MOYERS: One of the most important but least reported stories has been happening this week in Congress.
On Wednesday, even as the battle for Baghdad ended, the House of Representatives passed a bill to protect the gun industry immunity from lawsuits.
It's the first industry to be given such blanket immunity, and it comes at a time when cities across the country are suing gun companies for making weapons and then looking the other way as they are sold to criminals.
There's something behind this story that will take your breath away. Here is our report prepared by NPR's Daniel Zwerdling and NOW Producer Bryan Myers.
ZWERDLING: Bob Ricker has had a change of heart. He spent his career fighting for the gun industry. He was the gun makers' voice in Washington DC. But now Ricker's decided to spill some of the industry's most troubling secrets.
You don't look on the face of it like a turncoat or like a formidable enemy. Which is how a lot of people have described you.
RICKER: I guess there are probably a lot of people out there in the firearms industry that are afraid of what I have to say.
ZWERDLING: And what this insider says is astonishing: he says executives of America's leading gun companies know that some dealers are selling their guns to criminals tens of thousands of crime guns every year. And the companies refuse to stop supplying those dealers.
RICKER: The industry knows, and they've known for a long time, that there are bad guns dealers. There are bad distributors. And these people are the source of a large portion, or a majority of all crime guns.
ZWERDLING: So you'd be sitting with top gun industry executives...
ZWERDLING: And people would be openly talking about the fact that their guns were being sold to criminals and they knew who was doing it?
RICKER: Yeah. They knew how to find out about who was doing it.
ZWERDLING: We're talking about one of the issues that almost everybody in America worries about: How does this country stop criminals from getting guns? More than 10,000 people were murdered last year with guns. More than 40,000 were wounded. Everybody from the President to local police has to grapple with this problem. But Ricker says one group could staunch the torrent of illegal guns faster than just about anyone: the gun makers.
So you're saying that any day of the week, any gun industry executive could figure out which of their dealers are funneling guns to crooks?
RICKER: Yeah, or where there's a problem.
ZWERDLING: And it's easy?
RICKER: Sure it would be easy.
ZWERDLING: You might hear Bob Ricker's name a lot more in the coming months. Cities like Chicago and Los Angeles are dragging the gun makers to court they're trying to prove that the companies are guilty of what they call willful blindness.
Mayors like James Hahn of Los Angeles say Ricker's their star witness.
It's stunning, Robert Ricker's affidavit because it's
what we suspected all along. But to have an insider like Robert Ricker say it like that, to tell it like it is, I mean, this is, no pun intended, the smoking gun we were looking for.
ZWERDLING: Just this week, THE NEW YORK TIMES called Ricker "the gun industry's first major whistleblower." This is the first time he's told his story in detail on TV.
Bob Ricker has been one of the most powerful lobbyists in the gun world since the 1980s. He ran the industry's main trade group in Washington DC. He was its point man on Capitol Hill, and Ricker was the gun makers' voice on TV.
RICKER [ABC WORLD NEWS TONIGHT 1/2/99]: There is no manufacturer of any product that can guarantee that the end consumer is not going to misuse the product in some way.
ZWERDLING: But privately, Bob Ricker concluded that the gun makers could be doing a lot more to stop criminals from getting their guns. He says he realized from talking with industry executives that they knew how to curb the market in crime guns.
As you watched the carnage across the country did it bother you mainly because you're an American citizen and you hated seeing this death and misery, or did it bother you because you're a businessman, you represent the manufacturers and you thought it was bad for their image?
RICKER: Well, it was bad all the way around. I mean, it was bad for business. They were paying millions of dollars in legal fees to defend themselves.
ZWERDLING: To understand Ricker's charges, you need to understand how criminals get their guns. One of the main ways is simple they go to crooked dealers. Watch this video which undercover cops made near Detroit. They're conducting a sting operation to catch crooked gun dealers. The cops are about to make what's called a straw purchase. That's when a criminal who can't buy guns legally gets one through a friend who can.
On the left, one of the cops is posing as a "felon."
Freeze the frame for a moment . The laws say that a dealer cannot sell guns to anybody who they have reason to believe is a felon.
The "felon's" solution? He brings a buddy to buy the gun for him. And the salesman goes along, he cheerfully reminds them to lie.
And now the "felon" has his gun. A federal report says that straw purchases like this one are the single biggest way that criminals get guns.
Police and federal agents have been trying to crack down on crooked sales since the 1970s. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the ATF, runs a national tracing system, to help them do it. There's a whole center in West Virginia where federal employees spend all their time tracing who bought and sold crime guns.
ATF AGENT: This is Brenda from ATF. I have a gun trace I need some help with, please.
ZWERDLING: This ATF center traces around two hundred thousand crime guns every year. Here's how it works.
Whenever local police find a gun at a crime scene, they're supposed to contact the center and report the gun's brand name and serial number. Then, ATF calls the manufacturer and asks, which dealer did you sell this gun to? Gun makers have to keep a record of every transaction. Those ATF calls give gun makers the information they need to find out which dealers sell crime guns.
Gerry Nunziato was the head of ATF's tracing center until a few years ago. He helped design the system Nunziato says he wanted to make it easy for the gun companies to figure out which dealers were funneling their guns to criminals. He says he'd plead with industry executives to act on this information.
NUNZIATO: I would attend at least four or five major industry shows a year and put on a presentation. I would offer to give them the data.
Occasionally at these meetings that we would have with the industry, an industry member would ask if they could see a printout of all the guns that they manufactured that were involved in crime. I would immediately produce it for them, and give it to them.
ZWERDLING: Nunziato says look, do you want to see how easy it is to figure out which dealers might be crooked? It takes only a few minutes.
NUNZIATO: If you were a manufacturer, and you were interested in what dealers were handling the firearms that turn into crime guns, you actually buy this Freedom of Information Act database from the ATF. It costs $50. It's published each year.
ZWERDLING: I can buy this data?
ZWERDLING: Nunziato says here's what you could do with this disk. Type in a few commands, and presto, the computer shows all of your company's guns that turned up in crimes in a recent period.
NUNZIATO: So this is the manufacturer. This is the type of weapon. This is a revolver.
ZWERDLING: .22 caliber.
NUNZIATO: .22 caliber. And this is the dealer number, the license number that's assigned to particular firearms dealer by the ATF.
ZWERDLING: Like your driver's license number.
ZWERDLING: A few more commands and the computer lists every dealer in the country who sold any of your company's guns that ended up in a crime. And then the computer ranks the dealers according to who sold the most crime guns.
The list shows that this company sells its guns through thousands of dealers. And among those thousands of dealers, 36 stand out. Those 36 dealers were responsible for selling over a 100 crime guns each. So Nunziato says the company could easily identify the fishy dealers, and stop selling them guns.
NUNZIATO: The question I would ask: why is this small group involved only with crime gun sales? And why is this tiny group only involved with the vast majority of crime gun sales?
ZWERDLING: And that brings us back to Bob Ricker and the executives he was working for in the gun industry. Publicly, executives kept insisting there was no way they could find out who the crooked dealers were. Ricker says they were lying. They had access to this kind of information the whole time he was working for them. And he says executives talked about it just about every time they met.
RICKER: I would hear the horror stories they would tell about, well gee, we just, we were called last week by ATF and we found out that there was a gun dealer in Florida who purchased, you know, two or three hundred guns from us and you know what? His license wasn't valid and he went out and sold them on the street. I mean, these were topics of discussion at every board meeting, every major gathering of the industry.
ZWERDLING: Ricker says he couldn't believe it: the executives decided to ignore ATF's tracing reports. He says it was part of a careful legal strategy. Local governments began suing the gun companies in the 1990s, like the states were suing big tobacco. Ricker says gun industry lawyers figured, if the executives don't look at the tracing data, they can honestly testify, "we don't know which of our dealers might be crooks."
RICKER: They have set up internal procedures so that they don't know.
ZWERDLING: Ricker says industry leaders eventually decided that this issue of crooked dealers was so potentially explosive, that they shouldn't even talk about it at their meetings anymore. They worried that opposition lawyers might learn about these conversations, and that could hurt the gun companies in court.
RICKER: One lawyer in particular, who is very influential with the industry, he became adamant in the late 90's that these meetings shouldn't even take place.
ZWERDLING: Ricker says there's one more reason why executives at the gun companies refused to crack down on dealers: profits. One study has found that as many as 25% of all handguns sold in America end up being used in a crime. Ricker says some gun makers could go out of business if criminals couldn't buy their guns.
So you're telling us that you're sitting in meetings, meeting after meeting, with top gun industry executives. You're saying folks, everybody knows how to find out who's selling guns to criminals. And these executives are telling you they don't want to do it because they don't want to hurt their profits?
RICKER: Right. They don't want to know. They just don't want to hear about that.
ZWERDLING: By the late 1990s, Ricker was publicly proclaiming that it was time for his industry to reform. Industry leaders didn't want to hear it. This memo, dated June 1999, is from a top gun trade group. The title reads "Reining in Ricker." It's addressed to several prominent gun executives, and the memo says, somebody "needs to direct Mr. Ricker to become silent."
One month later, Bob Ricker resigned. And he decided to go over to the other side.
HENIGAN: So there I was in the courtroom and I looked out to the courtroom and I saw Bob Ricker in the back row.
ZWERDLING: Dennis Henigan is one of the top lawyers suing the gun makers. In fact, on the day when Ricker showed up in court, Henigan was arguing a gun case.
HENIGAN: And as I was packing up my files to exit the courtroom, he came up to me and he said, "You know, we ought to sit down and talk."
RICKER: I viewed the situation developing that the industry was not being responsible. And I felt a moral obligation to come forward.
ZWERDLING: We tried to interview company executives who Ricker says have allowed dealers to funnel guns to criminals. And we tried to speak with the industry leader whose name is on that memo that says Ricker should be silenced. None would give us an interview. But one industry spokesman did agree to talk. Lawrence Keane is Vice President of the gun makers' main trade group.
ZWERDLING: Robert Ricker. What is your reaction to him and what he is saying now?
KEANE: Well, it's not appropriate for me to respond to the specific allegations. We'll respond to those in court. But let me just say that the notion or the suggestion that the industry is willingly and knowingly selling guns to criminals is patently false. It's offensive. It's really an outrageous allegation. And it's just not true.
ZWERDLING: Do executives in the gun industry know, or could they know, which distributors and dealers are funneling guns to criminals?
KEANE: No, they don't know that, they can't know that.
ZWERDLING: Do you think executives in the gun industry would like to know which distributors and dealers are funneling guns to criminals?
KEANE: Well, sure we would like to see those individuals arrested, prosecuted, and thrown in jail. But I think what your question asks, is, or suggests, is there some way that the industry could know who those individuals are? I don't know how they would find that information.
ZWERDLING: Which seems strange, since government officials have reminded company executives over the years how they can get that information.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: ATF sent this letter to one of the best-known companies. It says "the information will be provided" on a computer disc if the company sends a check for 50 bucks.
But Keane says no, gun makers can't get that information from the ATF. He says in any case, it's not appropriate for the industry to crack down on crooked dealers. That's the job of ATF.
KEANE: And what ATF has repeatedly told the industry is it does not want the industry to try to ferret out or conduct its own investigations to find out who the corrupt dealers are. Because doing that, Dan, will jeopardize investigations and jeopardize the lives of law enforcement officers.
ZWERDLING: But look at this government document from two years ago. This is the Justice Department's and ATF's official strategy to cut down on gun violence. The report calls on gun companies to "police" their own industry, and it asks executives to "identify and refuse to supply dealers" that "have a pattern of selling guns to criminals."
RICKER: I mean, McDonald's even has a system where you know, if they find a McDonald's restaurant who's putting mustard on a Big Mac, they're cut off. You know, it's common business practice.
ZWERDLING: So if a dealer is selling to criminals...
RICKER: Cut him off.
ZWERDLING: Here's what I don't get, though. If it's so easy as you and as the folks who have worked at ATF say to figure out which dealers are probably funneling guns to criminals, then why doesn't the ATF go after them and arrest them? Put them in jail?
RICKER: The ATF tries to. I mean, let's just look at the numbers. Over 100,000 gun dealers out there. And how many employees does the ATF have? Or agents?
ZWERDLING: Only about 2600 investigators, actually. And they're responsible for the tobacco industry, the alcohol industry, overseeing explosives not just guns.
RICKER: The ATF is overworked, understaffed and underpaid. And the industry knows that.
ZWERDLING: And that's just part of the problem. The gun lobby has convinced Congress over the years to make it incredibly hard for the ATF to shut down crooked gun dealers. In fact, the NRA has called on Congress to abolish ATF. And the NRA has an influential friend. Attorney General John Ashcroft is one of the NRA's most loyal supporters. Ashcroft just took over the ATF under the Homeland Security Plan. We wanted to interview ATF officials for this story, but Ashcroft's office said "no."
The Mayor of Los Angeles says Ashcroft's policies are making it harder for cities to fight crime.
HAHN: I think the Attorney General's position is an embarrassment to the country. We ought to be doing everything we can to make sure that people who shouldn't have guns don't get them and the nation's top law enforcement officer actually stands in the way of law enforcement doing what they should do.
ZWERDLING: So Los Angeles and dozens of other cities are suing the gun makers. So are activist groups like the NAACP. There's no law that specifically requires gun makers to crack down on the criminal trade, but Hahn and the other plaintiffs are coming up with novel legal strategies.
HAHN: No, I can't point and say that Colt, or Smith & Wesson, actually murdered somebody on the streets of Los Angeles. But I think their deliberate indifference causes that crime.
I think that's what Ricker points out, is that that's the dirty little secret that they don't want to admit. The dirty little secret is they know their products are getting into the hands of criminals and they could have done something about it.
ZWERDLING: So far, the gun companies have been winning the majority of their legal battles. But that could change. One prominent pro-gun lawyer told the magazine GUN WEEK that Ricker's charges are "devastating."
MOYERS: Devastating indeed. And it explains why the gun distributors, dealers, and manufacturers are flexing their muscle in Congress to get sweeping immunity from citizen lawsuits. If they succeed in the Senate as they have in the House, those lawsuits with Bob Ricker as the star witness would be thrown out.
Sarah Brady has something to say about that. Her husband then the White House press secretary was paralyzed by gunfire during the assassination attempt on President Reagan. Since then, Sarah Brady has been leading a campaign against gun violence. She says the legislation passed this week by the House would slam the courthouse doors to people who have been wronged.
Oh yes, that $50 computer disk that traces which dealers sell guns to criminals? Well, the ATF under Attorney General John Ashcroft is no longer allowed to give out that information.