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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

by Erik Larson

The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.

On December 16, 1988, Nicholas Elliot, barely sixteen, walked into the Atlantic Shores Christian School, in Virginia Beach, Virginia, with a semi-automatic handgun hidden in his backpack. By midmorning a forty-one year-old teacher had been shot dead, and another teacher, struck by two nine-millimeter bullets, was extraordinarily lucky to be alive. Two other teachers narrowly escaped Nicholas Elliot's bullets. One found herself running a zigzag pattern through the school yard as Nicholas fired round after round at her back. The other, a man who tackled Nicholas and in the process saved the lives of a roomful of crying and praying teenagers, felt a bullet breeze past his head.

In a nation accustomed to multiple murders, the shootings received little out-of-state coverage. But the story of how Nicholas wound up firing away on the grounds of a peaceful suburban school says a great deal about America's gun crisis. Nicholas in effect carried with him the good wishes of a gun culture whose institutions and mores have helped make commonplace in America the things he did that morning.
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A none-of-my-business attitude permeates the firearms distribution chain from production to final sale, allowing gunmakers and gun marketers to promote the killing power of their weapons while disavowing any responsibility for their use in crime. Nicholas carried a gun that should never by any reasonable standard have been a mass-market product. He acquired the gun from a federally licensed dealer, using a means that puts thousands of guns into the hands of illegal users each year, yet that existing federal gun-trade regulations do much to encourage. His story describes a de facto conspiracy of gun dealers, manufacturers, marketers, writers, and federal regulators which makes guns -- ever more powerful guns, and laser sights, silencer-ready barrels, folding stocks, exploding bullets, and flame-thrower shotgun rounds -- all too easy to come by and virtually assures their eventual use in the bedrooms, alleys, and school yards of America.

I am not opposed to guns per se, not even handguns, provided that the owners acknowledge the responsibility conferred by ownership. When I see rural road signs perforated with large-diameter holes, I realize that this responsibility is not universally acknowledged. I routinely ask the parents of my daughters' playmates if they own guns and, if so, how they store them. If they store them loaded, even in a locked cabinet, my children do not play at their homes. I can appreciate the lethal appeal of weapons and the fine craftsmanship evident in such premium handguns as the Colt Python and, yes, the Smith & Wesson Model 29 used by Dirty Harry. When I go to gun shows, as I do in my new capacity as a federally licensed firearms dealer, I am drawn, as are most of the browsers around me, to the guns spread so invitingly across the exhibitors' tables -- especially the notorious weapons, the AK-47s, Mac-lls, and pistol-grip Mossbergs. I recognize, too, that membership in America's gun culture occurs along a continuum, from collectors who buy non-firing replicas to inner-city gunslingers willing to kill for a fancy jacket.

In writing this article I deliberately avoided including the predictably angry voices of traditional pro- and anti-gun forces, such as the National Rifle Association and the Violence Policy Center, in Washington, D.C., which occupy opposing poles in the debate. Where my views run counter to those of the NRA is in my belief that people should be allowed to acquire guns only after going through procedures at least as rigorous as those involved in getting a driver's license. As the laws are now written, a blind man can buy a gun.

America is currently in the midst of a gun crisis that can no longer be considered just a manifestation of the pioneer spirit; instead, it has become a costly global embarrassment. That a crisis does exist should be well beyond dispute by now, given the bleak statistics on gunshot death and damage -- yet these statistics, capable of kindling outrage in a stone, have failed to impress America's gun industry and the gun culture that supports it.

Over the past two years firearms have killed 60,000 Americans, more than the number of U.S. soldiers killed in the Vietnam War. Handguns account for 22,000 deaths a year. In 1991, well before the Los Angeles riots, the guns of Los Angeles County alone killed or wounded 8,050 -- thirteen times the number of U.S. casualties in the Persian Gulf War, according to a survey by the Los Angeles Times. Handguns terrorize far more people than they kill: Department of Justice statistics show that every twenty-four hours handgun-wielding assailants rape thirty-three women, rob 575 people, and assault another 1,116.

A relatively new phenomenon, originating in the 1980s, is the appearance of young children on the list of urban gunshot casualties. In 1987 a team of researchers from the UCLA School of Medicine and King/Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles found that King/Drew hadn't admitted a single child under ten for gunshot wounds before 1980. From 1980 to 1987 the center admitted thirty-four. The study, published in the American Journal of Diseases of Children, included a macabre table of wounds and complications which hinted at the true horror of gunshot injuries -- a horror spared us in daily news coverage, which devotes little space to the merely wounded. A five-year-old lost a hand. A three-year-old, shot in the rectum, endured a colostomy. Other children on the list lost fingers, eyes, and brain tissue; at least one -- an eight-year-old girl -- was consigned to an institution for the rest of her life. These children were shot by grandfathers, cousins, friends, robbers, snipers, and -- in a particularly cruel twist -- by gang members seeking only to exact revenge on an elder sibling.

Despite the carnage, guns continue to proliferate. The nation began arming itself in earnest in the roaring sixties, amid race riots and assassinations. From 1967 to 1968, the two most tumultuous years, the number of handguns made available for sale to civilians in the United States rose by 50 percent -- some 802,000 pistols and revolvers -- to 2.4 million, the greatest single annual leap in American history. As of 1989 there were 66.7 million handguns (and 200 million firearms of all kinds) in circulation in the United States.

If these guns were controlled by a legion of sober adults, we'd have far less to worry about. One study of 11,000 teenagers in ten states found that 41 percent of the boys and 21 percent of the girls said they could obtain a handgun whenever they wished. A University of North Carolina study of adolescents in suburban and rural communities in the Southeast found that nine percent of the boys actually owned a handgun, despite federal laws prohibiting anyone under twenty-one from buying one. Boys typically received their first firearm -- usually a shotgun or a rifle, but seven percent of the time a handgun -- at the age of twelve and a half, but more than a fifth of this juvenile militia received their first guns around the age of ten.

Increasingly, you don't need to own a gun or be the intended target of someone else's gun to get shot. As guns have proliferated, the rate at which bystanders are wounded and killed has soared. In 1985 stray bullets killed four New Yorkers; in 1990 they killed forty.

Gun merchants and hobbyists steadfastly protest that guns aren't the problem and that even if they were, gun ownership is explicitly endorsed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution -- the much cited right-to bear-arms clause -- and is therefore as much a part of the American way as, say, voting. A comparison of international homicide statistics proves that guns do indeed set America apart from the rest of the developed world.

In 1987 America's civilian guns were used to murder 3,187 young men aged fifteen to twenty-four, accounting for three fourths of the annual homicide rate of 21.9 per 100,000 people.

In Canada only seventeen young men were murdered with firearms, for an overall rate of 2.9 per 100,000.

In Japan, with 0.5 homicides per 100,000 people, gunshot homicides totaled eight -- as many as New York City police officers encounter on a single robust weekend.

Mounting evidence suggests that the mere presence of a gun can lead to injury or death. An especially damning kind of data is just now becoming available and is certain to make its way into some of the growing number of lawsuits that seek to make the gun industry accountable for firearms injuries and deaths. In 1989, rather late in the computer revolution, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) was finally able to say which gun manufacturers turned up most often in trace requests. The company whose handguns were traced most often from January of 1990 to December of 1991 was the giant Smith & Wesson.

However, when the frequency of traces is considered in proportion to each company's production, a tiny Atlanta company, S. W. Daniel, Inc., shows a tracing rate far higher. By 1989 S. W. Daniel had produced some 60,500 handguns and an untold number of accessories, including silencers and machine-gun kits. Among the guns it produced was Nicholas Elliot's weapon, the Cobray M-l1/9, which it fondly advertised as "The gun that made the 80s roar."

Condemned by the police, reviled even by those who sell it, the gun has been remarkably controversial ever since its creation as a cheap, reliable submachine gun meant specifically for close military combat. How that gun went on to become a readily available consumer product -- something S. W. Daniel once even gave away free in a monthly contest -- provides a clear example of the culture of nonresponsibility prevailing in America's firearms industry; it is but one example of how this commercial ethos governed the gun's progress from conception to its use as a murder weapon in a Virginia Beach classroom.

"The reality that bothers me is there is no self-control, no self-policing, in the gun industry itself," says Colonel Leonard Supenski, of the Baltimore County Police Department, a nationally recognized firearms expert who early last year testified in a pathbreaking liability suit stemming from Nicholas Elliot's rampage. "The premise seems to be that if they've got the right to do something, then that's the right thing to do."


The Baltimore county police shooting range occupies a wooded compound just north of Towson, Maryland, where the six-lane strip roads of Baltimore taper to rolling two-lane highways. When I visited there recently, I heard firing the moment I stepped from my car -- a sound something like what you'd get if you put a stethoscope beside a cooking package of microwave popcorn. The range was carved from a hillock, leaving a plane half the size of a football field bordered on one end by an earthen cliff that keeps stray rounds from bounding north into Baltimore County horse country. Supenski arrived carrying a gray attache case, and led me onto the range.

Supenski is a big fan of guns and shooting. "I grew up in the era of the B westerns," he told me. "Loved them, still love them. My single most prized possession is an original Colt single-action 'cowboy' gun. Nickel-plated, hand-engraved, ivory stock."

But he also believes in more-stringent controls to force a heightened level of responsibility in the sale and use of firearms. This has not won him many friends among the gunslingers of America. One pro-gun group twice threatened to kill him, prompting a mischievous female assistant to don a bulletproof vest one afternoon before joining him for lunch. His is a pragmatic stance. He worries that irresponsible behavior by gun dealers, manufacturers, and the NRA may soon lead to controls far more restrictive than the simple regulations now sought by proponents of moderate gun control.

He considers the Cobray pistol made by S. W. Daniel, and the means by which Nicholas Elliot came to own it, a case study of irresponsibility in the gun marketplace, and testified to that effect in the liability suit. The Cobray pistol, he argues, serves no useful purpose -- certainly none of the purposes traditionally cited by the gun camp when opposing new controls. It's not a hunting gun: most states limit magazine capacity for hunting to three to five rounds, and the Cobray carries thirty-two. Moreover, most states require that hunters use a far higher caliber. The gun would never satisfy a target shooter: it is heavy, clumsy, and prone to rock up and down when fired, and its two-inch barrel makes it painfully inaccurate. Nor is it desirable for self-defense. "About the only thing you can do with it," Supenski says, "is hold it someplace in front of you, pull the trigger as fast as you can, put as many bullets out as you can, and hope like hell they'll hit something. Now, that may be nice on a battlefield. It isn't so nice in an urban environment, where that bullet may go through your bedroom into your child's bedroom or into your neighbor's bedroom, or may go outside and kill a passerby."

Supenski opened his attache case. Inside, against a thick layer of foam, was a Cobray pistol confiscated during an arrest, and a slender gray magazine packed with brass nine-millimeter cartridges.

I picked the gun up. It was a dull black, with none of the gleaming machined beauty of more expensive weapons. To picture it, imagine a black steel ingot with a pistol grip jutting from the center of its bottom face- not the rear, as in most pistols -- and a stubby barrel protruding from the front.

It was undeniably if darkly appealing in its lethality. It was heavy, about the weight of a newborn baby, and it was cold. Its grip had none of the close-fitting contours of more costly guns, like the Smith & Wesson nine millimeter that Supenski himself carried.

I held the Cobray out in front of me with one hand and tried to line up the sights. My wrist sagged under its weight. It looked evil, a Darth Vader among guns.

Its reputation matches the look. A 1989 study by the Cox Newspapers found that the pistol ranked fourth among assault guns most often traced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. A study of all guns confiscated in Detroit from January of 1989 through April of 1990 put the Cobray first among assault guns, fifth among all models -- higher in the rankings than guns made by Beretta, whose production dwarfs that of the entire S. W. Daniel company. The head of the ATF's Atlanta office estimates that his agents conduct twenty to thirty traces involving S. W. Daniel guns each month.

The Cobray and its ancestors became the favorites of drug gangs nationwide in the 1980s. A variant on it was used by the Order, a neo-Nazi group, to kill the Denver talk-show host Alan Berg. Joseph T. Wesbecker, the man who walked into a Louisville, Kentucky, printing plant in 1989 and murdered eight people with an AK-47, had packed two Cobrays in the gym bag he carried with him to the plant.

In February of 1990 the gun came up for review by Maryland's Handgun Roster Board, a body created by legislation whose purpose is to restrict the sale of "Saturday-night specials." Cornelius J. Behan, the chief of the Baltimore County police and a member of the board, found himself forced by the law's strict guidelines to vote to approve the gun for sale in Maryland, but he told the board, "It's a terrible killing instrument."

The gun's direct lineage begins in the 1960s, when Gordon Ingram, an engineer and gunsmith, set out to design a submachine gun specifically for use by Latin American guerrillas. One of Ingram's friends, a Peruvian emigre hard at work illegally making submachine guns for anti-Castro exiles training in Costa Rica, told Ingram, in the words of Thomas Nelson, a respected machine-gun historian, that what his guerrilla clients most wanted in a combat weapon was "small size, to facilitate concealment; sound suppression, to deter detection; and low cost."

A note here on terminology: A machine gun fires rifle-caliber bullets; a submachine gun fires pistol-calibers. Both are fully automatic, or "full auto," weapons, meaning that they continue to fire for as long as you pull the trigger. A semi-automatic fires one round per pull. That the term "automatic" is sometimes applied to a pistol like the Colt Army .45 confuses the issue. In this usage it is short for "automatic reloading," which means the gun uses the explosive force of each cartridge to load and cock itself after each shot. Such pistols are in fact semi-automatics.

Ingram succeeded in developing a combat weapon, his M-10, with an astonishing rate of fire of more than 1,000 rounds per minute, or sixteen per second -- too fast to control, according to technical experts at the ATF, and thus of little value for anything but mow-'em-down military use. Ingram and a partner, Mitchell L. WerBell III, a soldier of fortune who founded a paramilitary training camp outside Atlanta, formed a new company, Military Armament Corporation, to bring the gun to market. They developed plans to build two models of Ingram's gun: for military markets, the full-auto submachine gun, whose sales would be tightly controlled by the National Firearms Act, which requires that anyone wishing to buy a machine gun first submit to an extensive background check; and for consumers, a semi-automatic version.

The gun's formal name became the MAC-10, although gun aficionados would soon come to know it simply as "the Ingram." It attracted minimal interest from the U.S. military, but its speed and evil good looks captured the imagination of Hollywood. In 1974, in the movie McQ, John Wayne himself gave the company a welcome burst of publicity, in the process turning the gun from an obscure novelty into a weapon coveted by gangs and drug rings across the nation. Big Lon McQ, a Seattle police detective played by Wayne, visits the shop of a gun dealer he knows and is invited to "squeeze off a burst" with a brand-new weapon. With obvious reverence the dealer calls it "the Ingram."

McQ blasts away, rupturing a trash can filled with water. The camera cuts to McQ's face, his expression one of bemused awe. McQ looks down at the gun. He looks back at the pail.

"How about that?" the dealer says. "Those thirty-two slugs came out in a second and a half."

Ruggedly, slowly, McQ says, "Yeah."

"You ever see anything like it?" the dealer asks.

Just in case anyone in the audience had any doubt about where to buy this wondrous weapon, Warner Brothers provided a full-screen credit that read "Special Weapon: Military Armament Corp."

This enthusiastic bit of advertising wasn't enough to save the company, however. It filed for Chapter 11 protection under federal bankruptcy laws in mid-1975, without ever having produced a consumer Ingram. Its guns and other assets were sold at auction, mostly to a group of three investors who had formed another Atlanta company, RPB Industries. They, too, planned to bring Ingram's weapons to full-scale production, but in 1978 sold out to yet another group of investors, this one headed by Wayne Daniel, the son of a Georgia minister.


Under its new managers RPB had more success selling the Ingram line to foreign governments, but domestically it faced a set of daunting business obstacles. One partner was convicted of bribing a prosecutor to drop a customer's drug charge. Two others, Robert Morgan and Jack Leibolt, were involved in the narcotics-smuggling operations of Pablo Escobar-Gaviria and the Medellin cartel. In 1980 Morgan was sentenced to thirty years in prison for smuggling two tons of marijuana into Florida. Leibolt, according to a sweeping 1989 indictment of Escobar, once piloted a plane for the cartel and, in September of 1979, supplied the group with six silencer equipped machine guns. (He pled guilty in August of 1990 to conspiracy to import cocaine.)

Despite all this, RPB succeeded in at last transforming the Ingram from a limited-circulation military weapon into a semi-automatic handgun for general use. "It became available everywhere," says Earl Taylor, a twenty one-year veteran of the ATF and now a vice-president of Norred and Associates, an Atlanta security concern that counts among its many assignments the protection of Colonel Oliver North. "All gun shops everywhere were selling it. Everywhere."

The gun proved easy to convert to fully automatic operation -- so easy that even inexperienced gun owners could make the change in a matter of minutes, using only a file. Demand for the gun soared nationwide, and black markets formed as middlemen, including one Georgia policeman, bought large quantities, converted the guns, and resold them to the drug underworld.

In October of 1981 Wayne Daniel married Sylvia Williams, a striking young woman from Alabama. The next month she became a member of RPB's board of directors. She would soon prove to be a feisty, outspoken opponent of the ATF.

Relations between the company and the ATF and other law-enforcement agencies deteriorated throughout 1981 and 1982. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the FBI began an intensive hunt for Jack Leibolt, who, according to minutes of an RPB board meeting, had gone "underground." Citing Leibolt's activities, the ATF threatened to pull RPB's firearms manufacturer's license. Moreover, the agency persuaded a federal judge that the RPB semi-automatic handgun, so easy to convert to fully automatic operation, was a machine gun and should be made subject to the strict registration provisions of the National Firearms Act.

To sever his ties to Leibolt, Wayne Daniel in October of 1982 liquidated the company. An auction house sold its assets for half a million dollars.

A reasonable person might expect that at this point the MAC-10 would have been allowed to disappear from America's arsenal and consigned to Thomas Nelson's history books. But RPB Industries rose quickly from the tomb, this time as S. W. Daniel, Inc., named for Sylvia Williams Daniel. After the ATF's ruling, the Daniels set out in earnest to develop a weapon that could be sold readily to the public. They succeeded -- introducing by 1983 the Cobray M-11/9 -- but nonetheless continued sending prototype after prototype to the ATF's technical branch in Washington, as if probing for holes in the law. Once, for example, they sent a prototype of what they claimed was a single-shot weapon. It was the same weapon that the judge had ruled was a machine gun, but with a plate over the bottom of the grip where the clip would otherwise be inserted. The ATF, however, found that the plate could be removed, and classified this weapon, too, as a machine gun.

The company also sold machine-gun "flats," stamped and notched pieces of steel that could be bent to form the frame, or "lower receiver," of a machine gun. Under federal law a machine-gun receiver is treated as if it were a complete firearm. The flats were legal -- provided that certain holes were left undrilled. The Daniels sold their flats legally. All a consumer had to do to commit an instant felony was to drill out a single hole -- but that was the consumer's problem.

Referring to Wayne Daniel, Earl Taylor says, "He'll come close to the edge of the envelope -- maybe not blatantly doing something illegal, but he's very anxious to test and see how far he can go in the weapons field."

This attitude, Taylor believes, was a marketing posture that made the Daniels' products all the more attractive to gun buyers. Wayne Daniel, he says, "can kind of feel the pulse of this gun culture out there and kind of say things and do things and market things that appeal to those people."

One episode in particular illustrates the lengths to which the company was willing to go. In January of 1983 the Daniels invited two men, Joseph Ledbetter and James Travis Motes, to their home to make the men a proposition. Ledbetter and Motes had installed air-conditioning in the RPB offices and electrical wiring in the S. W. Daniel headquarters. The Daniels suggested that they diversify into the business of making the outer tubes for silencers. S. W. Daniel would make the internal parts. The two companies would advertise in the same gun publications and travel to the same gun shows. By selling only parts, both would stay on the right side of federal law requiring registration of completed silencers. Indeed, no law barred the sale of silencer parts. In the eyes of the law, however, any consumer who merely took delivery of both internal parts and tubes would automatically possess a completed silencer -- a felony if the silencer was unregistered. But again, that was the consumer's worry.

Wayne Daniel went so far as to give Ledbetter and Motes a gauge to guide them in fashioning the tubes, and an advertising layout that S. W. Daniel had used earlier to sell a line of completed registered silencers to approved buyers through Shotgun News, a thick tabloid often referred to as the gun owner's bible.

Ledbetter and Motes founded L&M Guns and began selling their tubes through Shotgun News and at gun shows around the country. The Daniels, meanwhile, began advertising their internal-parts kits and displaying them at the same gun shows. On at least one occasion the two companies found themselves facing each other across an aisle.

The ATF began an investigation after a detective with the Mono County, California, sheriff's office discovered an unregistered silencer during a search. The investigation quickly gained momentum. At one point an ATF special agent, Peter Urrea, posed as the president of the Widow Makers Motorcycle Club and ordered silencer components from L&M Guns. He also said he had a criminal record. The components were sent, no questions asked.

The investigation widened to include machine-gun flats sold by S. W. Daniel and L&M. Urrea continued buying silencer parts and machine-gun kits from S. W. Daniel, L&M, and a third company, La Vista Armaments, of Louisville, Kentucky, and won a warrant to search S. W. Daniel headquarters. On July 19, 1984, ATF agents raided the company, seizing firearms, components, and, most important, customer lists and shipping records.

The ATF used the seized records to launch some 400 individual investigations relating to arms trafficking and illegal possession of restricted weapons. In June of 1985 ATF agents arrested the Daniels and, using an experimental tactic, charged them with conspiracy to sell illegal silencers. (By now the Daniels had divorced, but they had continued to have a close working relationship.) Later, in formal court arguments, they would claim that they were simply trying to fill a valid need for replacement parts for silencers owned by legitimate users.

The ATF's investigators found a rather different story. All in all, from November of 1983 to July of 1984, the government charged, S. W. Daniel had mailed some 6,000 silencer and machine-gun kits. Only four buyers had bothered to register the devices. When the ATF ran the customer lists through the FBI's National Crime Information Center databank, it found that more than fifty customers had prior criminal records or were believed to be involved in drug peddling and other forms of organized crime. Posing as IRA gunrunners, Mexican narcotics smugglers, and assorted ne'er-do-wells, undercover ATF agents were welcomed by international arms traffickers, narcotics smugglers, and assorted ne'er do-wells, among them a New York group that accepted an order for some $15.6 million worth of silencer-equipped machine guns, hand grenades, and rocket-propelled grenades. A confidential ATF report noted that the leaders of the group "were dealing directly with Sylvia and Wayne Daniel...for the purchase of the machine guns and silencer kits." Agents also arrested an Oregon man who had provided machine-gun lower receivers to the Order, the group that had assassinated Alan Berg.

"There are literally thousands of persons now in the United States and probably outside the United States who have a fully operable silencer which is not registered to them and which is possessed unlawfully," Brian C. Leighton, an assistant U.S. attorney assigned to the case, wrote in a pretrial statement. "It was incredibly easy for these people to receive the silencer; they merely had to order the internal-parts kit from SWD and order a tube from one of the many tube distributors -- all of whom advertised in Shotgun News." These were "assassin-type weapons," he said, and posed "a definite danger to the community."

As the case approached the trial phase, however, the government found itself compelled to admit that no law forbade the sale of the silencer components sold by S. W. Daniel. Indeed, federal law expressly excluded silencer parts from ATF regulation. The Daniels pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. They were sentenced to six months' probation and forced to pay $900 in taxes and fines, but because they had escaped felony charges, they were allowed to retain their federal firearms license.

The investigation had not cowed the Daniels. On May 1, 1985, Wayne Daniel placed an ad in Shotgun News headed "Now It's Happening in AMERICA" featuring a large photograph of Hitler and Mussolini. The ad recounted the ATF's raid on S. W. Daniel and listed the names and home cities of the agents involved. "The uniforms of this new 'Gestapo' may not be taylored [sic] and bear the eagle and swastika on the sleeve, rather they choose to wear a business suit or sport jacket and slacks from the racks of a cut rate department store -- but their purpose is the same, they want total control and YOU, as an American citizen, DISARMED!"

The agents named in the ad, among them Earl Taylor, demanded that Daniel retract the advertisement. He refused. In a handwritten letter he said, "I am at a complete loss of words perhaps from bending over laughing."

The agents filed a private libel suit against Wayne Daniel and Snell Publishing, the publisher of Shotgun News. Taylor says, "It was, by God, to let them know that they couldn't do that to law-enforcement officers who were doing their mandated duty."

The court ruled in the agents' favor and ordered Wayne Daniel to pay each agent $1,000 in damages, but found Snell not liable.

Undaunted, the Daniels branched out into other firearms. They introduced a pistol-grip shotgun with a high-capacity drum magazine and a forward grip, resembling a shotgun version of a tommy gun, and called it the Street-Sweeper. "Delivers Twelve Rounds In Less Than Three Seconds!!!!" one ad proclaimed in Shotgun News. The ad continued, "Time for spring cleaning. Why try cleanups with inadequate equipment?? Buy the machine designed to clean thoroughly on the first pass."

The company's latest innovation is the Ladies' Home Companion, apparently intended for use by women to protect themselves and their homes. A variation on the Street-Sweeper, it is just under two feet long, has a twelve-shot revolving drum, and fires a heavy .45-70 "government" cartridge that causes explosive recoil -- yet the gun has only a rear pistol grip and no other handle. Moreover, the trigger requires thirty to forty pounds of pressure. S. W. Daniel advertised the gun as being "ideal for use in confined spaces," yet Don Flohr, a Maryland State Police firearms expert who tests weapons for the roster board, refused to test-fire it for fear of damaging the state's testing range. An official with Maryland's Handgun Roster Board calls it "a sick joke."

I'd have liked to ask the Daniels why they seemed hell-bent on skirting firearms laws, but neither returned the many calls I made recently to their Atlanta headquarters.

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."


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.

The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.

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.

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