drive up Interstate 95 -- nicknamed the "Iron Road" for all the illicit weapons that make the trip. That the notification procedure takes place by mail in an age when virtually every ordinary consumer transaction involves some immediate form of computer verification is but one of the peculiar ironies that characterize arms commerce in America.
Mike Dick managed the first sale to Faraz, and was immediately suspicious, enough so that he telephoned the Norfolk office of the ATF to alert them to Faraz's purchases. (He also mailed a multiple-purchase form.) Over the next two weeks Faraz returned three times and bought twenty-nine more guns, selling twenty-five to Jones, according to court documents. On the last of these shopping trips Faraz placed an order for thirteen more handguns, all high-quality Glock pistols. Dick telephoned the ATF while Faraz was still in the store, and helped choreograph an undercover operation against Faraz. Dick allowed the ATF to choose the day on which Guns Unlimited would notify Faraz that the guns he had ordered were ready for pickup.
Agents arrested Faraz and, after allowing him to deliver ten guns to Jones, arrested Jones as well. Both men were convicted of violating federal firearms laws.
"I don't just send the forms in and hope it takes six months for ATF to get around to them," Dick told me. "If there is something that's obviously a problem -- and this obviously was -- my opinion is the best way to correct the problem from society's standpoint is to get these people off the street. If I just refuse to sell them weapons, nothing's going to happen. They're just going to go to someone less ethical than myself. And he may send the multiple-purchase form in; he may not send it in. Not all dealers are good."
Society did not make out in this deal quite as well as Guns Unlimited did. The store booked at least $15,000 in sales. Yet twenty-nine of the forty eight high-caliber handguns that Faraz bought wound up in Matthew Jones's hands and presumably in the gun-trafficking network. (Some of the guns were kept by Jones, Faraz, and Faraz's friends.)
In the second trafficking case a local college student, Dean Archer, was recruited to buy guns by a convicted felon. He made his first purchase on December 1, 1990, when he bought four handguns from Guns Unlimited- four pistols made by Davis Industries, a favorite of traffickers who buy them cheaply in Virginia and other jurisdictions with lax controls and then sell them at a steep markup to inner-city buyers.
No one at Guns Unlimited seemed particularly concerned about the purchase. No one felt moved to call the ATF. Indeed, the store sold Archer the guns on the strength of a rent receipt for a Virginia apartment and his driver's license -- a NEW YORK driver's license.
When the ATF learned of Archer's purchase -- three days later -- the agency was instantly suspicious and launched a preliminary investigation. A few days after the first purchase Archer reappeared at Guns Unlimited, this time accompanied by a young woman, Lisa Yvonne Scott. Scott bought seven cheap Davis handguns. Again, the ATF learned of the sale only through a multiple-purchase form mailed by Guns Unlimited. Again, the form arrived three days after the purchase -- more than enough time for those guns to make their way from hand to hand, state to state. And again, the ATF immediately assumed that something illicit had occurred.
The ATF called Guns Unlimited to get more details and learned that Scott had been accompanied by an unidentified male later identified as Dean Archer. By this point, however, eleven of the country's favorite crime guns were on the street.
A few days later Scott appeared again and bought thirteen Davis pistols. This time Mike Dick telephoned the ATF. Nonetheless, Archer and Scott left the store with their new purchases. The total of cheap and deadly Davis pistols bought by the pair had risen to twenty-four. Four days later Scott and Archer made yet another buying trip, but at last the ATF was waiting. The two were arrested and convicted.
Clearly the store had been helpful to the ATF. But why would Guns Unlimited even consider selling a handgun to a buyer presenting an out-of state license for identification?
Dick explained that the clerk accepted the license as identification only because it had a photograph of Archer and established the link between his face and his name. A Norfolk rent receipt and an ID card from a local college established that he lived in Virginia. The fact that he was enrolled in college explained why he would have a New York license and be renting an apartment in Virginia.
Federal law grants a licensed gun dealer broad discretion to refuse to sell to anyone; a brochure mailed to licensees states in bold print, "Know Your Customer." Wouldn't prudence have dictated that Guns Unlimited simply refuse to sell weapons when the nature of the sale provides clear grounds for suspicion -- clear enough, certainly, for the ATF?
"They tell me I have the discretion to do that," Dick said. "But in practical terms, that doesn't give me the right to infringe on anyone's civil rights."
I asked him how he felt knowing that Nicholas Elliot and various gun traffickers had specifically sought out Guns Unlimited as the place to acquire their guns.
"Well, actually, good," he said. "I don't know how to describe it without sounding...bad. Because I come out of hospitality, customer service is my number-one concern. Period. Beyond all others. The ethnicity of an individual, in my restaurants, my hotel rooms, my store, is absolutely unimportant. I don't care what part of town you live in, what race you're of, you're going to be treated like a human being."
"But I'm not talking about race," I said. "All I -- "
Dick cut me off. "But that's the point," he said. "I have a stronger black clientele than any store in Tidewater and I would bet any store in the state, and maybe any store in the Southeast, because -- and word gets around -- I treat people like human beings, and they can't always get that elsewhere."
On March 29, 1991, Jean-Claude Pierre Hill, a young Virginia doctor with a history of mental-health problems, bought two Colt .45 pistols from Mike Dick at Guns Unlimited. Dick remembers the case well. "In that particular situation there was something wrong about him," he told me. "I called ATF while he was in the store; I said, I can't put my finger on it but there's just something not right here." Despite his unease, however, he failed to notice that Hill never signed his Form 4473 -- an absolute requirement of federal firearms law. Dick would later testify that he "somehow missed" that omission.
The ATF ran a background check on Hill through the National Crime Information Center, but found nothing. No one at the agency's Norfolk office knew of Hill or had any reason to worry about him. Dick sold him the guns.
I asked Dick why, given his concerns, he made the sale. "Couldn't you have just said, 'You worry me; I'm not going to sell you these weapons'?"
"You're absolutely right: that's what I could have said. But do I trample on somebody's individual rights simply because I feel bad and the ATF says I have the discretion to do it?"
A week after Hill bought the guns, he fired into a crowded street in Philadelphia, killing one man and wounding two. (He was found guilty of first-degree murder early last year and sentenced to life imprisonment.)
"How did you feel when you heard about this?" I asked. "That this guy had taken these guns you sold him, even though you had doubts, and killed somebody -- the ultimate deprivation of somebody's rights? Did it cause you any sleepless nights?"
"No. I did everything I possibly could have, short of compromising something I feel very strongly about. And that is, I'm not going to decide if you are a worthwhile person or not. He gave me red flags. I checked him out. Had there been anything, had ATF found mental instability in his background, had ATF said he was [dishonorably] discharged, I could have gone to him and said, 'Jean-Claude, I'm not going to sell you these guns.' But I'm not going to decide somebody's character based on my impressions of him -- I'm just not gonna do it. It's not necessarily tied to any Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms -- it's not tied to my right as a retailer not to do business with somebody. I just would not want to put myself in the position of deciding someone else's character arbitrarily based on my own opinion. Empowering people to do that is dangerous."
In most jurisdictions in America, however, there is little else to keep guns out of the wrong hands. Form 4473, far from helping, has become a conduit for the evasion of responsibility. You'd have to be naive indeed to answer yes to any of the eight questions about your criminal background and mental health. And in most jurisdictions no formal channel exists to check the truth of your answers. (In 1989 Virginia changed its gun laws, establishing an "instant-check" system that requires dealers to run a quick criminal check on every purchaser. But the system tells nothing about whether a buyer has been committed to a mental institution.) One can argue that it is unfair to ask America's gun dealers -- businessmen, after all -- to go beyond what the law requires of them. Nevertheless, dealers and their official lobbyists -- the NRA in particular -- played a large role in shaping existing firearms regulations and in making Congress squeamish about establishing anything even faintly resembling a centralized, automated registry of all the nation's gun owners.
Blame aside, Form 4473 is flimsy protection indeed for an enterprise under assault from all quarters. Mike Dick must defend against trucks. He must be vigilant for traffickers, killers, and other felons seeking to buy his wares. He wears a handgun to work 40 percent of the time but concedes that it provides only limited protection from robbers.
So why, I asked, did he stay in the business?
"I come out of the hospitality industry -- hospitality is my first love. I came here out of necessity to help my father. It has become a challenge to me, taking a declining business under constant siege by various aspects of society -- it is a monumental challenge. My goal is to become profitable enough that at some point we can sell and I can go back to what I do best, and that is run hotels."
I asked Raymond Rowley, the ATF special agent who investigated Nicholas Elliot's acquisition of his gun, how he would describe the ATF's relationship with Guns Unlimited.
"I would say it's a good relationship," Rowley said. "We try to deal with all these firearms dealers as fairly as we can. They are selling a legal commodity. Obviously guns can be used in crimes. We try to deal with them fairly."
Leonard Supenski was a bit less circumspect. Of James Dick he said, "That guy is a pariah. He ought to be turned out of that industry. But ATF didn't do anything. ATF should have nailed him to the cross."
un aficionados may liken the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to the Gestapo, but in its relationship with America's gun dealers the ATF behaves more like an indulgent parent. This is partly the result of restrictions imposed by budget and statute, and partly an institutional reluctance to offend its primary source of investigative leads or to provoke the cantankerous gun lobby. The ATF is in the business not of seeking to prevent the migration of weapons, a spokesman told me, but of building and preserving a paper trail for the day when those weapons will be used to commit major crimes.
In fairness, the ATF, like the dealers it monitors, is in an almost untenable position. It must police the nation's 245,000 licensed firearms dealers with only 400 inspectors, each of whom must also conduct inspections of wineries, breweries, distillers, liquor distributors, tobacco producers, and the country's 10,500 explosives users and manufacturers.
At the same time, the agency is obliged by law to grant a firearms license to virtually anyone who asks for one, provided that the applicant has never been convicted of a felony and has $30 to cover the minimum licensing fee. In 1990, of the 34,336 Americans who applied for a license, only seventy five had their applications denied.
Depending on one's stance in the gun debate, the application process is either too stringent or appallingly easy. An applicant doesn't have to demonstrate any knowledge of firearms, not even whether he knows the difference between a pistol and a revolver. It is much harder to get a license to operate a powerboat on Chesapeake Bay, to become a substitute teacher in New Jersey, or to get a California driver's license -- and far, far harder to get a Maryland permit to carry a single handgun -- than it is to get a license that enables you to acquire at wholesale prices thousands of varieties of weapons and have them shipped right to your home. Roughly half of federal firearms licensees don't maintain bona fide stores, according to the ATF, but operate instead out of their homes. Many sell guns at gun shows; many don't deal guns at all but hold a license simply in order to buy their guns at wholesale prices. A small but obviously important proportion use their licenses to buy guns wholesale for distribution to inner-city arms traffickers.
My neighbors may not want to hear this, but last May 15 I applied for a federal firearms license as part of an effort to inject myself as deeply as possible into America's gun culture. The two-page application, ATF Form 7, asked which grade of license I wanted. I could choose among nine levels, costing from $30 to $3,000, the most expensive qualifying the holder to import "destructive devices" such as mortars, bazookas, and other weapons with a barrel-bore diameter of half an inch or more. The form asked the same eight questions about a person's criminal past and mental health which appear on Form 4473.
I received my license on June 22, well within the forty-five days in which the ATF is required to accept or deny an application. No one called to verify my application. No one interviewed me to see if in fact I planned to sell weapons. And I was not required by federal law to check with authorities in Maryland and Baltimore about specific local statutes that might affect my ability to peddle guns in the heart of my manicured, upscale, utterly established Baltimore neighborhood. As far as the federal government was concerned, I was in business, and could begin placing orders for as many weapons as I chose.
If the current rate of licensing continues, the number of federal firearms licensees will double in the next decade, to well over half a million -- even though the fortunes of domestic arms manufacturers are likely to continue their current decline. With more-intense competition for the shrinking gun-consumer dollar will come far greater incentive to do only the minimum required by law to keep guns out of the wrong hands.
Dealers who violate the law WILL get caught, the ATF is fond of saying. And that's largely true. When law-enforcement officials actually request a federal trace, the ATF tracing network often proves a very effective investigative tool, both in solving crimes and in identifying renegade dealers. A fundamental problem with this approach, however, is that by the time the ATF tracing network gets involved, the guns in question have been used in crime, typically serious crime involving homicide, assault, or narcotics peddling.
Current statistics suggest that the ATF is reluctant to police the vast dealer network. From 1975 through 1990 the ATF revoked an average of ten licenses a year. The low was in 1978, with none, and the high in 1986, with twenty-seven. This rate seems low given the sheer numbers of licenses and the rate of violations discovered whenever the ATF's skeleton crew of inspectors does routine compliance audits. In 1990, for example, inspectors conducted 8,471 of these routine inspections; they found violations in 90 percent of them.
The ATF publicly argues that the vast majority of licensees are honest, law-abiding citizens, and that only "one or two" go bad. Even if true, this argument would hardly be comforting, given the speed with which guns migrate. A single illicit dealer can put hundreds, perhaps thousands, of weapons into the hands of would-be killers and felons before a sufficient number of his weapons are used in crimes, and enough of these are traced, to raise the ATF's suspicions. The fact is, many dealers do operate illegally, as the ATF discovers on those rare occasions when it takes a preventive approach to firearms-law enforcement. A classic example of such enforcement, and the kind that ought to be pursued as a matter of routine, is Project Detroit, an ongoing effort by the ATF and the Detroit police to trace as many guns confiscated in that city as possible.
In its report on the first phase of Project Detroit, covering guns confiscated by the Detroit police from January of 1989 to April of 1990, the ATF, typically, was careful to note, "just because [a federal firearms licensee] has sold a large number of weapons that were subsequently used in crimes does not necessarily indicate the [licensee] is intentionally diverting weapons to the criminal element." Large-volume dealers, the report explained, would necessarily experience more traces.
Yet of the five licensed dealers who turned up most often in Project Detroit traces, four became the targets of full-scale ATF Investigations. The worst offender was Sherman Butler, of Sterling Heights, Michigan, near Detroit, whose Sherm's Guns accounted for twenty-nine traces stemming from a range of crimes that included at least two homicides. Butler's specialty was the sale of S. W. Daniel semi-automatics modified to include a sixteen-inch barrel and shoulder stock, thus qualifying them as long rifles and allowing customers to avoid more-stringent federal and state rules governing handgun sales, such as Michigan's requirement that anyone buying a handgun must first have a state license to purchase. For $125 extra, however, Butler threw in a pistol-length barrel and enough of a pistol frame -- a pistol "upper receiver" -- to allow buyers quickly to turn their carbines into semi-automatic pistols.
In all, this first phase of Project Detroit involved the tracing of 1,226 weapons, leading to investigations of thirteen licensed dealers and successful prosecutions against ten. Two suspects died. One case is pending. The ATF discovered that three of these dealers had, as a routine business practice, obliterated the serial number on every gun they received from wholesalers. "We estimate," the report said, That over 3,000 firearms were sold by these dealers, and that law enforcement officers will be recovering them in various crimes for years to come."
The Project Detroit report failed to note what ought to be the most troubling finding of its investigations: that apparently honest dealers accounted for the remaining 1,000 traces, a fact that testifies again to the high costs imposed on the rest of us by even legitimate gun shops. Indeed, of the top ten dealers, four weren't investigated by the ATF but nonetheless accounted for ten to twenty traces each, including traces involving at least four homicides. In all, Project Detroit traded guns sold by legitimate dealers from New York to Alaska and used subsequently in AT LEAST two kidnappings, thirty-four homicides, and scores of narcotics offenses -- again, from only 1,226 traced weapons.
In his introduction to the report, Bernard La Forest, the special agent in charge, wrote, "What would the results indicate if we had the capability of successfully tracing 10,000 to 15,000 weapons seized by all law enforcement agencies in this metropolitan area?"
Raymond Rowley, the Norfolk ATF agent, initiated the ATF's search for the source of Nicholas Elliot's gun. He heard about the shooting on the news and quickly volunteered his help to Detective Donald Adams, the Virginia Beach homicide investigator. Rowley ordered a trace. The serial number was relayed to Tom Stokes, the special agent in charge in Atlanta, who managed after considerable effort to reach Sylvia Daniel by phone. In a departure from the usual frosty relations between her company and the ATF, Daniel agreed to stop by her office on the way to her company Christmas party to look up the serial number herself.
The number led to a distributor, who in turn said he had shipped the pistol to Guns Unlimited. By eleven o'clock that evening Rowley, another agent, and Adams were at Curtis Williams's door.
As noted, Williams went to jail. As far as federal law was concerned, however, Guns Unlimited did nothing wrong when it sold the Cobray to Williams, even under such obviously suspicious circumstances. Williams had shown the appropriate identification and had filled out Form 4473 properly, dutifully writing "no" after every background question on the form.
No one thought to investigate Guns Unlimited, not even after the suit for negligence yielded a judgment against the company.
"We're always looking for, and sensitive to, violations of federal law, regardless of who may be the individual or entity involved," Rowley told me. "In this case, no, we did not go back and reinvestigate. Nothing that came up during the investigation of Williams pointed to wrongdoing on the part of Guns Unlimited."
hen Nicholas Elliot arrived at the Atlantic Shores Christian School that cold December morning, he came prepared for a fire fight. The most striking thing about his cargo, however, was not the inherent firepower, which was indeed prodigious, but rather the weapons savvy evident in what he had done to the gun and its ammunition to make them even more efficient at killing.
Nicholas loved guns. "The only friend I had was my gun," the boy told Detective Adams as he was led from school after the shootings, "and you already took that from me."
He read books and magazines about guns. He papered the interior of his school locker with glossy photographs of big-bore revolvers and pistols, the kind that dominate the pages of such magazines as American Handgunner and Guns and Ammo. His love of guns was common knowledge among the other students at Atlantic Shores, and it served to increase his alienation from his peers. In conversation, according to a fellow student, Nicholas had a passion for discussing "which bullets had more firepower." His classmates worried about Nicholas. One told a Norfolk newspaper, "All the kids said he was going to shoot someone."
Nicholas carried his Cobray M-11/19 to school in his backpack, along with an array of accessories and extra ammunition. From a length of rope he had fashioned a combat sling similar in concept to slings that anti-terrorist commandos use with the compact Heckler and Koch submachine gun to help control the weapon during combat. He carried a crude silencer made from a pipe wrapped in fabric, and a "brass catcher" he had made from cloth and tape, to be attached to his gun to catch ejected cartridge cases. "A gun enthusiast might use a brass catcher to catch the brass for reloading," Adams told me. "A murderer or a person about to commit a crime might use one to collect the evidence."
Nicholas also brought six 32-round magazines, each long and thin and made of gray plastic, giving him a total of 192 bullets ready to fire. He had "jungle-clipped" the magazines -- that is, he had taped them together in pairs so that the instant he expended one magazine he could yank it out, flip the assembly, and ram in the fresh end.
Nicholas came prepared for the possibility that he might use up the 192 rounds stacked in the six magazines. He carried hundreds of extra cartridges, including several boxes containing thirty-two rounds each- exactly enough to refill an expended clip. To speed the process of refilling, Nicholas had inserted a thin but strong piece of white string through the base of each magazine. When tugged, Adams told me, the string would pull down the spring-driven feeder inside the magazine, thus easing the resistance. "He could hold the string down by clamping it under his foot," Adams explained. He could then insert each cartridge more quickly and with less strain.
Finally, Nicholas modified even the bullets themselves. He filed a groove into the tip of at least one bullet, apparently in the hopes of turning it into a "dumdum" -- a bullet that breaks apart on impact, thereby in theory becoming considerably more deadly. Nicholas modified other bullets by drilling from the tip downward to form "hollowpoints." On impact, hollowpoint bullets spread into lethal mushrooms that produce bigger holes and more potent neural disruption than solid rounds.
"This guy," Adams says, "was ready for war."
Homicide, or rather the homicide fantasy, is one of the engines that drives America's fascination with guns. Target shooters spend hour after hour firing into human silhouettes. Practical shooting competitions held nationwide test civilian competitors' ability to hit silhouettes after leaping from a car. In this context, models of guns used in grisly crimes actually gain popularity. After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, sales of the otherwise undistinguished Mannlicher-Carcano rifle used by Lee Harvey Oswald soared. Even the murder of schoolchildren can increase sales. After Patrick Edward Purdy opened fire on a school yard in Stockton, California, with an AK-47, sales of the gun and its knock-offs boomed. Prices quadrupled, to $1,500. Guns Unlimited felt the surge in demand. "I didn't sell an AK until Stockton in California; then everybody wanted one," James Dick said in a deposition.
This passion for lethality suffuses the gun and ammunition design process. Manufacturers routinely test their prototypes by blasting away at blocks of goo -- "ordnance gelatin" -- intended specifically to simulate human tissue. Their enthusiasm for gore can lead to some vivid advertising. In the March/April, 1992, issue of American Handgunner, the Eldorado Cartridge Corporation ran a full-page ad for its Starfire cartridge under the bold headline "IF LOOKS COULD KILL." The ad called the Starfire the "deadliest handgun cartridge ever developed for home or personal defense, and hunting," and went on to describe how the bullet expands on impact, "resulting in a massive wound channel." Its deep penetration, the ad crowed, "helps assure fast knockdown."
On a recent visit to a gun show at the county fairground in Frederick, Maryland, I stood beside a man and his young son who, like me, were intently watching a promotional video produced by Power-Plus, a maker of exotic ammunition. The narrator, dressed in a dark T-shirt and speaking in that laconic back-country drawl that characterizes today's notion of toughness, demonstrated his company's rounds by firing a sample of each into a fresh block of yellowish gelatin, with the camera then moving close to offer a side view of the depth of penetration and the jagged wound channel coursing through the translucent plasma. Each round did more damage than the last, until the narrator fired a sample of the company's Annihilator high-explosive cartridge, which slammed into the gelatin, exploded, and knocked the quivering block from its stand.
He did not stop here, however. Next he demonstrated the effects of the company's bullets on a pail packed with clay. This time those of us watching were treated to the additional audio enticement of the wet slapping sound of the clay as the bullets entered, fragmented, and ruptured the surrounding muck, gouging caverns the size of pumpkins.
"Still watching, son?" the father asked softly, his hands resting on his son's shoulders.
His son, clearly entranced, nodded slowly.
A few men walked the aisles wearing little signs on their backs listing the guns they owned and wanted to sell. Another man had stuck a "For Sale" sign in the barrel of the rifle slung over his shoulder. Seated behind battered folding tables, dealers sold guns, books, accessories, and ammunition. Several dealers sold books on how to kill and, for those who knew how already, how to do it more effectively -- including books on how to make silencers, military manuals on how to make booby traps, Army manuals on how to make "improvised munitions," and a nifty little tome, courtesy of the Pentagon, on how to polish up your sniper skills.
Gun writers, too, help orchestrate the mood that so infuses the gun culture. They know what their readers want. The newsletter Gun Tests routinely rates the penetration power of handguns and ammunition the way Consumer Reports rates new cars. American Handgunner's 1992 "Combat Annual" reviews six high-caliber revolvers, calling them "The Ultimate Manstoppers!" Regular issues of the magazine are full of tales of combat tactics and police shoot-outs, part of a running series by Massad Ayoob, the magazine's star reporter. "Gory True Story," the cover of the October, 1991, issue announced. "REAL-LIFE TERMINATOR! Soaking up bullet after bullet, a cop-killing PCP freak just won't die! Massad Ayoob's chilling account on page 70."
Gun writers often skirt the gory reality of gunplay by deftly avoiding such words as "kill," "murder," and "death," using instead "knockdown," "stopping power," and -- my favorite -- "double-tap," meaning to shoot a man twice. (Double Tap also happens to be the name of a Virginia Beach gun store, whose sign features a black silhouette with two red holes over the heart.)
To the gun writers, no firearm is unworthy of praise, not even the Saturday-night specials made by the now defunct RG Industries, one of which was used by John Hinckley to shoot President Ronald Reagan and permanently disable James Brady, his press secretary. In its most recent Combat Annual, American Handgunner includes a defense of RG's guns written by Mark Moritz, the special-projects editor. Moritz tested a .22 caliber RG revolver against an expensive Smith & Wesson .22, comparing their performance on both head and body shots. The RG was a little slower.
However, Moritz writes, "even out of the box we are only talking about two tenths of a second for multiple head shots at the relatively long range of seven yards."
Moritz won't win any awards for sensitivity in journalism. Early on in the article he denounces the "slime-bucket" lawyers who sued RG Industries and put them out of business after the Reagan-Brady shootings. He continues:
When John Hinckley shot James Brady, with an RG .22 revolver, his wife Sarah, head spokesnut at Handgun Control, Inc., sued RG. She was offended that her husband was shot with a cheap, low-powered gun. I guess she wanted him to be shot with an expensive, high powered gun.The Cobray M-11/9, Nicholas Elliot's gun, gets its share of praise. The Gun Digest Book of Assault Weapons includes a chapter on the pistol and its heritage. The author describes it as "a plinker's delight and the bane of all tin cans, milk jugs, clay pigeons, and other inanimate objects." He sees its primary practical value as being home defense. "Appearance alone should cause most burglars and intruders to consider instant surrender if brought before its muzzle."
America's entertainment media provide the last ingredients in the perverse and lethal roux that keeps the body count climbing even as the domestic arms industry shrinks. Just as McQ promoted the Ingram, Dirty Harry promoted the Smith & Wesson Model 29 and Miami Vice such assault weapons as the Uzi, Bren 10, and members of the Ingram family. Park Dietz, a California forensic psychiatrist, studied the effect of Miami Vice on gun prices and demand, and found that the appearance of the Bren 10 in the hands of Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) in early episodes of the show immediately boosted demand for the weapon. Dietz told the Cox Newspapers that Miami Vice "was the major determinant of assault-gun fashion for the 1980s."
Our movies and TV shows do far more damage than simply enhancing the appeal of exotic weapons, however. They teach a uniquely American lesson: When a real man has a problem, he gets his gun. He slaps in a clip, he squints grimly into the hot noon sun, and then he does what he's gotta do.
This is the lesson that Nicholas Elliot absorbed: When all else fails, maybe a gun can solve your problem. And Nicholas had a problem or thought he did. He believed that some of the teachers at Atlantic Shores didn't like him. His fellow students, one in particular, picked on him, occasionally shoving and hitting him and taunting him with racial slurs. One week before the shooting his main tormentor, a boy I'll call Billy Cutter, had called him a "nigger."
"It's just people picking on me," Nicholas told Donald Adams, when Adams questioned him just after the shootings. "That's all it is. If God would have just stopped them -- if I was nice enough and He would have made it so they were nice to me and didn't hit me, everything would be fine. That's as simple as it is, or He could have just made them keep their hands to theirselves. That's very simple."
Nicholas claimed that his classmates teased him about his love of guns. "They were always making fun of me. They always said stuff, 'You know so much about guns. You never even shot a gun in your life."'
That Friday morning he set out to prove a few things to Billy and the other kids. "I wasn't angry," he told Adams. "I was just trying to find [Billy] -- I wanted to scare him, to make him see how much of a wimp he was in front of everyone."
icholas awoke the morning of December 16 feeling sick, but for no particular reason. "I didn't feel like going to school," he told Adams, but I knew I would get in trouble if I didn't, so I went....I was just so sick." He packed his backpack and caught his usual bus.
The Atlantic Shores Christian School is run by the Atlantic Shores Baptist Church, whose 3,500-member congregation makes it the third largest church in the Hampton Roads area, where churches are about as ubiquitous as the U.S. Navy. The school, which consists of both permanent and portable classrooms arrayed around a courtyard, has an enrollment of some 500 students, only twenty-three of whom were black when Nicholas was a student there.
Nicholas attended his first classes as usual. On his way to Bible class he encountered Billy Cutter, his nemesis and, according to some informants, his part-time friend. Nicholas, by his own account, had hoped to come across Billy. And Billy, true to form, again called him a name. Nicholas went into a bathroom and took his Cobray from his backpack. He left both there, however, and exited the room. His account gets vague at this point. He wandered to the band room and at one point helped a man named Mike Lucky move a box.
Nicholas soon appeared at a trailer occupied by two teachers, Sam Marino and Susan Allen. He told Marino that he had come to take an oral French test, but Marino asked him to return later. He did return, almost immediately. During his absence he retrieved his gun and one of his six 32-round clips.
Forensic investigators later test-fired Nicholas's gun repeatedly, inserting each of his clips. Of the six, this one alone proved faulty. It misfed rounds to the gun, but only to a point about halfway down the magazine, the fifteen-round point, where it began feeding bullets correctly. Before he was stopped that morning, Nicholas fired fifteen rounds.
Marino had his back to Nicholas when the boy announced, "I have this really neat toy I want to show you."
Nicholas fired once through a window.
Marino, shocked at the roar behind him, turned. His first thought was that the gun was indeed only a toy, and he told Nicholas to hand it over. But Nicholas coolly took aim. The teacher raised a French textbook as a shield. (Adams told me that victims of gunplay hold up articles of all kinds in their last moments, in the magical belief that even a sheet of paper might save them.) Nicholas fired again, the shot blowing through the textbook as if it were made of foam, though it didn't hit Marino.
He fired a third time. This bullet ripped into Marino's shoulder.
Susan Allen bolted past Nicholas and down the trailer steps, with Nicholas following. She had the good sense to run serpentine fashion, like a character in a Grade B war movie, as Nicholas fired shot after shot at her back, sweeping the courtyard with a back-and-forth motion, stopping his pursuit now and then to clear a jammed cartridge. The sound was deafening, for both Allen and Nicholas. Her ears rang. His hurt.
She reached the end of the courtyard. With nowhere else to go, she made a sharp turn around the end of a trailer. Something struck her with shocking force and she fell to the ground. She had sprinted face-first into a utility shed. Breathless and petrified, she wriggled under the trailer. "It was not the smartest thing to do, if you think about it," Adams told me.
But two things distracted Nicholas. A loud thumping noise nearby, and Marino, who had risen and was clinging now to the doorjamb of his trailer.
"All of a sudden, there he was again," Marino recalled. Nicholas aimed a bit lower this time. The "gun that made the 80s roar" roared again. There was an elliptical flare. The bullet penetrated Marino's abdomen and catapulted him backward into the room.
The thumping got louder. Nicholas knew the noise -- he had heard it before during a class, when kids in a trailer across the courtyard had been playing a game to see who could stamp hardest on the floor of the trailer.
In this case, however, the thumping was the sound made as terrified students scrambled to the rear of the trailer. On any other Friday, Nicholas would have been in that trailer, attending the Bible class taught by H. Maurice Matteson, "Hutch," the church's youth pastor.
Nicholas climbed the steps and tried the door, but someone inside had locked it. "I don't know how I got in," Nicholas told Adams. "I did not shoot the door. I did not shoot the door or the knob itself. I shot the glass in the door. I don't know how I got it open....when I shot the glass, I guess it shaked the door and got it open."
Once inside, he spotted Billy Cutter. "I know I said his name," Nicholas said. "I don't remember exactly what I said about him, because I was mad."
Others, however, do recall: "Billy Cutter," Nicholas said, "this is for you. I'm going to kill you."
Nicholas leveled the gun at Billy as three dozen other kids huddled at the far end of the trailer, weeping and praying.
Nicholas pulled the trigger.
The gun jammed. The magazine apparently had misfed another round.
He struggled to clear the jam, succeeded, and raised the gun again, just as Hutch Matteson charged.
Nicholas fired one last round. It blew harmlessly past Matteson's head.
Matteson tackled him, forcing him to the floor. "What in the world would make you want to do something like this?" Matteson screamed.
"They hate me," Nicholas said.
Police and medical help arrived soon afterward. An ambulance took Marino to the hospital. George Sweet, the senior pastor of the Atlantic Shores Baptist Church, followed to be with Marino, who, for good reason, was convinced he was going to die.
At school the faculty gathered everyone together in the church auditorium for a head count. Many students, among them Will and Lora Farley, still didn't know what had happened. "I was, like, wondering where my mom was," Lora recalled, before a dead-quiet courtroom. Her mother was Karen Farley, a teacher. "We weren't really concerned or anything, but when I first entered the auditorium, this girl said to me -- me and my friends were laughing and stuff because we didn't really think anything was going on -- and this girl said to me, 'Someone has been shot,' and it wasn't my mom. It was another teacher, and I was like -- I couldn't understand. I was like, Somebody has been shot at school?'
"We prayed and stuff that everything would be all right, and then we just, like, left it up to the Lord. We just sat there really being quiet and stuff. I asked Will -- I said, 'Have you seen Mom?'
"And he said, 'No.'"
One teacher told her that her mother was tending to the wounded teacher; another said that she was comforting a teacher who'd been chased. "I was like, 'Well, that sounds right too. I can see her doing both of them, but I don't know how she could do it at the same time.'"
A teacher asked Will and Lora to come out into the hall. "And one of my teachers was standing there and she was staring off down the -- like out into where all the trailers were. She like gave me a hug and then they said, 'Take them back in the auditorium.'
"So we went back in the auditorium, and then about ten or twenty minutes later, they came and got us and they took us into Pastor Sweet's office, and my pastor was there, and they never said that, you know, your mom has been shot or your mom is dead. They just -- my pastor was crying, and then, I mean, we just sort of knew what had happened."
One of Sweet's colleagues had reached Sweet at the hospital. "George," he said, "you need to get back here right away."
"Why?" Sweet asked.
"They found Karen Farley, and she's dead."
Bill Farley, Karen's husband, learned of her death about one o'clock that afternoon, from his own pastor and a policewoman.
The police had not found Karen Farley until ninety minutes after the shootings, after the head count showed her missing. They discovered her body in a locked trailer; she was still wearing her winter coat. The first bullet struck her forearm before entering her torso, suggesting to investigators that she had raised her hand either to ask for the gun or to plead for her life, or perhaps merely in another of those magical efforts to defend against the bullet. Nicholas stood over her and shot her again, firing downward -- "execution-style," as the press delighted in saying. It was then, apparently, that he moved on to Sam Marino's trailer.
The next night Lora and a friend picked out what Lora's mother would wear for her funeral. They also wrapped Christmas presents that Karen Farley had hidden in a closet. Months later Lora and Will would find another cache of presents hidden away. Nicholas pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
The more Bill Farley learned about the gun Nicholas had used and how he had acquired it, the more angry he became. Farley keeps a handgun for home defense; even Karen Farley practiced with it. But, Farley says, the Cobray is different. "There's just no reason for those kinds of weapons to be sold in the United States," he told me one recent evening. "If you need something like that to protect your home, you better move."
He filed a negligence and product-liability suit against Guns Unlimited and S. W. Daniel, Inc. -- one of a growing number of such suits being brought in courthouses around the country, including one filed by the family of the actress Rebecca Schaeffer, the murdered co-star of My Sister Sam, against the dealer who sold the murder weapon. The jury ordered Guns Unlimited to pay Bill Farley and his children $105,000. "I guess what I really wanted to do was get the attention of the gun shop, and say, Hey, you all did something wrong," Farley told me. "Just because ATF didn't do anything to you doesn't mean a thing. You shouldn't have done it."
Long before the trial, the Virginia court cut S. W. Daniel free of the case. Judge John K. Moore argued that reigning legal theories concerning negligence and product liability dictate that the "plaintiff must first show 'goods were unreasonably dangerous for [the] use to which they would ordinarily be put or for some other reasonably foreseeable purpose.'" Farley, he wrote, hadn't made any allegation that the gun was defective.
Even if he had, his argument might have failed. "Unfortunately," Judge Moore wrote, "the weapon worked."
At the time of the shootings, business was brisk for James Dick and Guns Unlimited -- so brisk that within a year Dick expanded the Guns Unlimited empire and added his third store. One must be cool indeed to be a gun dealer. The site Dick chose was a small shopping plaza on Kempsville Road in Virginia Beach. The Atlantic Shores Christian School was across the street.
Copyright © 1993 by Erik Larson. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1993; Not to be reproduced in any form without permission of the author. He can be contacted c/o The Atlantic Monthly. The Story of a Gun; Volume 271, No. 1; pages 48-78.