In 1999, at the end of a decade in which Gary, Indiana, had endured being labeled as the “murder capital of the nation,” then-Mayor Scott King filed a suit against gun manufacturers he believed were knowingly flooding his city with illegal guns.
King wasn’t the only chief executive to use that strategy. By 2000, more than 30 cities were pursuing a legal avenue they hoped would reduce the gun violence plaguing their communities. Every lawsuit soon faced the same obstacle, however — a 2005 federal law, or equivalent laws at the state level, that made it nearly impossible to hold gun companies liable for gun crime. But how did it get this way?
In this episode of The Gun Machine, we explore how the National Rifle Association helped ensure the firearm industry’s unique legal protections, and what those mean for victims of gun violence.
Alain Stephens: It’s the late 1990s, and in the midwestern city of Gary, Indiana, the police department is about to run a sting.
Scott King: We had an officer who looked a lot younger than he was, looked like a teenager.
Alain Stephens: Scott King is the recently-elected mayor. He’s in his early 40s at the time.
Scott King: We’d have him go in several times with a police woman who posed as, in some case[s], his girlfriend, some case[s] his mom.
Alain Stephens: As a former prosecutor, King has a strong sense of right and wrong. And he says these undercover cops are going to gun stores around town.
Scott King: And it was clear that the officer posing as the teenager was the one interested in buying the gun.
Alain Stephens: He says this one officer in particular is a natural at convincing the clerks that he has crime on his mind.
Scott King: One of the more remarkable ones was this undercover officer. The male was so effective that when it came time to do the paperwork, the clerk stopped a fellow clerk from leaving because he was clearly scared to be left alone with this guy.
Alain Stephens: Teenagers can’t legally buy guns. That’s where the undercover female officer comes in, posing as the mom or the older girlfriend.
Scott King: When the paperwork time came, it would switch and everything was put in the name of either the woman posing as mom or a girlfriend, who were of age. It’s known as a straw man purchase.
Alain Stephens: Or straw woman in this case. That’s when one person makes a purchase for someone, who legally can’t. So, why would Gary, Indiana, go through all this trouble?
[News clip: More murders and rapes are committed per capita in Gary, Indiana, than in any other American city.]
Alain Stephens: In the late 90s, Gary is fighting a wave of gun violence. Once called “Magic City,” and known for its booming economy, state-of-the-art architecture, and beautiful Lake Michigan properties, things start to fall apart when the steel industry collapses in the 1970s. The city’s population and economy plummet, and crime shoots up. By 1993, Gary goes from the Magic City to the Murder Capital of America.
[News clip: Now, the Indiana governor Evan Bayh has ordered a force of 50 state troopers into Gary, with orders to take the criminals off the streets.]
Alain Stephens: And as mayor, King comes face to face with the fall-out.
Scott King: I can’t tell you how many funerals you go to of teenagers that were gunned down. And, it’s just, it’s, it’s just chilling.
Alain Stephens: Chilling, but not isolated. Because Gary isn’t alone in dealing with gun crimes.
[News clip: By all accounts, 1990’s record murder rate in U.S. cities will be surpassed this year. … There’s too many guns out there. Where they’re getting them, how they’re getting them, I don’t know.]
Alain Stephens: The U.S. is in the middle of unprecedented gun violence. Mayors turn to Washington for help, hoping Congress will do something to slow the tide of guns flooding their cities. But they realize they’re in it alone. So, in 1999 about 30 cities team up and hatch a plan to stop guns at their source.
[Mayor Aaron Brown (Bridgeport): We’re saying to the handgun industry, from now on you are responsible. // Anchor: By filing suit today the city laid part of the blame on those companies that make the guns for failing to control how they are distributed and to whom they are sold.]
Alain Stephens: Bridgeport, Connecticut. New York City. Chicago. New Orleans. Gary, Indiana, and others start filing lawsuits against companies like Smith & Wesson, Colt, Remington, Winchester, and Beretta. Timothy Lytton, a law professor at Georgia State University, says the suits all focus on the same three basic ideas. First: product design.
Timothy Lytton: Manufacturers are selling weapons that have a high level of lethality and they’re designing weapons that are especially dangerous.
Alain Stephens: Second: marketing.
Timothy Lytton: The idea that firearms manufacturers are selling their weapons in an aggressive fashion and marketing a kind of tactical experience for people who are looking to experience the thrill of combat, and that that in some ways is appealing to people who are at high risk of misusing these weapons, for example, in mass shootings or other crimes.
Alain Stephens: Third: unreasonable distribution practices.
Timothy Lytton: Manufacturers are selling large quantities of weapons that they have reason to know, or that they do know, are being siphoned off into the black market and sold ultimately to criminals.
Alain Stephens: This is where those sting operations come in. The city of Gary claims the gun stores knew the weapons were being sold illegally all along. Why? Because any good supplier knows the demand for their product. And according to the mayor of Gary, gun makers were sending way more inventory than the stores could ever sell legally.
Scott King: The number of guns coming in far outpaced any logical, even industry-based, protocols for how many guns are you gonna ship to a particular market.
Alain Stephens: But defenders of gun rights say the lawsuits are thinly veiled attempts to hollow out The Second Amendment. Clark Neily is one of them. He’s now with the libertarian think tank the CATO Institute. He helped defeat the District of Columbia in the landmark 2008 Supreme Court case DC v. Heller that significantly expanded gun rights.
Clark Neily: If you allow the manufacturer of those products to be sued, not, you know on the theory that there was something defective about a particular product, but just because the product when used as intended resulted in an injury or death, then people who want to have those products for perfectly lawful and safe uses won’t be able to have them anymore because the manufacturers of those products have been put out of business.
Alain Stephens: While the gunmakers try to get the lawsuits dismissed, the cities have what they consider a “smoking gun.” In a sworn affidavit, Smith & Wesson’s own former VP of marketing admits that the gun company executives knew that they were pumping weapons to criminals but did nothing to stop it. At this point, things are looking pretty good for the mayors. The tobacco industry had just been forced to pay out massive settlements after states had sued them for being a menace to public health. So, why not the gun industry too?
Scott King: For most people living in Gary, just the carnage was such that taking any reasonable step was not gonna generate a lot of opposition.
Alain Stephens: King also has personal reasons to stop the gun violence. He’s experienced it in his own family. About a month before filing the lawsuit, his 17-year-old nephew Blake is shot and killed.
Scott King: Fight over a girl, and he started getting the better of the other kid. And the other kid ran into his house, came back with his dad’s gun and shot and killed my nephew. My sister-in-law, his mom, I’ve been able to see for the last 20 years what this has done to her. This was her baby. It’s ravaged her.
Alain Stephens: Doesn’t matter if your uncle is the mayor, shootings can be equal opportunity killers, affecting pretty much everyone in Gary. Gary argues that gun manufacturers are contributing to a “public nuisance” affecting public health.
Scott King: You know, it’s a common lament of mayors. We’re on the front lines and there are certain things where we can’t do it by ourselves. And the expectations were that if nothing else, it would capture attention at a national and a state level, where most of the power, most of the authority is.
Alain Stephens: King gets his wish. The lawsuit does capture state and national attention. It’s just the wrong kind of attention.
[Wayne LaPierre: We, the NRA, condemn the attempt of predatory lawyers and mayors to drive gun makers out of business and drive up the costs of guns. *cheering*]
Alain Stephens: After years of building its political and financial capital, the National Rifle Association is reaching the pinnacle of its power. And the NRA puts these lawsuits right in its scope.
[Wayne LaPierre: You and I both know if they drive the major manufacturers of firearms in this country out of business with frivolous lawsuits, they’ve eliminated the freedom for all of us. And we’re not gonna let them do that.]
Alain Stephens: Like a minister preaching from the pulpit, the NRA leaders take this message, and mold it into scripture, promising to protect what they consider a God-given right to gun ownership. For their hordes of followers, the Second Amendment becomes their 11th Commandment: “Thou shall not take our guns. No matter what.” We all know how formidable the NRA became, but how did it get that way? Today, we dive into the history and the lasting legacy of the National Rifle Association, and see how its influence has spread across the country and into the halls of Congress, ultimately scoring its greatest victory — a federal law that would make it nearly impossible for mayors like Scott King to win his fight with the gun industry. And along the way, an organization once dedicated to promoting a hobby would grow into something of a religion: the church of the NRA. I’m Alain Stephens. And you’re listening to The Gun Machine: How America was forged by the gun industry. A Podcast by WBUR and the Trace. Chapter 6: “The Church.”
Alain Stephens: Some people see the NRA as a sinister sock puppet for the gun industry, scheming to scare members of Congress from voting against the manufacturers’ bottom line. But for others the NRA has shaped not only how they think about guns, but how they think about America. The Second Amendment comes first — and so does a fear of losing their guns. My colleague at The Trace, Mike Spies, has broken a bunch of recent stories that have made him a thorn in the side of the NRA. And he says the NRA wasn’t always the organization we know today.
Mike Spies: The most important thing that people have misunderstood is that its power has never been a foregone conclusion.
Alain Stephens: The NRA got started in the 1870s, and for a century it mainly focused on gun safety and marksmanship, thanks to tons of government money.
[1964 NRA safety video: This is the recreation room of the Johnson family. Here, their equipment for sports is safely stored.]
Alain Stephens: They’d put out messages like this 1964 PSA.
[1964 NRA safety video: Mr. Johnson’s shotgun, the one the rest of the family is forbidden to touch, is precariously poised. Of course, it isn’t loaded. *gun shot*]
Alain Stephens: All of that changes in 1977, thanks in large part to one man — Harlon Carter — who becomes the NRA’s executive vice president and forces a shift in the focus of the organization.
Mike Spies: Ultimately, at a meeting in Cincinnati in the late ‘70s, that became known as the “Cincinnati Revolt,” the organization was effectively ripped away from the sporting and hunting faction and was reoriented to become an organization that would be focused on advancing gun rights.
Alain Stephens: Carter opens the NRA’s first lobbying arm in D.C. and coins the group’s famous rallying cry: “No gun legislation, no compromise.” You can hear just how committed Carter is, when a gun control advocate, who lost his own son to gun violence, confronts him during a 1977 debate.
[Pete Shields: How do you equate your convenience or your macho to be able to carry a handgun on your belt against the 25,000 lives that are, uh, involved?]
[Harlon Carter: It isn’t that at all. The price of those lives I put up against my right to the presumption of innocence, my right against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment, the right of due process under the Fifth Amendment, that the government can’t seize my property without due process. Those things are worth all the lives you will ever pay for.]
Alain Stephens: Carter sounds like a zealot and his origin story is pretty wild; The New York Times uncovered it in 1981. They found that when he was 17 years old, Carter was convicted of murdering a 15-year-old teen named Ramon Casiano. According to court testimony, Casiano was hanging around the Carter house one day with a couple of other kids. Carter’s mom thought that Casiano knew something about the family’s car that had been stolen. When Carter confronts him with a shotgun, Casiano takes out a knife. An eyewitness says Casiano was backing off when Carter shot and killed him. An appeals court later overturned the murder conviction, saying the original judge failed to properly instruct the jury on self-defense law. Carter later said he regretted the killing. The story comes out during the NRA’s convention, after he is re-elected for a second term. At the time, the group has a friend in the White House — Republican Ronald Reagan — and is poised to go from a gun safety group to a full on gun rights movement.
Mike Spies: Its presence was no longer sort of, not that it was necessarily marginal, but you wouldn’t say, I don’t know that you would’ve said that it was part of popular culture, and now it was becoming that way.
Alain Stephens: The NRA’s first major victory comes in 1986, when Congress passes the Gun Owners Protection Act. The new law loosens requirements for who can sell guns. It makes it so gun dealers no longer have to keep records of who they sell ammo to, and it limits the ATF’s ability to inspect gun stores. By the 1990s, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a member of the NRA or not, you know who they are. But that doesn’t mean the organization is batting 1,000 either.
[News clip: Good evening. It’s a joyous Thanksgiving weekend for Sarah and Jim Brady, whose long, hard fight to curb handgun purchases has finally paid off.]
Alain Stephens: In 1993, Congress passes the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which institutes background checks for people purchasing guns from a licensed dealer. The next year, President Clinton signs into law a 10-year ban on assault weapons. This seems like a major setback for the NRA. But Mike says the group takes this ban and turns it into its most powerful marketing tool, adding jet fuel to the idea that the government is waging war on law-abiding gun owners.
Mike Spies: And so the organization began to be able to say, “The government wants to take your weapons away.” And it became really useful for rallying voters, especially because Republicans found it to be a valuable rallying cry.
Alain Stephens: Up until now, the NRA supported both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, but that starts to change. They shift spending heavily to the GOP. Republicans sweep the 1994 midterm elections, winning both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. There are a lot of reasons Democrats were unpopular with voters, but President Clinton blames his party’s loss on the NRA, and an independent study agreed that the NRA did help sway the election.
Mike Spies: The messaging from both parties just continued to enhance the organization’s power, giving it more and more political clout.
Alain Stephens: So much clout that politicians now crave the NRA stamp of approval. In some cases, they need it to keep their jobs.
Mike Spies: Lawmakers opted to give the NRA power. It only had power because they opted to give it power because there was some benefit they got out of that. It was an ability to then be able to wear the organization’s support as a badge of honor when it came time to run for re-election.
Alain Stephens: By 1996, NRA-backed politicians come up with a new strategy. They vote to prohibit the CDC from doing any research that might promote gun control. They don’t specify what that means, but it basically stops the government from analyzing data around guns. Now this might not seem like a big deal, but take a look at what happened to another industry when the government started collecting data. Government research in the auto industry dramatically changed cars: Seat belts, air bags and other safety features became required. Driving became much safer and the car makers faced more scrutiny and accountability. With this anti-research law, the NRA is effectively able to black out information that can make the gun industry look bad. And it begins a legacy of keeping Americans in the dark. And all of this is happening just a few years before America enters one of its darkest chapters when it comes to gun violence — Columbine.
[News clip: The investigation into the high school massacre is slow moving and dangerous. The two gunmen who went on the rampage booby trapped the building, and even themselves.]
Alain Stephens: The 1999 school shooting in Littleton, Colorado, jolts the country out of an age of innocence. You’d think the NRA would back off, but the group has its annual conference scheduled just days later in nearby Denver. And it faces a decision: cancel the meeting or double down. NPR got ahold of secret recordings where you hear NRA leader Wayne LaPierre and lobbyist Marion Hammer debating what to do.
[Wayne LaPierre: We have meeting insurance.]
[Marion Hammer: Screw the insurance. The message that it will send is that even the NRA was brought to its knees and the media will have a field day with it.]
Alain Stephens: The NRA holds its meetings. This is also right after the mayors start filing their lawsuits against the gun industry. And LaPierre sets the groundwork for fighting back.
[Wayne LaPierre: Americans oppose those types of lawsuits, and we, the NRA, support state and federal legislation that prohibits this abuse of our courts and of our freedoms.]
Alain Stephens: Coming up, we hear how the NRA ends up doubling down on its rhetoric. And ultimately comes up with a strategy that would make the gun industry bulletproof from all those lawsuits. That, after the break.
Alain Stephens: While the NRA is growing in power, rallying its forces, and doing whatever it can to make the gun industry impervious to attack, American cities like Gary, Indiana, are dealing with the consequences. Gary used to be a really wealthy city, with lots of jobs producing steel for the Midwest. It got that shout out in The Music Man.
[The Music Man soundtrack: (singing) “Gary, Indiana (x3) … that’s the town that knew me when…”]
Alain Stephens: But in the 1970s, the steel industry started to collapse and so did Gary’s population. The city has gone from about 175,000 people at its peak to fewer than 70,000 today. Most of the residents are African-American, and they have struggled with the fallout — abandoned buildings, and cash-strapped schools, a lack of jobs and economic investment, fueled in part by racist policies like redlining that dates back to the 1940s. Today, Gary has a reputation as a gun trafficking Mecca. Guns bought and sold in Gary end up in the hands of criminals in Chicago and at home. Mayor Scott King launched his fight to keep those guns out of his city back in the 1990s, but while that battle plays out in the courts everyday citizens step up.
[Aaliyah Stewart: Good morning. Unique. Good morning Journey. Good morning, Jasmine. Fill in those back tables.]
Alain Stephens: This is Aaliyah Stewart. She’s now 23 years old and the founder of this day camp, in a church basement of a neighborhood called The Bronx in Gary, Indiana. If you think 23 years old sounds a little young to be the founder of a day camp, you’re not wrong. But Aaliyah has her reasons.
[Aaliyah Stewart: Hey, Key. Hi Ye. Hey Antonio.]
Alain Stephens: She started this camp because she lost a brother to gun violence when she was seven years old. And then, when she was 13, Aaliyah lost her other brother, the same damn way. This camp is lowkey Aaliyah fighting back against the reason she had to grow up fast. She’s addressing gun violence in her hometown in her own way. The Gun Machine’s lead producer Grace Tatter met up with her in Gary.
Grace Tatter: The first thing that strikes me is her sense of purpose. You can tell that she is in charge. She welcomes dozens of children into the church basement and directs her adult employees, all while answering my questions.
[Aaliyah Stewart: Ms. Grace, this is our hair stylist.]
[Grace Tatter: Hi, nice to meet you.]
Grace Tatter: Aaliyah was younger than a lot of her campers are now when her brother Anthony was killed in 2007.
[Aaliyah Stewart: Yeah, so my brother Anthony was killed when he was 16 and I was seven. My brother James was killed when he was 20 and I was 13.]
Grace Tatter: Let me tell you a little bit about Anthony, Aaliyah’s oldest brother. When he died, he was a junior in high school. He was hoping to start driving soon. His parents said he could get his driver’s license as soon as he got his GPA up to a 3.0. That would never happen, despite the best efforts of Aaliyah’s family. Her mom had been worried about their safety for years, and she was taking steps to protect them. In the early 2000s, right after Gary started fighting the gun industry in court, Aaliyah’s mom decides it’s time to move.
[Aaliyah Stewart: Just different fights and just a lot of stuff going on in the city of Gary. My mom didn’t want my brother to fall victim to it.]
Grace Tatter: They don’t go far, just a few miles away, to a town called Merrillville. Despite the move, Anthony is back in a parking lot in Gary in 2007, when his friends get into a fight after a basketball game and another teenager shoots and kills him.
[Aaliyah Stewart: After they got into the fight, my brother tried to break up the fight and he got shot in the head.]
Grace Tatter: More than 15 years later, you can tell that Aaliyah is used to talking about this. She talks about her brother Anthony, and how he died, all the time. But initially, losing Anthony was paralyzing. A newspaper account from the time describes Aaliyah’s mom frozen in her car, unable to run an errand, mired in grief. Her aunt was quoted saying she didn’t want Anthony to be “just another Black kid” lost to gun violence. They talked about him, and his memory, all of the time. But then, seven years after Anthony’s death, Aaliyah’s other brother, James Anderson, was killed. Also with a gun. Also in Gary. He was 20 years old.
[Aaliyah Stewart: They both were happy people. I mean, they always smiled and James especially was like a jokester. Um, Anthony had more of a gentle, you know, soft smile. He was a ladies man. Um, I think they both were, actually.]
Grace Tatter: The year after James’s death, Aaliyah started her foundation. She was still only 14.
[Aaliyah Stewart: So I wanted to build something that people that lost a loved one or siblings to gun violence could see, like, there still is hope, there’s still potential, and it doesn’t end here.]
Grace Tatter: For the most part, when Aaliyah thinks about solutions to Gary’s problems, she’s thinking local — like this camp, which offers children not only a place to hang out during the day but mental health services. But then I ask her if she has a message for gun companies.
[Aaliyah Stewart: When you come into communities like this, it’s a lot of young people and it’s a lot of people easily influenced. So I would say, be the person that you would want someone to be for your child. Would you want someone to give your child a gun or prey on areas where you see that we’re, we’re lacking certain things, we’re lacking in the leadership, we’re lacking, um, sometimes even the knowledge. So, I would say to just not prey on something that’s already weak.]
Alain Stephens: The thing is — the NRA is all about strength. Its parishioners believe that gun rights are holy. And so after Gary joined those 30 other cities to file lawsuits against the gun industry in 1999, the organization decided it was time for a crusade. At the 2000 NRA Annual meeting, NRA President and Hollywood legend Charlton Heston gets on stage holding his rifle and taunting the government to take his gun.
[Charlton Heston: … from my cold dead hands!]
Alain Stephens: From my cold, dead hands. It almost becomes the NRA anthem, and Mike Spies says it’s an important turning point.
Mike Spies: What you saw happening was the organization start to become almost a religion. You know what I mean? A way for people to organize their lives. A way of life, a set of values, a tribe.
Alain Stephens: And the NRA could send its believers after anyone — even gunmakers. Because, again, while many people think the NRA takes orders from the gun industry and even lawmakers, it’s really the other way around. In 1999, Smith & Wesson promises to invest in smart gun technology, to develop ballistic fingerprints for its guns, and to cut off dealers who are selling to criminals. In exchange, the Clinton administration agrees to drop a lawsuit against the company.
[President Bill Clinton: I think the American people will have such an overwhelmingly positive response to what they have done that I would hope the other manufacturers would follow suit.]
Alain Stephens: But that never happens. Because the NRA organizes a boycott of Smith & Wesson. The company is nearly put out of business. And it backs out of the deal. The NRA has learned how to win battles with the President. Its next step is to help install someone in the White House.
Mike Spies: Al Gore lost his home state of Tennessee. He blamed that on the NRA. The NRA took that and wore it as a badge of honor.
Alain Stephens: George W. Bush is a Texan, gun totin’, and an ally to the NRA cause. With a friendly administration, a growing bank account, and millions of members, the NRA makes a major power play. It backs a plan that would wipe out all those lawsuits that Scott King and the other mayors have filed, and make it nearly impossible to sue the gun industry in the future. It’s a Congressional bill called the Protection of Lawful Commerce and Arms Act, also known as PLCCA. And, as Law Professor Timothy Lytton tells us, it would provide gun companies with near immunity from lawsuits.
Timothy Lytton: So if there’s a sort of criminal shooting or a mass shooting, and a person who’s a victim or the family of a victim wants to bring a lawsuit against the seller of that weapon or the manufacturer, PLCAA prohibits the bringing of that lawsuit.
Alain Stephens: The NRA tells the masses that the suits are an invitation for judicial activism, that they will take away their right to own guns. Here’s then-NRA president Kayne Robinson, speaking on C-SPAN after the bill was first introduced.
[Kayne Robinson: This legislation is about stopping the trial lawyers from putting the manufacturers completely out of business. And the premise that they would use to put them out of business is: If a criminal takes a gun and uses it in a crime, they want to hold the manufacturers responsible for that criminal’s misuse of the gun in a crime.]
Alain Stephens: The NRA doesn’t necessarily come up with the idea for PLCAA totally on its own. The New York Times published a letter that Congressman Bob Barr, a Republican from Georgia, wrote to the head of the NRA in 1999, around the time the Gary lawsuit was filed. Barr said the NRA should convene gun company executives and ask them what needed to be done about lawsuits like Gary’s. And this highlights what Mike was talking about earlier, about the way the NRA works.
Mike Spies: It’s not like a sock puppet relationship.
Alain Stephens: In other words, the NRA isn’t a mouthpiece for the industry — it’s the one pulling the strings, with politicians coming to the NRA with ideas of what they think will impress gun companies, not the other way around. The NRA testifies in Congress to pass PLCAA. And so do gun company executives, including Colt VP Carlton Chen. He makes the same argument we heard earlier in this series, from his corporate ancestor in the 1930s, that our country is safer when gun companies are strong.
[Carlton Chen: We are dutifully helping to defend our country when attacked and in times of war. I ask that each of you help us in our time of war so that we can focus on making the best small arms available for our men and women in uniform.]
Alain Stephens: This doesn’t sit well with all members of Congress. North Carolina Democrat Mel Watt condemns the measure on Washington Journal.
[U.S. Representative Mel Watt:“It’s unprecedented, and I think it would be, sending the wrong message. And, in fact, could, encourage irresponsibility in that industry.]
Alain Stephens: More than 300 lawmakers sign on as co-sponsors. In the year leading up to PLCAA, we found that the NRA donated more than $315,000 to lawmakers who will go on to vote ‘yes’ on the measure. Senator Edward Kennedy would say that PLCAA was “bought and paid for by the NRA.” But, as my colleague Mike tells me, it’s not just about the money.
Mike Spies: Money only really goes so far. A lot of people spend money.
Alain Stephens: What the NRA has is sway — this idea that they do win elections. When PLCAA passes in 2005, even some Democrats vote for it, as does an Independent from Vermont named Bernie Sanders. Lawyer Jonathan Lowy says that PLCAA is an instant success. He should know. Several cities, including Gary, hired him to sue the gun industry. And he says with the passage of PLCCA, his job gets a whole lot harder.
Jonathan Lowy: You can’t simply sue a gun company for negligence. You have to prove, in many of these cases, that there was also a violation of law.
Alain Stephens: This isn’t just a big deal for the industry. It’s also a big deal for gun violence victims. We know that victims of gun violence are disproportionately people of color. And now one path of trying to prevent gun violence has been completely cut off. Because without the threat of suits, gun companies don’t have to worry about their guns being used in crimes.
Jonathan Lowy: It basically makes victims of gun violence into second class citizens that don’t have anywhere close to the rights to seek civil justice that every other person that is victimized by any other business or industry has.
Alain Stephens: PLCCA is a huge success for the gun industry. Most of the lawsuits filed by cities in the 1990s are dismissed, if not because of PLCAA, because of the near-identical laws passed at the state level. And almost no lawsuits make it to court. Except for one — Gary, Indiana.
Grace Tatter: As of recording, their case is in discovery. That means Gary’s lawyers can go through documents from the defendants, including Smith & Wesson and Colt, to see if company leaders knew that they were helping gun dealers break the law. Indiana University law professor Jody Madeira says discovery alone could be a goldmine for future legal action.
Jody Madeira: That might be the biggest payoff in this entire lawsuit. So, basically if the plaintiff’s discovery request stand, they will have access to up to 25 years of documents on market research, on internal communications, on efforts to curb trafficking and straw purchases, basically information about the entities whom the industry chooses to sell firearms to, and what steps they take to limit the harm that firearms have caused.
Grace Tatter: But that’s little comfort for the victims of gun violence. It’s been a quarter century since Scott King first sued the gun industry as mayor of Gary, Indiana. And it’s still dragging on.
Scott King: The fact that this is still going on, you know, has been somewhat amazing to me.
Grace Tatter: King is now in private practice. And he’s used to being the underdog.
Scott King: To feel like David against Goliath, I mean, you’re talking to somebody who’s, for the bulk of a 47-year span of time, has been a criminal defense attorney. I mean, you know, that’s kind of what we do.
Grace Tatter: And while the wheels of justice slowly turn, thousands of lives have been ripped apart by gun violence. For people like Aaliyah Stewart, two things can be true at once: Gun violence can be earth shattering, turning your world upside down; and it’s also part of everyday life. Aaliyah does think about accountability for what happened to her family. Recently, when she was at a local gas station, Aaliyah ran into the man who killed her brother Anthony. Remarkably, Aaliyah says she’s found a way to forgive him.
Aaliyah Stewart: I’ve said words to him, you know, I told him that may God keep blessing him and use his second chance that God gave him.
Grace Tatter: Aaliyah’s still fighting to prevent the gun violence that seems to connect nearly everyone in Gary. Aaliyah and Scott King are multiple generations apart but they’re linked too. After he was the mayor, after he fought gun companies to stop the river of guns flowing into Magic City, Scott King defended a man in court. A man who shot and killed Aaliyah’s brother James. If you’re in Gary long enough, you’re gonna get caught in this web. Which is maybe why King defended the man who shot Aaliyah’s brother. And why Aaliyah is willing to forgive the shooters. The problem is so much bigger than the shattering of one family.
Alain Stephens: There is a postscript to this story. And some signs of hope for Aaliyah Stewart, former Mayor Scott King, and the others fighting to prevent gun violence. At least one other lawsuit has pierced PLCAA’s shield. In 2022, nine families who lost children in the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut sued Remington. The company ends up settling before going to trial and agrees to pay out 73 million dollars. It’s a victory for the Sandy Hook families, but it might not have any larger implications since the courts never weighed in. And then there’s this development, a big hit for the NRA.
[News clip: New York’s Attorney General has launched a lawsuit against the National Rifle Association. She accuses the powerful gun lobby of corruption and misspending and violating its status as a charity.]
Alain Stephens: And its leaders have turned on each other. Mike Spies dug up internal documents showing NRA leadership had been siphoning off millions of dollars from the non-profit’s coffers in the form of inflated salaries, and lavish gifts, including yacht trips to the Bahamas. And now, New York’s Attorney General is suing the organization. The NRA has tried to declare bankruptcy. And on top of all this, someone leaked a video of LaPierre trying to shoot an elephant, revealing among other things, that the guy can’t shoot.
Mike Spies: It’s in the worst position that it’s ever been in, financially, in terms of membership. It’s bled more than a million members, ya know, since these stories first broke.
Alain Stephens: But even if the NRA’s reputation is taking a hit, the political culture it created is still going strong. Remember Harlon Carter? The man who killed another teenager and went on to become the founding director of the NRA’s lobbying arm? Well, his “No compromise. No gun legislation!” battle cry has become the status quo in Washington and with voters. You hear the echoes of the NRA messaging everywhere.
[President Donald Trump: They want to take away your guns while throwing open the jailhouse doors and releasing bloodthirsty criminals into your communities. // North Carolina Lt. Governor Mark Robinson: I got them AR-15s in case the government gets too big for its britches // Florida Governor Ron DeSantis: They just want to come after your Second Amendment rights. Let’s be honest, that’s what they want to do.]
Alain Stephens: The fear that any inconvenience to legally purchasing or owning or carrying a firearm is infringement, an assault on the Second Amendment. In 30 years, Congress has managed to pass only one piece of federal gun legislation, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act in 2022, though President Biden recently created the first White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention, overseen by Vice President Kamala Harris. And even with the power of the NRA waning, its influence has helped fuel an attack on another arm of the government, a federal agency whose job is, supposedly, to figure out who’s selling guns that are used in crimes. NRA head Wayne LaPierre once compared them to Nazis. And it’s been the go-to punching bag for politicians trying to capture press at the NRA convention.
[Vivek Ramaswamy: We will finally shut down the ATF, an agency that is beyond repair. That is the right answer left in the country.]
Alain Stephens: The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. And its enemies have done a number on it. That’s coming next week. On The Gun Machine.
Alain Stephens: The Gun Machine is a production of WBUR in partnership with The Trace. I’m your host, Alain Stephens. If you want more on this, or any of our other episodes, you should visit the TheTrace.org/GunMachine or WBUR.org/GunMachine.
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Our producer, who always has my six, is WBUR’s Grace Tatter. Our editing fellow from The Trace is Agya Aning. Orchestrating our beat drops is sound designer Emily Jankowski. Our production manager is Paul Vaitkus. Our editors are Kevin Sullivan and WBUR Podcasts executive producer Ben Brock Johnson. Additional editing from Miles Kohrman. Our WBUR managing producer is Samata Joshi. And our engagement editor at The Trace is Gracie McKenzie. Audio engineering from Tim Felten and our artwork is by Diego Mallo.
Support for the Gun Machine comes from The Joyce Foundation, a nonpartisan philanthropy that invests in racial equity and economic mobility in the Great Lakes region. For more than 25 years, Joyce has supported research, education, and policy solutions to reduce gun violence and make communities safer. To learn more, go to joycefdn.org. Additional funding provided by the Kendeda Fund.