On December 15, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James urged federal regulators to help shine a light on potentially momentous question regarding the gun industry: how much companies know about the use of their products by criminals.

In a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission, James notes that Smith & Wesson’s products routinely show up at crime scenes and have been the weapon used by a host of high profile shooters, including the killers in Umpqua Community College, Fort Hood, Aurora, and most recently, San Bernardino. As a publically traded company, she argues, investors have a right to know how many Smith & Wesson firearms are used illegally, and whether the company has practices in place to limit the flow of its products into the black market. James positions her missive as protection for Smith & Wesson’s shareholders, who are entitled to know how much the company is potentially exposing itself to costly litigation or regulatory action.

It’s not clear what effect James’s effort will ultimately have on Smith & Wesson’s disclosures. But a pair of old documents assert that at least some gun company bosses have known more than they let on about the nefarious use of their products. The whistleblowers behind the revelations went so far to allege that the sales practices of some gun sellers have sustained the black market.

In a 1994 op-ed published in The Alliance Voice, the internal publication for the now-defunct National Alliance of Stocking Gun Dealers (NASGD), Bill Bridgewater, an executive with the trade group, called gun sellers to task for turning a blind eye to the volume of guns passing into the wrong hands. Using his article to argue that feeding the black market taints the name of the entire gun industry, he urged fellow industry leaders to rein in the problem, lest it trigger sweeping government intervention.

Let us quit pretending that we don’t realize that a majority of the gun shows in this country are black market outlets to the criminal trade. Let us quit pretending that we don’t know that a big chunk of the “FFL-Holders” have the licenses in their pocket as nothing more than access to firearms at quantities and prices that will allow them to be successful in the firearms black market.

I suggest to you that we are and have been a part of the problem … If we don’t separate ourselves from those who do divert firearms into the black market, we will be shut down in their name.

These “licensees” who engage in the black market are perceived as no different than you and me by the general public, and certainly by law enforcement and the media. That is our fault for sitting quietly and saying nothing, knowing full well that there are felons hidden among us.

You may continue to help shield these folks who operate this firearms black market among us and you will surely go down the drain with them whenever the public gets tired of every snot-nosed 13-year old poking a gun in its face and demands draconian action.

Bridgewater’s editorial surfaced in an affidavit written by a gun industry whistleblower named Robert Ricker in a 2003 case against gun manufacturers. The information provided by Ricker, a former National Rifle Association (NRA) lawyer and executive of the American Shooting Sports Council, bolstered the cases of several cities who had taken gun manufacturers to court for creating a public nuisance by arming criminals. He alleged that manufacturers maintained a distribution system that encouraged retailers to sell guns to the black market. “Lawful and conscientious dealers are at a distinct economic disadvantage under the current system,” he writes. Like Bridgewater, Ricker thought it was only a matter of time before the government closed in on the gun industry in an attempt to curb crime.

But Ricker and Bridgewater’s fears never came to fruition. Instead, the gun industry was granted more protections when Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act in 2005, which bars lawsuits like the one Ricker’s affidavit was a part of. That suit was dismissed from court in 2005 in favor of the gun companies.

In an article in one of its own internal publications, the NRA called the PLCAA “the most significant piece of pro-gun legislation in twenty years.” It’s easy to see why it would view the law as a huge win for the gun companies that provide tens of millions of dollars to the NRA every year. Without legal actions against the industry — and the discovery process that came with them — disclosures like those made by Ricker came to a halt, effectively closing the books on the gun industry’s internal workings.

The full affidavit including Bridgewater’s editorial and Ricker’s further allegations can be read here:

[Photo: AP Photo/Tampa Tribune, Stephen McKnight]