Steve Sanetti, NSSF President: “The Industry Isn’t the Bad Guys”
February 19, 2013, 9:54 pm ET
Sanetti is the president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry’s main trade group, and the Sporting Arms and Manufacturers’ Institute, both based in Newtown, Conn. In this interview, conducted on Jan. 24, 2013, Sanetti talks about his own history with guns, and why he feels the industry is misunderstood. “People look at a trade association like ours and assume that the only thing you’re interested in is selling guns. Not true,” he told FRONTLINE. “Because let’s face it, we’re the ones who get blamed if products are used unsafely or irresponsibly.”
Like a lot of people I’m guessing your interest in firearms predates your career in firearms. Take us back to sort of the beginning. When, how did you get involved?
I’m one of these fortunate individuals who’s able to combine a hobby and a profession. I started at age 12. A good friend of mine got me interested in his Daisy BB-gun and I checked with my dad and he said OK. I got my own.
My dad had done some duck hunting before. In WWII, he was a Navy vet and we got reintroduced to shooting sports together. We started hunting and target shooting together, and it became a bond that stayed with us all of our lives. He’s deceased, unfortunately. And through the years I kept up that interest. At college I was president of the rile and pistol club and was on the rifle team, and I worked in the [firearms] museum at college, I went to Virginia Military Institute.
And then in law school I did, I guess what you could call subsistence hunting. I didn’t have any money and I was in Virginia and did a lot of small game hunting to eat. I told my kids, you’re really not a poor law student until you think that a squirrel is pretty tasty. I got out of the Army and went to work for a law firm in Bridgeport Conn., and I was a defending Ruger in a product liability cases. And again, I was able to combine a hobby and a profession doing that. Mr. [Bill] Ruger Sr., founder and president of Sturm, Ruger and Company offered me a job in 1980, and I went into Ruger full-time in 1980, and he said that if I played my cards right that I might be president of the company some day. And fortunately that proved to be true, I moved up in the ranks an eventually became president of Sturm, Ruger. I was there for 28 years.
And then five years ago I moved over to my current position at the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the Manufacturers Institute.
So Bill Ruger himself hired you.
Yes. Yes it was quite an honor. It really was.
He came out in favor of high capacity magazine ban. Were you involved in those discussions?
Yes I was.
Did you actually sort of draft those words?
It was kind of a joint effort. And unfortunately it shows you a couple of lessons that we derived from that when we were putting this together. At the time the first assault weapon ban was being considered, the whole idea of “good gun, bad gun” seemed to be an anathema to us, and many people in the firearms community. And so what was bandied about was OK, forget about trying to define good guns or bad guns, unless you look at magazine capacity.
The problem with that, as history had pointed out, is a couple of things. First of all, unfortunately I think it shows the bad faith of the people we were dealing with. We were trying to say it should be a substitute for, at the time, good guns versus bad guns. And the gun control people and the legislators say, OK, we’ll take the magazines, [but] we also want the guns, so it certainly didn’t have the consequence that was intended.
The second thing about it is that when it was enacted during the 10 years that the assault-weapons ban was in effect, along with magazine capacity limitation, violent crime had started to go down during the period before the ban, went down while the ban was in effect, and continues to go down even now. Since 2004, many, many millions of these larger-capacity magazines have gone into circulation and crime has continued to decrease. The Justice Department did a study and concluded that the magazine ban did not have a measurable effect on violent crime. So I think it was an idea that sounded plausible at the time, but history has shown that it really didn’t work out as intended.
And did Bill Sr. seem to come to regret having done that?
I think he didn’t anticipate as much backlash as he got. But I think he felt that it was a way to approach the issue from a different philosophy. But I think ultimately he concluded it was the wrong thing to do. It didn’t work. It perhaps fostered the enactment of an assault weapons ban, which was certainly not as intended. And again, it was proven unnecessary criminologically.
And I take it that there were lessons learned for you, in dealing with the anti-gun side.
Unfortunately, yes. You try to present a good-faith solution for something and it becomes an albatross around your neck. It becomes something where, I hate to say it because it’s been bandied about, but incrementalism. You give people who are truly anti-gun an inch, and they will take a mile. Governor Cuomo of New York state for example, they had a 10- round magazine limitation, and now he’s ratcheted it down to seven. And who knows what it could be, because any magazine limitation has to be an arbitrary number. It’s just someone plucking a number out of the sky.
Millions and millions of law-abiding Americans use semi-automatic firearms with detachable magazines of varying capacities, and millions and millions of them every day don’t do a thing wrong. And so we feel that it’s not the correct approach and do not support magazine limitation.
Now the NSSF’s focus is to preserve, protect and promote hunting and shooting sports. The website talks a lot about hunting, a lot about the shooting sports competition, target shooting, not a whole lot about the use of firearms for home security or even one step further, protection against the tyrannical governments and the issues that come up with the Second Amendment. Is that indicative of either this history of the organization or the member companies of the organization as sort of an intentional focus more on hunting and shooting sports than on security?
Two different aspects of that question. First of all, on the website itself, we do talk a lot about home firearms safety. So if someone does keep a firearm at home, either for personal protection or for involvement in shooting sports there’s a ton of recommendation for how to be a safe and responsible firearms owner.
But by and large, we are a trade association, and our focus is on the business side of the equation. So that when it gets down to issues involving individual rights, individual choices, that sort of thing, we generally don’t get involved with that.
And by no means by this do I mean to indicate that owning firearms for self defense is inappropriate or wrong. But our focus is, as our name indicates, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the sporting side.
On on the child-safe literature that you have out there, it seems like you’re almost trying to persuade people not to have a firearm for home security. That seems sort of unusual. You’re in the business of selling guns.
I’m bemused by the fact that people look at a trade association like ours and assume that the only thing we’re interested in is selling guns. Not true. We want our products to be used safely and responsibly. Because let’s face it, we’re the ones who get blamed if products are used unsafely or irresponsibly.
So we’ve been promoting what the vast majority of American firearms owners do, safe and responsible firearms ownership. And we’ve said, and many of our member companies have said in their own literature, if you don’t want to meet the serious responsibility of owning a firearm, we urge you not to buy one. So this is not just some, let’s sell guns to anybody at all costs. We’re very much concerned with firearms safety. And again the record shows, people can and do own firearms safely and responsibly. The accident rate with firearms has dropped 42 percent in the last 50 years. It’s now less then one percent of all fatal accidents in this country involved the use of firearms. It’s not even in a separate category anymore, according to the National Safety Council. It’s one of the least likely causes of accidental death in this country. Far less then one percent among all age groups. It’s dropping steadily. But we’re going to keep our program going and expand our Project ChildSafe program to help promote safe and responsible firearms use.
It’s like 35 million is that right?
Thirty-five million gunlocks and safety kits were distributed in the past 12 years, that’s correct.
You guys have a much lower profile than the [National Rifle Association] even within Newtown. Is that sort of intentional?
Our job is to serve our members, obviously. That’s what trade associations do. We do have many public safety and education programs in place, such as our Project Child Safe, other things to talk about involving hunting, shooting sports and that kind of thing. So among the shooting community we are very well known.
Among the general public we’re not as well known as the National Rifle Association but again, that’s a different focus. The National Rifle Association focuses on individual membership, individual rights, individual positions on gun control. We focus more on sort of the communal nature, the sale, manufacture, distribution, ownership, storage, that kind of thing. Safety rules, hunting opportunities, shooting opportunities, competition, outdoor media. So our focuses are different.
So it’s pretty natural that an organization that has a membership base, like the National Rifle Association, of just ordinary folks is going to be different, larger, more powerful, than an industry trade association, which has many fewer members. The NRA has about 4 million members, we have about 8,000 members. So it’s certainly a difference in scale.
It’s also I think important to point out that in the press many times you hear the National Rifle Association referred to as the manufacturers’ lobby, and that really couldn’t be further from the truth. The strength of the National Rifle Association is because it represents individual firearms owners. Many, many millions of them. The hunters and shooters of America feel very strongly and passionately about their right to own and use firearms, and they feel horrible and they are blamed for acts beyond their control. That’s where the NRA gets its strength and passion, not from the manufacturers. And that’s a distinction that I think is very important.
Good relationship between the two organizations?
I think so. I think so.
Within Newtown, is the NSSF known? I’ve talked to a number of different people that say I have no idea they were here.
Connecticut is not known now for being a state of great firearms ownership, but ironically, Connecticut is where the firearms industry got its beginning. And that’s why the National Shooting Sports Foundation is in Connecticut. All the major manufacturers of firearms and ammunition were generally centered around the Connecticut River Valley during the Industrial Revolution. In fact, the firearms industry is America’s oldest industry. Interchangeable parts came from the firearms industry. That’s where this whole thing began. Lathes that made gun stocks were later used to turn furniture.
So there’s a rich history of the firearms industry in Connecticut. Some companies still remain and many of them have left the state and gone on to other areas. But the National Shooting Sports Foundation, being a trade association, was where the major nexus of the companies were originally. Most people don’t know of us again, because we are a trade association. We are not something that the individual man on the street gets mailings for that says, “please join our organization.” That’s not what we do.
Do you have research on sort of the reasons why people are buying guns?And has that changed? Is there a shift either way or towards hunting, shooting sports, home security?
Yes, we do do research about why people buy and own firearms, and our most recent survey showed many interesting aspects of that. First of all, for the first time in 25 years, hunting license sales have gone up during the last five years. They’ve gone up nine percent according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. That reflects a reversal of a 25-year trend. There are many more first-time buyers now buying firearms, and 42 percent of first time buyers, according to our retailer surveys, are women. That’s I think an interesting trend too. You have a lot of single-parent families now. A lot of women are seeking to have firearms for personal protection.
The age of firearms buyers remains the same. Most people that buy firearms are in the 35-45 age bracket. A lot of the younger firearms purchasers, meaning in their 30s and early 40s are also buying what we term a sporting rifle, which are semi-automatic firearms modeled on the AR-15 platform. So that’s also a definite shift in the market.
But throughout all of this, with gun sales going up — 30 consecutive months of month-over-month growth in the firearms market — the best news of all is that firearms crime is going down. It’s not skyrocketing. It’s not an epidemic of violence despite what we understandably feel from what we see in the media. It’s just not so. Gun sales are up, crime is down, accidents are down, and that’s great news.
You had said in your state of the industry [address at the NSSF's 2013 annual SHOT Show], the state of the industry is “misunderstood.” What is it that you want people to to understand about the industry and what’s the biggest misunderstanding about it?
The biggest? There are many. But again, we touched on one of them. One of them we mentioned is that the industry is run by the National Rifle Association and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Another misunderstanding about the industry is that we are only interested in selling guns at all costs, we don’t care about safety, we don’t care about crime. Couldn’t be more wrong. You’ve seen all the programs we’ve put together to foster safe and responsible firearms ownership.
Looking at our website, nssf.org, you will see all that. This is an integral part of who we are and what we do.
Then you see the stereotypes of what the industry is. You see it in films, movies all the time. According to the media we are nothing but a bunch of greedy fat cats who could care less about anything other than making a profit.
We’re in this business because we love it. We have a passion for the outdoors for hunting, for conservation. Hunters are the biggest conservationist in terms of dollars committed, by excise payments on firearms and ammunition then any group in the country. You ask most people who pays for conservation and they’ll say the Sierra Club, or another conservation group. It’s hunters and shooters, through license sales and excise taxes. We pay for the conservation of all species, game and non-game alike. That’s another misconception that people have.
I think also people think that well, the industry makes these guns that are weapons of war and only useful for killing people and are only used for violence. Couldn’t be further form the truth. Our surveys show that the vast majority of people buying these guns use them for target shooting. And those modern sporting rifles are actually shot more at target ranges than people going trap, skeet, or sporting combined. So there are many misconceptions about who we are and what we do. It’s a fabric of America that we in the cities don’t really understand. I understand that they don’t understand, because if you live in the city, primarily what you see about firearms is an anti-personnel use, whether it’s by law enforcement to prevent crimes, or by the bad guys involved in crimes.
You get out in the country where firearms are an accepted fact of life, they are misused less often, the crime rate is lower. People understand firearms use and can’t understand why we’re not portrayed in the media as just another American enjoying what they do with their family.
Let’s talk so-called assault rifles. Chris Murphy, [the junior senator from Connecticut] just earlier today said that assault weapons are designed to kill people, period. Does Christ Murphy know what he’s talking about?
With all due respect he could not be more wrong. Look at it this way: You have millions and millions and millions of Americans who pass a background check, who buy these guns and have millions and millions of magazines for these guns. The crime rate has been going down.
If you tell these people, who are good people of America, who may be of a younger demographic than people like myself, to whom a rifle has a wooden stock and a blue finish, you take these people who use these guns for legitimate purposes, and you tell them, “You’re nothing but a murderer, because that’s the only reason why anyone would own guns is to kill people.” How are you going to get these people to cooperate?
How are you going to get these people to say: “Oh yes, congressmen, senator, representative, you’re a man of good faith. You understand me, you understand the problems of America and we can join forces.” When congressmen, senators, elected representatives say, the only reason these guns are useful is to kill people, they ignore the reality that that’s just not true and they really, really to the core alienate people who, if we are to have a national consensus on this issue, need to be involved. So I violently disagree with what he says.
I’ve heard a lot of talk that the only difference is cosmetic between what some call an assault weapon and just any semi-automatic rifle. Is it possible that in the hands of a deranged young man with some sort of war fantasy going on in his brain that the cosmetics do matter? Could you entertain the thought that this more aggressive-looking rifle could be part of the problem even in as an inanimate object? Just that aggressive look to it?
Some people are afraid of any gun. To some people they’ll look at any gun and say, that’s aggressive, that’s violence, that personifies death. And so if that’s the case and the people’s attitude towards firearms being informed by their own perceptions or misperceptions, I think they are way off base. I don’t think that the way a firearm looks does anything except reflect the individual taste and purchasing choice of the owner.
Nothing today is the same as it was 50, 60 or 100 years ago, whether it’s telephones, drills, you name it. The appearances of everything are changing. To most younger people, I mean people in the young buying demographic, to them, that’s what firearms look like today. It’s a natural evolution to use synthetic materials and to build them on a platform that is to them what a gun looks like.
And that’s what you see when you go into a gun store, you see firearms that resemble but are not fully automatic firearms. They are purposefully designed to only be fired one shot for each pull and the release of the trigger, just like the most popular duck guns in this country, the most popular target pistols in this country, the most popular small-game rifles in this country like I used when I was shooting squirrels to eat when I was in law school. And if the vast majority of people buy them don’t use them for any wrong purpose, you can’t say that these guns bring up the worst in people. They are neutral objects. We do not and would not subscribe to there is good guns and bad guns.
There is a sense that America is a gun culture, that there are more suicides by gun than in any other countries, more homicides by guns than any countries. Is there something about the DNA of our nation that simply has guns used as the implements more often than another countries? Does the industry bear any responsibility for whatever culture we have here?
Let me back up just for a second. Let’s take Connecticut. In Connecticut there are exactly two homicides committed with a rifle of any kind in the last seven years. There were 40 deaths annually from knives, 320 deaths annually from clubs and 20 deaths annually from hands and feet. So it’s not just firearms.
Yes, firearms can be misused, but other things can be misused too. So the focus I think should be on violence. I think insofar as access to firearms by persons who are unauthorized to have them, that’s certainly something that we’ve long advocated and something that we think is the right way to go. Rather than say, “Guns are bad,” what we say is, “Guns are here.” They are part of the fabric of our society, and so what we need to do is to make sure that responsible gun owners make sure that they are not accessible to children or at-risk individuals.
We have many programs in place like our Project ChildSafe to help prevent that and to make sure that when some one is buying a firearm from a dealer, that that person is authorized to have access to that gun to purchase it legally. And if that means enhancing the background check, we’ve been advocating that for decades.
The industry, another misconception, is the one that founded the background check. We supported the background check as early as 1988 when it became apparent that computers were moving along to the point where there could be an instantaneously point-of-sale retail background check for firearms purchases. So we think denying access to unqualified individuals, certainly criminals, mentally incompetents, etc., they should not have firearms, that’s the way to go. It shouldn’t be putting additional restrictions on law abiding gun owners, it should be making sure that only the correct person have access to firearms.
Dec. 14, the day of the shooting. Were you in Connecticut? Were you in the office? How did you find out about it?
That was a horrible day. I was actually on my way to Europe and I found out about it watching a bulletin in the airport. My jaw dropped open as everybody’s at the airport did, as increasing information came in and kept coming in about this horrible unspeakable incident. And I immediately cancelled my trip and got back to the office.
Did you sense very early on my industry is gonna come under attack from this?
Of course, we kept a very respectful silence until last week to make any comments except to express sympathy, understandable sympathy for this horrible loss that the people had there. They were all parents and grandparents.I have a number of teachers in my family, so we certainly can sympathize. Nobody can fully appreciate the grief that they are going through. We figured that this would probably mean that the spotlight would be turned on our industry, as happens in incidents like this. We feel that we’ve done nothing wrong, that we are a responsible industry making responsible products for law-abiding citizens, actively promoting lawful and responsible gun ownership. But people react emotionally. And I think people make bad decisions when they are angry, when they are fearful and when they act in haste.
And I think that this situation had the making of all three. The president and the vice president moving very quickly, proposing things that we could be debating for quite some time, Gov. Cuomo of New York passing legislation, ramrodding it through that doesn’t even have an exception for law enforcement written in to it because it acted so hastily. So a policeman in New York now has to have 7 rounds in his magazine, things like that.
There’s a time for grieving, a time for mourning, a time for calm, reflective deliberation. As I said in my state of the industry speech, of course we feel with our hearts, but we have to think with our brains. We have to go through and say, “What’s really going to make a difference?” Not just pass some feel good legislation to say we have done something.
Believe me, people who believe in the Second Aamendment and their right to own firearms, they really see the danger here, that in our understandable grief and in our understandable zeal to do something, acting in haste and out of fear or anger could end up with some very bad decisions that hurt the tradition of responsible, lawful firearms ownership and use in America.
Have you faced a bigger political challenge than this? Is this as tough as it’s going to get or as tough as it’s been for the gun industry?
I have never heard of an incident in this country where 20 young children have been killed. This is an order of magnitude so much more than anything else. It’s incomprehensible. How someone could harm these poor little kids? It’s incomprehensible. So of course the feelings are going to run high on this, they run high on this in our industry. And so we feel as though we have to try to make our views known in interviews like this, that we are a responsible industry, speaking for responsible law abiding Americans who have done nothing wrong, who cherish their traditions, cherish their family and their children, and want to be part of the solution.
But it has to be a real solution, and not a “if it feels good do something” reaction to the situation of unprecedented magnitude.
We talked a little earlier about NSSF, certainly more lower key nationally, politically than the NRA. Is that going to change? Do you feel you need to be more out front now? Are you going to be more forceful?
We are going to be announcing some additional programs as time goes on to enhance the efforts we’ve already done. I met with Vice President [Joe] Biden during the hearings he was holding two weeks ago to come up with some recommendations. We expressed our views to him, we at the SHOT Show have gone public with our views at my state of the industry address.
You’ll be seeing more coming from us. We do need to be part of this debate. We are the experts in firearms safety. When gun-control organizations attempt to recast themselves as gun-safety groups they don’t have credibility with gun owners. Because gun owners see that as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
We are the original gun safety organization and you can see from our literature, our websites, our public pronouncements, that’s what we are about. We want to promote safe and responsible enjoyment of hunting and shooting sports. We’re going to do a lot more of that. We need to make sure that the public understands that the firearms industry producing safe products for responsible shooters can be part of the solution and we want to be in the dialogue.
Were you involved in New York? Did you make efforts there to block legislation?
We sent someone to hear what was going on, but it became pretty apparent that Gov. Cuomo was just steamrolling this through. As we do in most places when we hear that there’s some draconian legislation passing, we talk to people, we try and make our views known, but this seemed like the train had left the station. The majority in the New York legislature found they didn’t want to hear us, their mind was made up.
[Are there reforms] you can get behind?
Not from what it sounds like. If you buy a handgun in Connecticut, they are already registered. What Gov. Cuomo said I think was very instructive, he said, “Why do we need registration in New York? We need registration so we know who the people who own guns are, and if necessary we can go get them.” That’s his words, not mine. This is one of the deepest fears that firearms owners in this country have expressed and up until now, they’ve sort of been brushed aside as saying, that’s just paranoia, even President Obama says, “Nobody’s going to come take your guns.” And here you have the governor of the second-most populous state in the country, saying we want you to register your guns so we know where they are and we can come and get them. And this was him saying this, this wasn’t some paranoid fantasy.
So that’s something that we don’t believe in a free society that government should be involved with. We think that government should be involved in making sure that people who buy firearms from licensed retailers are adequately checked, are not criminals, are mentally sound, and they should fund whatever systems they need to make sure that happens. We don’t need any more laws.
We don’t need any more restrictions. We have an assault-weapons ban in Connecticut. We have pistol registration. We have safe-storage laws. We have waiting periods. I think we’re number four in the Brady Center’s list, in all of the country, right near the top of the list of the most stringent gun-control laws. But none of that makes any difference if shooters don’t use personal responsibility as their guide. That’s the key here. If this woman had safely stored her guns, inaccessible to her son when they were not in use, this shooting would not have occurred. And that is another thing that has gotten totally lost in this debate and I think that bears repeating.
If she’d had the guns for home security, doesn’t that become a difficult thing? How can you have the gun unloaded with a lock on it, in a gun safe, ammunition in another spot locked up? That becomes a gun with not much use for personal security.
Well again, they should be unloaded and stored separate from ammunition and locked up when they are not in use. If someone is using it for home protection, that’s a different circumstance. And circumstances vary depending on where you live, what your personal circumstances are. I’ll give you an example: If my wife is alone in our cabin up in northern New England, and I’m on the road somewhere, there are two police officers in the entire town. There have been break-ins. There have been some crimes in the area. She wants to feel that she has some security. And let’s face it, when there’s a conflict going on like that, there was a big article in Time magazine just recently — it might have been Newsweek — but anyway, there’s an article saying how fine motor coordination gets lost in situations of stress. You can’t expect people to be unlocking guns and that kind of thing.
So in a circumstance like that, when there’s nobody around except my wife, there’s not children around, there’s no unauthorized people around, she can keep a gun and have it ready for self defense.
When you were talking earlier the New York law, fears of confiscation. That feels like sort of a debate that the NSSF has not engaged in, that typically you have promoted kind of hunting and sports side of it, not so much the security. Is this a comfortable area for you to get into? Are we going to see the NSSF saying sort of very strong Second Amendment protection from government sorts of things we hear from other groups?
We certainly are strong believers in the Second Amendment and the right of the individual to keep and bear arms as expressed by the Supreme Court. The right predates the Supreme Court. The right goes back to the Constitution that recognizes a pre-existing right to self-defense. Now I’m saying that as a lawyer and as a philosophical statement. But the National Shooting Sports Foundation, by its name, is primarily concerned with hunting and shooting sports. So we generally don’t get into those issues.
So high-capacity magazines I would think that’s something that’s of much less concern, practically, maybe not philosophically, but practically of less concern to a hunter or a target shooter than someone interested in personal security or security from government.
Not necessarily. Because again, why are people buying the AR-type rifles? They are buying them to go target shooting. That’s what the surveys show. That’s what the dealers tell us. They are also buying large magazines and large amounts of ammunition.
The shooting games have changed along with the resurgence of these particular rifles. So just because somebody wants to own a larger magazine, it doesn’t mean they are going to be using them for hunting. Because clearly for hunting, magazine capacity is restricted to three shots for water fowl, migratory bird hunting, and five shots for big game hunting. But for someone who just wants to own a firearm to shoot or for personal protection, the larger magazine makes sense.
You take handgun for example. When law enforcement shifted from a six-shot revolver to a 15-shot pistol, back 25 years ago, they made the draw that the larger magazine was the best way they could protect the public and that is their job to do.
So a lot of the first-time buyers are going into the gun store right now, and when they are contemplating buying their first pistol, if it’s for home protection, man or woman, they’ll ask the dealer what does law enforcement use? And they’ll say the police will use this gun or this gun or this gun. And they usually have 15-round magazines, give or take, and that’s what the homeowner chooses to own, with the theory that if it’s good enough for law enforcement, it’s good enough for me. So even though self defense is not really our main area, it is certainly a reason that we understand from our retailers, why people are buying guns. For lawful purposes. And so it’s something that’s meeting a consumer demand.
Do you think you’ve got a cohesive group of firearms enthusiasts across the spectrum out there?
I think the greater the perceived threat, the greater everybody comes together. And that’s not just in the firearms community, that’s human nature. This is a massive threat and I really think people in the firearms world, people who are enthusiasts and responsible gun owners whether they enjoy hunting or target shooting or collecting or home protection, I think they see this as an attack on everybody and I think they see that piecemeal, giving ground, or attacks on one are attacks on the whole.
So I don’t see that there is going to be a visible split in ranks. I just don’t see that.
So the industry’s certainly getting a lot of blame [that] I know you think is misplaced. Who is to blame for this? Who or what is to blame for what happened in Newtown?
I think primarily the firearms owner in this instance was not exercising that degree of personal responsibility that by all logical assessments of the situation she should have done. She knew she had an at-risk individual in her home, who was her son. She knew he needed help. She knew he was mentally troubled. She had firearms in the house that she purchased legally. She had gone through all the background check required in Connecticut, the guns were registered to her, nothing was done improperly or illegally. But where I think she really caused this incident was by not adequately storing these guns securely away from her son who she knew to have these problems. Had she done that this incident would not have occurred and you wouldn’t see this big cry over, let’s have more gun control.
Because frankly there are all sorts of ways that she could have done this. There’s safes, there’s locks, all kinds of devices on the market. All the handgun manufacturers are required by law to include a locking device along with their firearms. The vast majority of long gun manufacturers, all the major companies, they include appropriate locking devices right on the box along with their gun. They have to be available at point of sale, that’s the law, from all firearms retailers.
So she could have done any one or a number of things to keep these guns away from her son and she didn’t do that. So in my way of thinking she bears the blame because personal responsibility is the key.
Back in time a little bit. There was an ordinance considered in Newtown about target shooting and the like on property. The sense I get is that the folks who put that together thought they were putting together a fairly noncontroversial, noise/nuisance ordinance. I take it you instantly saw it as something else.
Newtown is still a relatively rural community and there is a lot of hunting that goes on there. There are some target ranges around there, and I think people that do go hunting in that area were concerned that this was overreaching. I confess I don’t know the details of the ordinance that was being discussed. But I know that a lot of groups, including local gun clubs, not just the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the individual owners, were opposed to this because they thought it was well intended but it was overreaching, and it would have prevented them from actually exercising their trips with their family to go hunting. And so they thought that this needed to be opposed and it was. But I was not involved directly with it.
But the foundation spoke out against it. Does that illustrate some of the divide in the country, the misunderstanding you’re talking about that we have these people who are gun enthusiasts, and people who don’t understand guns, is that what was going in town?
I think that’s part of it. I think there is a great divide in the United States. People’s experiences and attitudes about firearms and hunting and shooting and their owners are colored by their individual unique personal experiences. And so I understand coming form an urban environment that some people are just afraid of guns, they don’t want anything to do with them, they don’t like the noise, they don’t like anything involved with guns or shooters.
On the other hand, the shooting community, who’s here first, says that wait a minute, we live in this town too, we’re responsible, law-abiding people doing what we love to do with people who love to do it with. And therefore why are you coming after us?
And again, we need to strike a balance. Just because there are two sides doesn’t mean we can’t agree and just because there is a divide of some people about what the industry does or what individual gun owners do doesn’t mean that those groups don’t have a legitimate place to speak with their representatives and to speak with people considering legislation we think may not have been thought through adequately to make sure that the end product fairly represents what should be done.
We’re now involved in a much larger involving debate involving firearms. Newtown, has it brought the nation together, or has it pushed both sides maybe into their corners?
While there may be two sides about guns, there’s one side about protecting children. Gun owners love their children. They love other children. We need to make sure that children are safe. We all want a safe society. We all want to be able to go about our business and do what we do and not be overly burden by governmental regulation, but also have an honest respect for the opinions of other people. We’re all Americans. We all want the same thing. Gun owners just want to be basically left alone to do what they do because they don’t hurt anyone.
We’re not the bad guys. The industry isn’t the bad guys. Insofar as we can help the situation we want to be able to help. But that doesn’t mean piling meaningless restrictions and onerous conditions upon people who want to exercise their rights and just enjoy what they do peacefully.
Public opinion polls frankly haven’t moved all that much on the core issues. Most people recognize that there are legitimate roles for firearms. Most people understand we need to crack down on criminals and those people who have access to guns that shouldn’t have access to guns, and most people believe that firearms should be owned safely and responsibly.
We get that. We’re all on the same page. So let’s work together and start demonizing each other. Let’s stop spreading falsehoods like these guns are only used in battlefields of war, they’re only used to kill people. Or these are machine guns, that kind of thing. It doesn’t help the debate. All it does is really put off a lot of people that you don’t want to put off.
Six months from now do you think your rights as a gun owner are gonna be more restricted than they are today, and do you think society will be safer for it?
I think it’s a false dilemma. I don’t know in the first instance whether things will be more restrictive. That’s ultimately up to the legislators and regulatory bodies. But I don’t think just because more restrictions might be reenacted on lawful firearms owners that that makes societies safer. The cities that have the most restrictive gun laws in this country have the highest rates of crime so it’s non-sequitur to say more gun laws necessarily make us safer.
And when there are efforts to restrict the sales of guns, what happens to the sales of guns?
Naturally they go up. I think that’s another facet of the American character. I think as Prohibition pointed out, once the government says you can’t have something, people want it. And so by drawing attention to this, the government I think is actually promoting sales of firearms, and the theory that we don’t know what’s going to happen six months from now and perhaps I will not be able to buy firearms or ammunition of my choice and therefore I better buy them now — it has the unintended consequence of driving more gun sales.
Now, we want people to own firearms for the right reasons because they understand, respect them, enjoy them, and will use them safely, properly, and responsibly. So the idea of a mad rush for everybody to buy a firearm I don’t think is necessarily the best trend in the world but it’s a fact of life because, as I say, we’re Americans, and if you say we can’t have something, people want it.
SUPPORT PROVIDED BY
FRONTLINE Watch FRONTLINE About FRONTLINE Contact FRONTLINE
FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
Web Site Copyright ©1995-2013 WGBH Educational Foundation
PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.