For most of the past 20 years, Robert Ricker was a top lawyer for the NRA as well as the chief spokesman for the gun industry, which relied on him to argue the industry's position against gun control.
He also defended it against critics who blame the industry for the violence caused by guns.
That's why it came as such a surprise when he told Correspondent Ed Bradley that many of the things he said all those years weren't true.
What is true, Ricker says, is that gun manufacturers have long known that distributors and retailers supply thousands of guns each year to criminals, and yet gun makers deliberately look the other way.
“It's a 'hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil' strategy,” says Ricker. “A manufacturer would be hard pressed to stand up and try to say, 'Hey, my company is doing everything we can possibly think of to keep our guns from falling into the wrong hands.'”
Ricker believes the gun industry bears a considerable responsibility for that, which is a pretty remarkable statement coming from someone who used to represent the gun industry.
“It's the truth,” says Ricker. “I've seen it operate. I know how they do business.”
That's a far cry from what Ricker was saying a few years ago, when he was the spokesman for the gun industry.
“If someone gets a hold of a gun and they misuse it, that's the persons that should be responsible, not the industry that produced the product,” said Ricker on CBS Evening News.
Sounds like two different people.
“I was doing my job,” says Ricker. “I was a spokesman for the industry. And the questions I was receiving in those interviews were elicited by reporters who wanted to know the industry position on you know, the party line. Guns don't kill people, people kill people. And I did a good job projecting the industry view.”
How does he respond to those people who now see him as a traitor?
“Well, I'm not a traitor. I mean, if it's someone who I guess has the courage to come forward and basically say, ‘The Emperor has no clothes.’ I mean, that's exactly what I'm doing. If there is ill will towards Bob Ricker out there within the industry, it's because I've committed the cardinal sin and broken ranks.”
Because he was at odds with the hardliners in the gun industry, Ricker resigned under pressure in 1999. He says he can no longer stay quiet about what he really knows. Ricker is the star witness in several lawsuits accusing the gun manufacturers of reckless and "willful inaction" – of placing no controls over the dealers and distributors who sell their guns.
Ricker said in a sworn affidavit that he witnessed that inaction in numerous meetings he attended over the past 10 years with executives of major gun makers and their liability attorneys. He says the meetings were held to address the alarming rise in gun crime and ways the industry could start cracking down on those retailers who, government statistics show, are responsible for selling the majority of guns
“The big dilemma was do we change the way we do business, or do we try to put a different spin on the problem? And basically deny that anyone in the industry is doing anything wrong, and it's a criminal problem,” says Ricker.
Gun manufacturers, he says, did nothing about it. “You have the product liability defense lawyers, who are whispering in their client’s ears on a daily basis, saying, 'You can't change operating procedures, because if you do, then you're going to be admitting sort of liability.’"
To help stem the flow of guns to criminals, Ricker proposed strict standards and guidelines for the industry where none existed before. Under his plan, manufacturers could sell guns only to distributors and retailers who passed exams on firearms laws, gun safety and recognizing warning signs of gun trafficking. Also, gun dealers would be prohibited from selling several guns at a time to the same person. Ricker says his plan was rejected.
Why wouldn't it be in their interest to stop the flow of guns into the hands of criminals?
“I think it would be in their interest to do that and that's what I advocated for years,” says Ricker. “I've had many executives come to me in meetings and say, ‘You know, Bob. What you say is all well and good. But in a couple of years, I'm going to be out of the industry. I'm going to be retired. And then it's going be somebody else's problem.’”
Like the growing problem of what's called straw purchasing, the illegal practice in which a convicted felon gets someone without a criminal record to buy a gun for him from a licensed dealer. Undercover police made a videotape of a straw purchase during a sting operation aimed at catching crooked gun dealers. One officer is posing as a felon. He brings along a friend to make the purchase. The salesman goes along with their scheme.
Dealer: When the manager comes over to check this it's your gun. You're not purchasing it for him. It's your gun.
Customer: Oh, because the manager has to…
Dealer: This is called a straw purchase. It's highly illegal.
The customers pay in cash and get their gun.
Dealer in Gun Shop: There you go guys. Enjoy it.
“They know full well what goes on at the distributor and the dealer level. They will not look at or address their distribution practices, in such a way to prevent criminals, felons, others, from walking into a gun shop, buying unlimited number of guns, and walking out with no questions asked,” says Ricker.
“We are tired of being painted as outlaws, as criminals, as the bad guys here. Because it's not true,” says Lawrence Keane, vice president of The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade group representing the major gun manufacturers. Keane, who basically has the same job Ricker did, he says that Ricker’s allegations are unfounded.
“The allegation that the industry is knowingly and willingly selling guns to criminals and turning a blind eye to crime is simply false,” says Keane. “There's nobody more interested in reducing gun violence than the industry itself.”
Ricker is taking on the gun industry at a critical time. The U.S. Congress is considering a bill that would give gun makers unprecedented immunity from liability lawsuits filed by city governments and by victims of gun violence. No other manufacturer of a consumer product has that kind of legal protection.
The bill would invalidate some 50 pending lawsuits against gun makers, including a suit filed by former New Jersey police officers David Lemongello and Ken McGuire. They were shot and nearly killed by a convicted felon whose pistol was obtained in a straw purchase from a West Virginia gun shop. It was one of 12 handguns bought in a single transaction, which should have been a red flag to the dealer that the buyer was most likely a gun trafficker.
“It was one out of 12 handguns, semiautomatic handguns, that was purchased,” says Lemongello. “You know, I don't know what use that person would have had for those guns except for selling them to people on the street.”
In fact, the gun dealer did report the sale as suspicious to authorities, but only after the guns had been sold. That's why Lemongello and McGuire are suing the dealer and the gun's manufacturer for negligence. Both defendants deny any wrongdoing.
“They should regulate their dealers,” says McGuire. “They should have orders, ‘To sell our product you have to sell it right’ and not let their products get into the hands of convicted felons who shoot at the police.”
If Congress does prohibit lawsuits like this one from going forward, then the effort to crack down which is already constrained by small budgets and by laws that forbid it from suspending a problem gun dealer, and that make it extremely difficult to revoke a dealer's license.
Ricker says the ATF repeatedly offered to give gun makers the names of their dealers who were selling an unusually large number of guns used in crimes. But Ricker says the industry wasn't interested.
“It would greatly reduce gun crime if the companies, the manufacturers and distributors could take the information that ATF is willing to share with them and zero in on those problem areas,” says Ricker. “You would be able to weed out the bad apples.”
Take for example, Ricker says, the case of the Bulls Eye gun shop in Tacoma, Washington, which provided the rifle used by accused snipers John Muhammad and Lee Malvo in a terror spree last fall.
Over the previous five years, Bulls Eye sold at least 52 guns that were trace to crimes, a suspiciously high number. What's more, the ATF found that Bulls Eye had been unable to account for 238 missing guns, including the rifle -- made by Bushmaster -- that was used in the sniper shootings.
Ricker says if Bushmaster had bothered to find out that information, it could have taken action against its dealer long before the sniper attacks.
“Bushmaster should have had a relationship established with their gun dealer. They should have known who works at Bulls Eye. Are the people reputable people? Have there been prior problems at Bulls Eye,” asks Ricker. "If there is a problem, then we're going to shut you down. We're not going to ship you any more guns."
But could the industry shut down a dealer?
“Sure. Shut them off. Turn it off,” says Ricker. “Just like turning the water off on your faucet.”
Bushmaster, which is being sued by victims of the sniper shootings, denies that it did anything wrong, and continues to supply guns to Bulls Eye. Keane, however, says it is not the job of the gun makers to hunt down problem dealers.
“The manufacturer is not the regulatory agency. ATF is,” says Keane. “If there's a problem, it's ATF's function to identify who's involved in the wrongdoing, to prosecute them, and to terminate their license.”
“It would be inappropriate for manufacturers to become a private police force and attempt to ferret out and identify on their own, as untrained civilians, who the corrupt dealers are.”
Ricker disagrees. “This is spin. This is what I used to do for the industry,” he says. “The National Rifle Association, every year, is before the appropriations committees on Capitol Hill advocating that ATF's budget be cut. They know that ATF does not have the manpower or the money to do an adequate job enforcing our gun laws.”
Why would they want their budget cut if they don't have an adequate budget?
“Because they don't want ATF out there auditing gun dealers, and they feel that ATF is more of a threat to the individual right to own guns than it is a very valuable law enforcement agency that's out there to protect the American public,” says Ricker.
The ATF has not asked gun makers to go out and conduct investigations of suspicious dealers, but it does want them to actively monitor their distribution chain, and as the justice department put it, "Identify and refuse to supply dealers and distributors that have a pattern of selling guns to criminals."
The industry recently came up with a voluntary program for dealers designed to help reduce the incidence of straw purchasing. But Ricker says the public will continue to be at risk until the gun industry completely changes the way it operates.
“I don't want to have to come home some night from the office and have my wife tell me that, ‘Your son was shot in a drive-by shooting.’ Or, ‘The neighbor's kids were killed.’ That's what gets me,” says Ricker. “And these people who sit up there in their corporate offices, they know about the problem. They've known about it for a long time. And the time is up.”
But the time may be up for the people who are suing the gun industry. Last month, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the bill to shield gun makers from liability lawsuits and the Senate is expected to do the same. A vote could come as early as next week, and President Bush has indicated he will sign it into law.