Interview with Garen Wintemute

Garen Wintemute

A professor of epidemiology and an emergency room physician at the University of California, Davis; Director of the Violence Prevention Research Program; and the author of Ring of Fire: The Handgun Makers of Southern California.

Q: [The gun manufacturers] argument is that to set laws that would single out the less expensive handguns is actually prejudicial towards people of different economic groups...What's your reaction to that?

"...these companies feel no sense of responsibility for what happens to their products once those products leaves the loading docks......I don't think that's an ethical way to do business in any sort of product. I don't care whether it's a firearm, a blender, a car. It makes no difference." Wintemute: I think that line of argument is totally bogus on several grounds, one of which has just been added, frankly, in the last few weeks...First off, by analogy, why don't we set up double standards for motor vehicles. Let's have safe reliable cars for rich people and let's have poor unreliable cars that don't meet minimum federal safety standards for poor people, because you can make them more poorly.

Nobody would tolerate such a proposal being made sincerely, but that's precisely the situation that we have, the situation that Congress created thirty years ago with the Gun Control Act of 1968.

The handgun market, in particular, has been following very much in the steps of the cigarette industry. In the mid-1980's, as had happened with the cigarette industry, handgun sales crashed. As the cigarette industry had done before them, the handgun industry went looking for the source of the problem. They determined, as the cigarette industry have, that they had saturated their traditional market and they needed to go looking for new markets.

One of the markets they identified was women. Like any other consumer product, marketing research was done. It was learned that this potential new market was intimidated by the weight and feel of traditional handguns. The product was redesigned. It was made smaller, lighter. It was made--feminine colors if you will. There are guns these days that come with pink grips and purple grips. There are guns named the Lady Smith, the Lady Elite, and so forth. It hasn't worked, by the way, with regard to women.

But the handgun industry exhibit all the behaviors of a consumer product industry.

Q: What consumer product safety guidelines are there in the handgun industry and why?

Wintemute: One of the truly remarkable facts about this whole story is that there are almost no standards regarding the design, the performance, the safety, the reliability of handguns made here in the United States. Although, there are literally dozens of those standards for handguns that are made in other countries and imported here.

There are a couple of exceptions and they're fairly recent. These days you can no longer make a handgun that has an ammunition capacity of more than ten rounds. That ammunition limit was set as part of the 1994 crime bill. But the basic consumer protection framework that people have come to know and rely upon for everything from motor vehicles to teddy bears simply does not exist. And it does not exist as a result of conscious and deliberate action taken by Congress in the 1960's.

Q: What did Congress do?

Wintemute: Let me sketch a bigger picture here. In the 1960's two things were happening. Motor vehicle fatality rates were very high and climbing. Our focus in those days was on the behavior of the nut behind the wheel. And in the 1960's, for the first time since early in this century, death rates from firearm violence were also skyrocketing.

In the former case, with motor vehicles, Congress decided to take an entirely different approach to the problem. To focus not just on the behavior of people who use motor vehicles, but to focus on the product. We now are the beneficiaries of literally hundreds of safety standards for cars, trucks, how roads are built, all of which are relatively new and all of which, taken together, have cut the motor vehicle death rate in half.

Best estimate that if we, these days, were subject to the same sort of mortality rates that pertained before this change, in the 1960's, there would be a hundred thousand people dying in motor vehicle crashes in the United States every year. Instead, there are a forty thousand. It's still a lot, but it's a lot less than it could have been.

Back to handguns. Again, rising rates in the late 1960's, the same policy makers who adopted that sort of broader approach with regard to motor vehicle injuries, elected not to adopt that approach with regard to firearm violence to maintain an almost exclusive focus on the behavior of people used this product, who used guns, with one exception.

In the 1960's, there was anecdotal evidence that was probably valid, that there was a particular class of handguns that were being used not just frequently, but disproportionately, in crime. Saturday Night Specials. That's when we first heard the term. A Detroit police captain coined it.

Those guns were cheap, unreliable, small caliber revolvers in those days, and imported. Key point. Congress--an act of legislation under which the Treasury Department, the ATF, banned the importation of Saturday Night Specials, but Congress consciously, deliberately, with debate, with forethought, chose not to apply those standards to guns made in the United States. They still don't apply.

Two years after the Gun Control Act of 1968 is enacted, George Jennings is in business with Raven Arms in Southern California and the rest is history.

Q: Let's get into that history.

Wintemute: So the particular story we're talking about starts with a man named George Jennings, who is running a company that makes aircraft machine parts in the late 1960's. Gun Control Act of 1968 passes. George Jennings spends about $50,000, retools from the making of aircraft parts to the making of a .25 caliber pistol, the Raven 25, and he's in business by 1970.

We've talked about 'The Ring of Fire', a group of companies that happens to be located all in Southern California. They are located close to one another for, among other reasons, the fact that most of them are controlled by members of the same family. George Jennings' son, Bruce, learns the trade from dad, splits off in 1978 to found his own company, Jennings Firearms. Bruce's sister, Gail, splits off with her husband, Jim Davis, who's George Jenning's plant manager, to found Davis Industries in 1982.

Things go fairly well for a while--but then these three companies start to compete with one another. And then on to the market also comes a high-school buddy of Bruce Jennings, by the name of Jim Waldorf, who decides there's room for me too, and he goes into business making the same sort of guns. His plant manager is the disaffected brother John, of Jim Davis, husband to Gail Jennings, daughter to George Jennings. Not to leave out George's nephew Steve, who also founds a company that never got very big and has since gone out of production. It's one family.

Q: Why is this an industry that is so tightly controlled by one family, given the profits that are out there? You would think there would be a lot of competition to get into this market.

Wintemute: It's an interesting question. And nobody knows for sure. I have some ideas about it. First off, there had been a Saturday Night Special industry of sorts, assembling the parts of guns that were made overseas and so forth; that industry had mostly been located in Florida.

Not only did the loophole that made that industry possible get closed by Congress, but several of those companies got involved in very nasty product liability suits. I think there was probably some concern about that happening again. So, maybe some of the potential players were a little reticent.

Number two, these companies here in Southern California, once they were established, grew like crazy. And it may be that other potential players decided not to buck that trend.

And finally, I personally believe this to be the case: at least until fairly recently, some of the companies that you might expect to have gone into competition, companies like Smith and Wesson and Colt and Beretta, chose not to enter the low end of the market...Whether it was because they'd been in business for up to 500 years and had a reputation to protect, or whether they were concerned simply that producing cheap guns might tarnish the reputation of the good guns that they made. I think those companies chose not to compete.

Q: What got you into this?

Wintemute: [I]t's actually very simple. I'm an ER doc. I practice emergency medicine, and I used to do it full time. It occurred to me as it does to many people in that specialty that it's not enough just to treat trauma. We need to prevent it. And that's particularly the case with regard to firearm trauma, gunshot wounds. And here's why.

Even in these days, in big cities with regionalized fancy trauma systems, most of the people who die after being shot never even make it to an emergency department. They die where they're shot. And of those people who do make it into the emergency medical system, a trauma team and all of that, of those who die, better than 95% die within the first 24 hours.

And what that says to me and to a lot of other people is that we're probably already saving pretty much all the lives we're going to be able to say through advances in medical care. And if we want to expand our ability to save people from dying from a gunshot wound, we need to keep them from getting shot in the first place. And that's why so many people in emergency medicine and trauma are involved in the prevention side as well as the treatment side.

Q: One of the things that some law enforcement people have said is that they fear that by banning those guns, you force these produce more lethal guns. Is that a concern of yours?

Wintemute: That train's already left the station. For the Ring of Fire companies in particular, all of the growth in their production, from the late 80's through 1993 when they was in their production of medium-caliber guns. The small- caliber Saturday Night Special is probably finished. It's just going to take a while for it actually to disappear, is my guess...If suddenly, inexpensive guns were not available...And if then, there was suddenly a lot more demand for the more expensive guns, those guns would then become even more expensive and some people would probably be priced out of the market...Bruce Jennings, among others, is showing us that you can inexpensively make guns that meet those importation criteria.

Q: It sounds like we have a trend where cheaper, more powerful, more efficient, easier to use guns--all the work you're doing to try to reduce gun violence is coming up against market trends that are leading something that will create more serious gun violence.

Wintemute: That's right. Here's the scariest possible scenario, I think. That as a result of all of those factors, we'll have available, in large number and therefore probably relatively inexpensively, guns that are more powerful, more reliable, easier to use, more accurate than concealable handguns have been before.

And those guns are going to be coming onto the market, continues the scary scenario, precisely at a time when, over the next few years, there is again an explosion in the number of teenagers and adults in our population.

We're all aware, and it's a wonderful thing, that rates of violent crime have been dropping for several years. It may, unfortunately, be the case that that's largely simply because there aren't many people in that high-risk age group around right now, compared to historical trends. But they're coming back and they may arrive at about the same time that these guns do.

However, I'm not sure that it's going to happen, and here's why: the new concealed weapons laws have been on the books for a number of years now in quite a few states; that new market, all those people who are going to get a permit and go out and buy a gun, doesn't seem to have materialized.

Handgun sales have been going down very sharply for several years now. If that new market had shown up at the counter, that wouldn't have happened. I don't know where we're headed.

Q: Tell me who Jim Waldorf [is] and what his contribution to the gun [market] has been.

Wintemute: Jim Waldorf came into this business as a high school buddy of Bruce Jennings, the owner of Jennings Firearms. He founded Lorcin Engineering in 1989 with a member of the Jennings family as his plant manager. For several years, Jim Waldorf was easily the most public of the senior member of this clan. He was willing to talk to the media and so forth. He seemed to enjoy it.

And his company was far and away the fastest growing of all of the Ring of Fire companies from the moment it started operation in 1989 until 1993. I think also Jim Waldorf probably gets a lot of the credit for this entire group of companies move into medium caliber pistol production.

But since 1993 his company has taken as a great a hit as any of the others. It's production in 1995 is a quarter of what it was in 1993. Bruce Jennings told me he thinks Lorcin Engineering will be out of business by the middle of 1997.

Q: Let's go back a few years, when Lorcin started out, and describe what their contributions were at the time, both in terms of product and marketing.

Wintemute:...When Lorcin started, they took an approach that differed from that taken by the companies that had begun earlier. The earlier companies started making one kind of gun, and then sort of gradually blossomed. Lorcin started doing it all at once...They were the first of the companies, as I recall, to very explicitly target their products in part toward women. They have a famous ad with three of their pistols, one with a pearl-handled grip, one with a pink grip; and the caption on the ad is "Three little ladies that get the job done." It's an ad that appears in Women and Guns, but in other magazines as well.

And, in particular, they focused more than the other companies had, certainly in their early years, on medium caliber guns. I think Jim Waldorf may have seen before anybody else did that if they were going to continue in business, they needed to be part of this arms race that we're all witnessing. That they needed to be able to produce, for the same price, a gun that was substantially more powerful than the guns with which they were competing. The .22s and the .25s. And they pulled that off.

Q: Does the ATF do an effective job in regulating the gun industry, in your opinion?

Wintemute:...Unfortunately, I don't think that ATF does an effective job of regulating the firearm industry. It's clearly not their fault. There are very, very strict limits set on what they're allowed to do. They are attempting to regulate an industry with one hand and several other fingers tied behind their back. The last time they tried to make a serious effort to regulate not just the industry, but even illegal commerce in firearms, there was a serious effort made to abolish them altogether.

To give you one example, we've talked about the fact there are no designer performance standards for guns made in the United States. If ATF identifies a gun as defective--let's say, for example, if you drop it a short distance on to a table or something, it will fire; they canít do anything about that.

They can notify the company...and they can make that notification public if they choose to. But they have absolutely no authority to compel that manufacturer to repair that defect in the design of the gun.

Q: Talk about their ability to trace guns and how they are restricted in that.

Wintemute: ATF has been tied to archaic technology to try and identify guns that have been used in crime, to trace them. For example, a tracing request comes in.

ATF has no registry of guns that have been sold. They're forbidden by law from keeping such a registry. There is no central registry of handguns. ATF, if they've got a gun and they have the serial number, they have to contact the manufacturer...And the manufacturer hopefully can tell them. Sometimes that's not the case.

They then have to call that, usually wholesaler...And then they get to a dealer. And then hopefully the dealer will have records. And then from there they have to basically go on foot and try and track that gun one step at a time.

Q: It sounds inefficient.

Wintemute: It's tremendously inefficient. And it's inefficient by design. They are prevented, legislatively, from using more modern methods to trace guns. They are prevented, legislatively, from having anything that might look like a central registry of guns that have been sold.

Q: With all the concern about crime, and the legislation we see passed to deal with crime, why is there legislation that actively prevents ATF from tracing crime guns?

Wintemute: It is the firearms industry--and firearms users have had very powerful friends in Congress and on occasion very powerful friends in the White House. Some of the young firebrand in the House of Representatives, who made it his personal goal in the 1970's to be sure that the consumer product safety commission had no authority over firearms. The member of the House of Representatives, whos board member of the National Rifle Association, was John Dingle. John Dingle still sits in the House of Representatives and still, when it's possible for him, blocks legislation that might set up some of the things that we've been talking about.

There's a professional sportsmen's Congress, supported by the firearms industry and related industries. A huge number of members of Congress belong to that special interest group. The firearms industry, traditionally, didn't even have to do a lot of lobbying. They had this tremendously powerful users group, the National Rifle Association, who did all the dirty work for them...They've [firearms industry] formed a new industry association, which very aggressively promotes a pro-firearms industry agenda, even where that sometimes differs from the agenda of the NRA, interestingly enough.

Q: What is your reaction to the fact that someone could steal six thousand guns out of Lorcin Engineers?

Wintemute: I'm not surprised. Let me give you a contrast. I've been to Lorcin on more than one occasion and have parked my car and just walked up to an open door, on the other side of which, was their production facility. I didn't walk in, but I clearly could have done that. It was a relatively open plant. It's in a light industry area in San Bernardino county. Its next door neighbor for a while was an L.A. Times office. This is not heavy industry we're talking about here.

Let me give you the contrast, Smith and Wesson. Go to Smith and Wesson, hundreds and hundred of yards away from the manufacturing facility, you encounter a gate. You do not get through that gate without clearance of the very burly, very well-informed and electronically connected security guard, whoís in a block house. And if you did get in, you'd have a hard time getting into the plant. Most of Smith and Wesson's plant is underground, for security reasons. It was built at a time when they were worried about its destruction as an act of war. But Smith and Wesson is like a fortress. Lorcin is an open facility.

Q: Is it that [these] companies don't care?

Wintemute:...I think, and this is not unique to Lorcin, that these companies feel no sense of responsibility for what happens to their products once those products leaves the loading docks.

I don't think that's an ethical way to do business in any sort of product. I don't care whether it's a firearm, a blender, a car. It makes no difference.

Q:...Is there a [connection] between this casual disregard for the manufacturing procedure, the security, and where the guns end up...?

Wintemute: I think that the link between the company's attitude and where the guns end up exists and it's indirect, though. The link is that attitude leads them to make a kind of gun that ends up, I argue, disproportionately involved in crime. I'm not personally aware of any evidence that the management of these companies deliberately manufactures guns for use in crime. It appears not to bother them particularly, but I don't think they're deliberately doing that.

Q:...[D]o you think [the Mendoza case] is a typical story of how the illicit market is fueled.

Wintemute: It's not typical. It's a very large theft. Most thefts of guns in the commercial chain of possession are much smaller than this. But I think, as we've discussed, if the fact that this theft could occur over time and at such magnitude, highlights what appear to be shoddy practices of, of inventory control, if nothing else, at one particular plant. It also, I think, as we're finding over and over again, the guns that were stolen showing up in crime all over the country. I think it also serves to highlight the disproportionate role that guns from Lorcin and other similar companies play in firearms violence throughout the United States.

Q: Talk about the study you conducted.

Wintemute: Our study focused on legal purchases of hand guns by young adults - people aged 21 to 25. In our study population, we have people, some with a prior criminal records and some without. Now, in general we know that people with a criminal past are more likely than others to commit new crime in the future. So, we had two questions we wanted to answer with this study.

Number one, do people with a criminal past buy different kind of handgun then do people without a criminal past? And it turned out that the answer was yes. That, among these young adults, those who had a prior criminal record were about forty percent more likely--1.4 times as likely--to buy a Saturday Night Special, as were people with no criminal past... The results were adjusted for race. They were adjusted for gender...The second question the study was designed to answer was this-- after taking account of gender and race and the nature of any prior criminal history, are people who buy Saturday Night Specials more likely--or for that matter, less likely--than people who buy other kinds of hand guns to do new crime?

And what we found in general, was that people who bought Saturday Night Specials were more likely to do new crime than were people who bought other kinds of hand guns. We didn't always find that, but we found it in most cases.

And, in particular, we found that for people who had no prior criminal record, those who bought a Saturday Night Special were 80% more likely--1.8 times as likely--to do a new crime, specifically involving guns or violence, as were people who bought other kinds of guns...To me, the single most important finding here, perhaps, is that for these people with no prior criminal record, purchase of a Saturday Night Special appears to be clearly linked to a substantial increase in risk of beginning a criminal career, having that first arrest for, particularly, a crime involving firearms or violence. There's been anecdotal evidence for years that these guns constitute what are known colloquially as "Starter Set Guns," that they're a bad guys first gun. Well, this suggests that that's really true...[T]hat's one implication that we can hopefully pursue with further research.

Q: Was it not surprising the [Lorcin's] L380 is at the top of the [ATF's] most traced list?

Wintemute: In our analysis we specifically looked at a known number of guns made by each company in a defined period of time so that we could look at the risk per gun if you will of being involved in crime regardless of the number of guns any particular company made. And it was on that basis that we found that guns from the Ring of Fire companies were more than 3 times as likely to show up in ATF's tracing data as were guns from other major manufacturers. So, sure, if it were the case that the only thing driving the frequency with which Lorcin's guns showed up in BATF's tracing. So if it were the case that the only thing driving the frequency with which Lorcin's guns showed up in ATF's tracing data was the number of guns they made [but] that's not the only factor. There are other lines of evidence. We don't have to just look at tracing data...But when we took into account the number of guns that had been sold in the state in the years leading up to 1993 by individual caliber we then were able to show to the Justice Department that 9mm handguns were actually, on a risk per gun basis were actually least likely to end up in the hands of local law enforcement agencies and the various Saturday night specials calibers 25 and 32 and 380 were anywhere from 2-4 times more likely on a risk per gun basis to end up in the hands of local law enforcement than were 9mm guns. Their trying to have us ignore the really crucial question which is what's the risk per gun made of involvement in crime. And on that basis Lorcin and the other 'Ring of Fire' manufacturers are a breed apart.

Q: Is there a clear relationship between the price and quality of a gun and it's likelihood to be used in a crime?

Wintemute: I'm going to give you the sort of two-handed scientist answer to that. Most of the studies have contrasted expensive guns, $300 and up, most of which are medium or large caliber and of very high quality manufacture with junk guns, small inexpensive handguns and so forth. If the question is which category is at greatest risk, risk per gun, for it being used in a crime, the answer is unequivocally small inexpensive handguns.

However, that kind of analysis has not been done specifically for a particular crime that concerns us all the most--and that's homicide. One of the differences between these guns is that these big expensive guns are a lot more powerful than the small inexpensive guns. Now, there are these days some not so small medium caliber still pretty inexpensive guns that still occupy a middle position here. My guess is that if we did such a study and our interest was specifically in homicide we might not find that same relationship simply because people can get shot a lot of times with a Raven 25 and survive. They get shot many times with a Baretta 9 they're probably gonna go down. However, there are some places, and I'll site as an example, an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association describing Milwaukee, where the single gun most frequently used in homicide was the Raven 25. A small caliber, relatively not powerful handgun. The authors best guess was that this weapon was being used so often in assaultive violence that even though perhaps most of the shooting are not fatal because it's not such a powerful gun, it still turns out to be the number one homicide gun in Milwaukee.

Q: You've described guns as a basic consumer product--which is an interesting perspective on it. Can you just explain to me what you mean by that?

Wintemute: Many of us have come to the position that firearms really are a consumer product. They're increasingly marketed for personal or household use. They have a defined role in the house: to provide protection, influence.

But it's important to emphasize that, in this case, [our project] we're not talking about something that ordinary people would perceive as anti-gun. We're talking about impartial research on risk factors for, and ways to prevent, firearm violence. Research we do with CDC money addresses criminal behavior - not guns. And that research is subject to this same funding cut. I think it's gotten a little bit easier because there is now a high profile industry lobbying group. They come and meet with members of Congress openly, which didn't used to occur. Over the last few years with the Republican Congress, and in particular with Newt Gingrich's Gun Policy Task Force--it's become easier to see whose responsible for specific language, getting involved at a specific point in time.

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