The laws get tougher—and gun ‘fanatics’ know the fine print.
George Littlejohn, crew-cutted with aviator-style wire eyeglasses and a blue sweater with “Colt’s” stitched across its chest, shows me his collection of guns in the yellow light of his East Hartford trailer’s living room. As his wife’s brood of exotic birds looks on from every wall, clawing their cages, he sets pieces on his coffee table one at a time: 9-mm cartridges, a 4-inch and a 2-inch .357 revolver, a .308 Winchester with a laser sight, some of his best paper targets — five out of six shots in the center ring — and plain and hollow-tip bullets. He handles the weapons safely and respectfully, never pointing them, handing them to me fully opened.
“I have a friend who isn’t into guns,” Littlejohn says. “After the shooting in the lottery building, he was joking and said, ‘Hey, George, you weren’t up at the Connecticut Lottery building, were you?’ And I said, ‘No, but I wish to God I was.’ He thought about that for a minute, and then he said, ‘You know, I wish you were, too.'”
In March 1998, 35-year-old accountant Matthew Beck shot and killed four co-workers at Newington’s Connecticut Lottery headquarters. “If I had been there, he would have stopped, or he would have been stopped,” Littlejohn says. “Chances are, I would have been able to take care of business.”
Littlejohn is one of many Connecticut gun afficionados who believe gun ownership is not only a right, but a neccessity. They have a duty to defend themselves and their communities from crime and lawlessness. But as they dig in and insist on their right to bear arms amid a mainstream social and legislative climate that is increasingly clamping down on guns, legal gun owners are feeling persecuted — and now, every burst of gun violence at the hands of once “law-abiding” citizens is heavily scrutinized. What failed? Human reason, or the gun laws? Can they control each other? Can either of them possibly be perfect?
The lessons in the debate over Connecticut’s escalating efforts to control guns may reveal more about who we are as a culture — and our historical propensity for violence — than about our ability to stop the killing itself. And our most extreme efforts at gun control may, in fact, backfire, perpetuating some of the same animosities and fears that have led to the current gun-rights standoff.
The 1990s have seen Connecticut’s gun laws grow to be among the strictest in the country. The 31,235 guns purchased here in 1998 were acquired only after each owner passed a firearms safety course, filled out paperwork for a license, waited weeks or months for the license to arrive, then filled out forms for a purchase permit, was fingerprinted, paid $35 and waited another 14 days for a background check tougher than the national standard: Connecticut checks state, local and FBI records, while federal law requires only that state files be reviewed. The types of guns they could purchase are strictly regulated, as are the ways those guns may be stored and carried. And statistics show that the laws work — at least on criminals. The most recent Center for Disease Control survey shows that death from guns are down to the levels they were at during the mid-’60s. (See accompanying story, “Licensed to Kill.”) But there’s a growing resentment among Connecticut’s average gun owners, people who pack a sidearm for self-protection or a few shotguns for hunting. This is the part where Connecticut legislators aren’t quite up to speed. More and more crimes are committed by people who own their guns legally but who feel increasingly pressured by the fingers pointing at them.
After all, a criminal isn’t born a criminal. You become a criminal when you break the rules, and now, there are a lot more rules to break. And there are new ways for the state to make sure you are up to code.
The latest, the 18th section of Public Act 99-212, might be the one that’s made the most people angry. Since Oct. 1, any of the total 585,226 firearms registered statewide are subject to confiscation by the police if an investigation — and a judge-issued search warrant — determines that the gun’s owner presents a danger to himself or people around him. (For more on Connecticut’s gun laws, see accompanying story, “The State of the Laws.”)
Thompson Bosee is the subject of one of the law’s first test cases. On Oct. 28, police seized 3,000 rounds of ammunition and 11 guns — including an unpermitted assault rifle (banned in 1993) and a machine gun — from his Old Greenwich residence. The exact incident that spurred the search, seizure and two pending felony counts isn’t known: Police indicated that Bosee had been seen with a gun in his yard, but the warrant was also granted due to an 8-year-old charge for DWI that Bosee had failed to address. He, in turn, is claiming illegal search and seizure, a violation of the Fourth Amendment, on top of the usual concerns with the Second.
The problem is that we’ll never know if the law worked or not. Bosee may indeed have been on the verge of committing a violent act, though the law of averages would say he wasn’t. Either way, the record will show that no violence had yet occurred, and he certainly won’t be admitting any wrongdoing. (He says he’s studying to be a gunsmith.)
For legislators, police and victims’ families, one of the most frustrating problems with past gun-control laws is that they have had to be applied only after a tragedy strikes. Parents, for instance, are found negligent when their children find a hidden, loaded gun and shoot themselves. Now, lawmakers can make a pre-emptive strike, but no one, especially someone on the brink, will be very happy to be suddenly disarmed. If concrete nefarious motives aren’t quickly unearthed in the search process, the constant negative publicity over improper searches could kill the law, however many lives it might save.
“I’m still not sure how well it’s going to hold up,” one state police official says.
This might not be a bad thing. Suspicion breeds contempt.
Spurred by the Beck case, Gov. John Rowland signed an executive order in August that prohibited state employees from bringing guns and dangerous weapons to work.
“Any weapon or dangerous instrument at the worksite will be confiscated,” an internal memo read, “and there is no reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to such items in the workplace. Violation of the above reasonable work rules shall subject the employee to disciplinary action up to and including discharge.” The order has prompted gun-rights activists to claim that Rowland has established a pond of sitting ducks.
George Littlejohn is a member of GunSafe, the self-proclaimed “Quiet Majority of Connecticut Firearms Owners.” He’s also a senior machinist at Colt’s Manufacturing in Hartford. Or at least he was, until Oct. 15, when Colt’s announced a major curtailing of its consumer line and placed more than 100 employees on furlough due to reported pressures from the dozens of municipal lawsuits recently filed against the gun industry. It might be added that Littlejohn is a law-abiding citizen who happens to be, by his own words, “a firearm fanatic.”
Littlejohn is a former Enfield auxiliary police officer, and he believes that his guns are peacemakers. And he believes that more often than not, he doesn’t even need to fire a shot to defuse a crime. He says that just last week he observed three men casing a shop in his neighborhood, ready to rob it; he took a long, hard look at the getaway van’s license plates, then moved into the store and stood with a clear view of the cash register. He has a concealed-carry permit, his Colt .45 ready, as always, by his side. When his suspect finally left after reading cigarette packs for 10 minutes, Littlejohn followed him — and watched him and his two friends park at a spot where they could observe two gas stations, a Wendy’s and a 7-11 simultaneously. When the van backed up against the 7-11 and the suspicious characters went inside the store, Littlejohn called 911 and set off a chain of events that eventually led to police action, a pursuit on Route 2 and the van leaving on a tow truck.
“Someone once said, ‘The only thing needed for the triumph of evil is doing nothing,'” Littlejohn says. “And nowadays, doing nothing is almost a government mandate.”
The government might claim the contrary. But Littlejohn points to some notorious American school shooting and asked how control helped: “Only two of the school shootings have been aborted,” he goes on to say. “One, the vice principal had a .45 in his truck, and when the little maggot saw it, he decided it wasn’t fun anymore. The other was at a prom, and the caterer had a shotgun under one of his wagons.”
Several of GunSafe’s tenets seem strangely similar to those of moderate gun-control groups like Washington’s Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, chaired by Sarah Brady. Both groups support background checks, for instance, and permitting processes, and safe gun storage laws. This way, both sides can gain support from the largely unconvinced masses, and in some ways they’re surely converging at midpoints on the arcs to opposite goals. GunSafe’s Web page seems coolly reasonable, until one starts to wonder where all the fear is coming from; whether constantly constructing shooting scenarios doesn’t invite them to actually occur; whether it’s healthy to look at the world as something to be armed against.
The problem, of course, is that there are already 235 million firearms in this country, and they will never entirely fall out of the hands of people who use them for dark purposes. “There are predators out there,” says Littlejohn. “There have been since the days of Adam and Eve.”
On Howe Avenue in downtown Shelton, a stone’s throw from eroded brick factories with smoked-over windows and names like the Chromium Process Co. and Spongex, you’ll find the Valley Firearms storefront. Business on this October Saturday is booming. And despite a big sign in the window that says “Need Cash? We Buy All Used Firearms,” it’s plain to see that today is for buying guns, not selling them. It’s Valley Firearms’ annual gun show.
There’s a boy working the door, about 13, wearing an extra-large giveaway T-shirt that advertises “Total Titanium,” the latest revolver line from Taurus International. He speaks softly and in a voice that will soon change; he stands with his arms folded tightly across his chest, one foot slightly in front of the other. Along with a cordial welcome, he offers me a raffle ticket for a handgun door prize. He makes sure that I provide a Connecticut address, shakes up the box and wishes me luck. I’m not counting on it. I’ll never win that gun. I can’t, because I don’t have a handgun eligibility certificate or a permit to purchase a firearm. That much is probably obvious to the salesman from Shelton’s own Charter Arms, about eight feet down the glass counter, when he places a .38 special (“The Original Pound of Protection”) in my hands and all I can think to do with it is look straight down the barrel.
All day long, the boy has been handing out red raffle tickets while an NRA representative stands nearby, playing a video called “Banned!” on a small TV/VCR combination on the counter in front of him. The NRA rep — a few inches shorter than the boy, with thick glasses and a shirt dotted with NRA pins — lets the tape run through, then rewinds it and starts it over. “Banned!” is about the handgun bans recently implemented in the United Kingdom and Australia: It bounces from one heavily accented gun owner to another, even stopping for a chat (shot in gritty black & white) with a real-life Cockney “street thug,” who leans against an alleyway smoking a cigarette, talking about how bloody easy it is for criminals to get their hands on guns. “Banned!” also periodically cuts to footage of a municipal scrap heap, where a crane equipped with a giant magnet dips into a massive pile of confiscated firearms. There are also shots of government goons sawing perfectly harmless shotguns into splinters, sparks flying everywhere.
The NRA rep is moved. “It just sickens me to see that,” he says. “Crime in England is up 400 percent since they banned handguns there,” he tells me.
“What kind of crime?” I ask.
“All crime!” he says.
“So,” the kid at the door says, “if they made guns illegal in America” — I have to admit, it was kind of sweet, the way he said “America” — “like they did in England, would everyone’s guns be taken away?”
“They would take them all away. Owning firearms would be illegal.”
“Well, that’s why I keep tellin’ ya,” the NRA guy says. “Ya gotta get a junior membership in the NRA. Fifteen dollars, and you can kick the kooks out of office. You can get a cap and one of these magazines and it practically pays for itself.”
“I already get that magazine,” the kid says. “My dad’s a lifetime member.”
Nearby, a customer is flipping through the Taurus catalogue and comes to a picture of a .45 semi-automatic with a dark wood grip and shiny gold detailing. Someone behind the counter notices.
“I think they call that ‘ghetto gold,'” he says.
The gun lobby makes a lot of statements about self-defense and sportsmanship, but it is implicitly understood that a fair share of firearms are used to perpetrate crimes in poorer, urban, African-American and Latino neighborhoods. That market is one of the industry’s most lucrative — whether by legal or illegal distribution of its product — according to lawsuits that are being brought with increasing regularity by cities that claim gun violence has severely taxed their infrastructures.
On Jan. 27, Mayor Joe Ganim and the city of Bridgeport filed a $100 million suit against Smith & Wesson, Beretta, Colt’s, Bryco Arms, B.L. Jennings and Sturm, Ruger & Co. for a litany of violations believed to be directly related to gun manufacturers’ negligence. Ganim was at the forefront of the movement for these municipal suits: Shortly after his action, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami and St. Louis — among nearly 20 other cities, before and since — filed similar cases.
The Bridgeport case makes several charges: that the gun companies advertised their products as aids to maintaining home safety, when they knew that gun ownership actually increases most people’s chances of a homicide, suicide or accident in their household; that they knowingly distributed the guns to persons who would resell them illegally; that they have dragged their feet on installing safety features; and that the city of Bridgeport — not isolated individuals, but the city itself — can claim damages due to the cost of increased police, emergency, court and prison personnel.
Precedents are mixed. In the last two months, the Cincinnati case was thrown out after the judge ruled that the city could claim only “indirect” damages, while the Atlanta case was allowed to proceed — in a state that had passed a law banning such suits, no less. (These NRA-penned bans have been passed in 13 states, the so-called NRA “winning team,” including George W. Bush’s Texas. Many actually make it a felony for a mayor to file suit against the gun industry, but the laws are unlikely to survive constitutional scrutiny.) “We’re not discouraged by the Cincinnati decision,” says the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence’s Nancy Hwa, “because this latest decision in Atlanta offsets that. And we’re prepared for some judges to be unreasonable, and we’re also prepared to appeal those decisions.”
The Atlanta decision is significant because it opens the way for a discovery process, in which the gun industry’s previously classified documents will be investigated. “It wasn’t the trials that brought down the tobacco industry,” says Sue McCalley, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition Against Gun Violence. “It was the discovery process, when documents were founding showing they manipulated the nicotine level.”
The gun companies in the Bridgeport case have moved for a dismissal, using an argument similar to the Cincinnati judge’s. Connecticut Superior Court Judge Robert McWeeny is expected to deliver a written decision on the matter by the end of November, and both Ganim and the city’s law firm, Updike, Kelly & Spellacy, are confident. In September they received the endorsement of state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, the first such endorsement of a gun suit in the country. “The gun manufacturers’ position is legally unfounded and insupportable,” Blumenthal wrote in his friend-of-the-court brief, “and would make them completely unaccountable for the damage and public safety threats their dangerous products cause.”
Soon, Blumenthal may not merely be standing on the sidelines rooting for Bridgeport, either. “We’re exploring the possibility of a lawsuit,” he says. By “we” he means the state of Connecticut. By “lawsuit,” he means a case against gun manufacturers, arguing that safety mechanisms aren’t what they should be. It would be the goliath of all as-yet filed suits. Some might see such a filing as the snake swallowing its own tail: Imagine a state lashing back at the very industry that sustained it for years. But a similar chain of events occurred in Mississippi, when the attorney general there, Michael Moore, led the suit against tobacco companies.
“We’re basically trying to make up for the fact that Congress is worthless on this issue,” says Bridgeport city councilman Bill Finch. “Congress is in the hip pocket of the NRA, and we can’t get a damn thing through there. So the states and the cities are bringing lawsuits. We’re not in it for the money. Our motive in this lawsuit is to stop people getting killed.”
“I’ve been waiting for the Ralph Nader [for this issue] to come along and say what needs to be said,” says Connecticut Coalition Against Gun Violence’s McCalley. “Which is that lawsuits are the way that we got the auto manufacturers to make it to the regulatory table. Because if anybody expects that these gun manufacturers are going to do something out of the goodness of their hearts — forget it.”
Bill Finch proposed two gun ordinances to the Bridgeport Common Council this year. “We’re trying to do things that are a little outside the box,” he admits, since the council normally tends to deal with more quotidian municipal matters. “But this stuff is slapping us in the face every damn day,” he says. “Every damn day there’s some other incident. It just happens that most people agree with me. But I feel so strongly about it, I don’t care if they agree with me or not. I’m going to do whatever I can to regulate and cut back the number of guns that are out there. This is an incredibly serious health epidemic.”
Finch’s first ordinance, a measure that would require the Bridgeport police department to destroy all of its confiscated guns, passed. (In 1998, according to a research report submitted to the Connecticut legislature, Bridgeport seized 321 guns that were deemed by a court “to be contraband or a nuisance.” Hartford seized 341; New Haven, 361 and Stamford, 127.) But the second proposed ordinance, submitted with Councilwoman Shirley Bean, dealt with mandating recent technological safety features — so-called “smart guns” that use computer-imaging technology. It didn’t have the same success.
Is Finch going to bring it up next year?
“As many times as I need to, until it passes.”
Is it a frustrating situation?
“Anybody who says we shouldn’t clamp down on guns is nuts,” Finch says. “I mean, they must love these headlines of our fellow human beings being massacred in the streets.” (He pronounced it “massa-creed.”)
The technology Finch was talking about has been developed by Monroe-based Oxford Microdevices, described by CEO Steve Morton as “a young Intel.” Oxford makes chips that process images: It might be computer animation, a system for eliminating automobile blind spots or a method for determining the weights of chicken eggs speeding down a conveyer belt. Two years ago, Morton’s company announced that it was accepting bids for embedding fingerprint-recognition technology in the grip of a handgun, one of several approaches (including PIN numbers, magnetic rings and wrist radios) to the smart gun idea. The gun would fire only if were used by its primary owner. “The technology’s doable. It’s practical. It’s not very expensive,” Morton says. “And the objective was to help stop children from killing children with guns.”
There followed a flurry of media attention. Last June, President Clinton endorsed fingerprint technology as a highly promising method for controlling both accidental shootings and gun theft. The smart guns were profiled in an August piece in Discover magazine, and Morton was interviewed on 60 Minutes II in the beginning of November.
Which should translate to a battle for Morton’s attention. It hasn’t. “The honest truth is, all the attention hasn’t translated into a single dime,” he says. Morton says a prototype gun would cost $1.1 million to build; production would take about two years and $5 million. This dwarfs the smattering of smart-gun proposals that have come up in Washington. Not long ago, U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey proposed a five-year, $100 million plan.
“I called Lautenberg’s assistant,” Morton says, “and I said, ‘Get off it. All you’re going to do is reward the gun companies for waiting.’ And he said, ‘Look. A U.S. senator cannot possibly stand up in front of America and ask for a measly five million bucks for a project this significant.'”
So now Morton wants to raise the money through private donations. A government contract requires a bill, voting, proposals, committees and an awards process — and that’s before production. Morton estimates that it would take at least five years to go into meaningful smart-gun production if Oxford were to navigate public channels.
Critics of smart guns have a long list of objections. The gun wouldn’t fire if you were using your other hand. It wouldn’t fire if you were wearing gloves. It wouldn’t fire if your hands were dirty. It wouldn’t fire if the battery died, or if the chip crashed. But these are all challenges that can be addressed when someone comes up with the capital to design a prototype. At this point, objectors are criticizing a device that doesn’t even yet exist. And Morton isn’t giving up hope. He’s just waiting.
“In effect, we’re a guerrilla organization,” Morton says. “Because our objective is just to get the job done. I’m not in the business of doing government-sponsored research year after year after year. We build products. We ship stuff. So our objective is to ship stuff sooner, rather than later.”
Smart guns are already controversial, and they don’t even exist yet. If their production became a reality, there’s no doubt that specific legislation would be proposed about them. These may be the next generation of gun laws. Needless to say, Connecticut isn’t exactly in agreement over the value of the ones currently in place.
“The value of the laws is that people break them at their peril,” Connecticut Coalition Against Gun Violence’s McCalley says. “If there’s no law, then nobody cares what the hell they do. And that’s a problem. The body of law gives you a basis on which to prosecute. And to say that we shouldn’t have laws on a lethal consumer product is nonsense.”
“The more they get you terrified,” Littlejohn says, “the less you’re going to complain about a police state when it comes.”
But given that the laws do exist, there’s the question of enforcement. A major criticism of Connecticut legislation is that it’s come too fast for police to be able to back it up — far from being a police state, it’s still considered something of a free-for-all. Ron San Angelo, state representative from Naugatuck, says that “the state police is grossly undermanned” in terms of firearm regulation enforcement.
Our state police official agrees. “If you were to ask a politician today, what’s a bigger problem, drugs or guns,” he says, “what do you think he’d say? Guns. Well, if you go throughout this state, you will see that most police departments have officers who are 100 percent dedicated to drugs, or to stolen cars. And there are no cops dedicated 100 percent to criminal firearms.
“Community policing is your first step at success with anything,” he goes on. “You get a lot of stuff, especially in legislation, that can just be feel-good. And when you see departments across the state getting involved in their community, that’s a hell of a lot more than feel-good. That’s an active approach to lessening crime, getting to know the people and trying to just calm everybody down.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride,” a poem since memorized by millions of Americans, in 1861. It may provide a clue about why the matter of controlling America’s guns is so difficult to resolve:
You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British regulars fired and fled —
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farm yard-wall,
Chasing the red-coats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.
We do, in fact, owe a lot to guns. How much of American society do we have the power to change, and how much of it is, like it or not, permanently engrained: Self-sufficient, but violent. Armed, too. Perhaps the majority of the population isn’t carrying a gun, but who’s going to argue with someone who is? At some level, it may be wise for us as a society to accept that a drawn-out, intensifying row strictly about guns could wind up in disaster: When pushed to it, people will fight for their guns, and they’ll obviously be well-armed.
“This is where we decide that we, the citizens, are the people in charge of our lives and the government,” Littlejohn says. “We will decide what we do, and how we will live, and you will not decide for us, and not enforce it on us.”
But let it not happen because we’re being duped by greedy, irresponsible corporations. McCalley points out that the surge in gun violence coincides directly with the end of the Cold War: When defense contracts ran out, suddenly the consumer market became a high priority for gun manufacturers. The NRA’s propaganda leads people to believe that they’ll need to stockpile arms in preparation for a great potential freeze-out. Scenarios crop up featuring nebulous “criminals” ruling the world.
“Rather than promoting trust and decency between human beings,” Finch says, “we promote distrust and violence. And I think that gets to a core element of who we are as a country.”
The state police official agrees. “This always has been a violent country,” he says. “It always will be. If a person doesn’t have a gun, they’ll find other means. The year that they passed the assault weapon ban, it was my understanding that there were more people killed in Connecticut with golf clubs than with assault weapons. People are going to find a way to be violent. You have to control the person more than the item.”
The golf club statistic may or may not be accurate. It’s par for the course in a debate that is clouded with tall tales and conflicting reads of the same statistics. Gun-control activists, for example, point to a New England Journal of Medicine study that says that a gun is far more likely to be used against a member of the gun-owner’s household than on an intruder; gun-rights supporters, however, claim a gun doesn’t need to be fired to stop a crime. They say that criminals flee when they see their victim is armed, and such incidents don’t become a part of the statistics.
So we look, instead, at what causes people to use their guns for ill. Not enough gun education? The schoolyard killers in both Oregon and Kentucky were trained hunters. People propose family values. They propose prayer, and postering school auditoriums with the 10 Commandments. But if the gun-law debates can teach us anything, it’s that enforcement of such homogeneity in this country is the fast road to trouble.
The nature of a gun is absolute: Results at the squeeze of a trigger. The split-second difference between life, on the one hand, and death on the other. These are black-and-white questions. But the simple mechanical operation of a gun can’t be mistaken for its application in a complicated society. It’s true that accidents happen and people snap every day, but 235 million guns aren’t the ideal partners for such predictable aberrations. It’s true that the Second Amendment grants the right to keep and bear arms; it’s also true that 1861 South Carolina, regarding itself as “a well regulated militia,” was acting more against the Constitution than for it. Yet the gun debate continues to be seen as a two-sided matter, with less and less love lost between its adversaries, and less and less trust that each side can wield its considerable power, whether legislative or ballistic, without recklessness. A fundamental lack of trust for each other might be closer to the core of why we have always armed ourselves in the first place. The ongoing gun debate may really be a microcosm for the way our society is trying to make peace with itself. What if, through arguing about guns, we agreed they were sometimes necessary — and the resulting trust led us to lay down our arms for good?