When a Gun Maker Proposed Gun Control

When Devin Patrick Kelley took a Ruger AR-556 semi-automatic assault rifle to the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in November, he brought 15 high-capacity magazines that each contained 30 bullets.

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When a Gun Maker Proposed Gun Control
, New York Times

When Devin Patrick Kelley took a Ruger AR-556 semi-automatic assault rifle to the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in November, he brought 15 high-capacity magazines that each contained 30 bullets.

How many did he empty?

“All of them,” a Texas law enforcement official said at a news conference in the days after the massacre.

If William B. Ruger Sr., co-founder of gun maker Sturm, Ruger & Co., had had his way, Kelley’s firepower might have been much diminished. In 1989, Ruger proposed a ban on high-capacity magazines, which led a smaller rival to call Sturm, Ruger “the Benedict Arnold of the gun industry.”

In 1994, he said his company would sell a high-capacity magazine only to police officers.

“Someone who is not a police officer can buy one made elsewhere, but we can’t do anything about that,” he said. “What we can do is be a responsible firearms manufacturer ourselves. And we believe we are.”

Ruger was certainly not a cheerleader for gun control. But considering the tide of mass shootings and gridlock on the issue of guns, his willingness to compromise is worth revisiting.

Ruger, a Brooklyn, New York-born gun designer, took an inventor’s interest in guns after his father gave him a rifle at age 12. A 1981 profile in The New York Times reported that he read everything he could about guns at the New York Public Library and “studied gun metallurgy, gun mechanisms, gun designs” and “came to regard the gun as a uniquely engineered tool.”

He also liked to recount how he once revealed to guests at a manhattan cocktail party what he did for a living.

“When you mention you’re in the gun business, people look shocked,” he said. “They infer that you have an utter disregard for human life, which is preposterous.”

He said at the time: “There’s so much hostility, so many people stimulated to violence. But to be talking about gun legislation as a cure for this is ridiculous.”

His position appeared to evolve. A series of mass shootings captured headlines in the following years. Among them, an unemployed security guard named James Oliver Huberty used an Uzi semi-automatic rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun and a 9-millimeter semi-automatic pistol during a 1984 rampage at a McDonald’s in California that left 21 dead and 19 wounded. In 1991, an unemployed merchant seaman, George J. Hennard, shot 22 people dead at a cafeteria in Killeen, Texas., and injured another 20.

With momentum building for gun control, Ruger’s move was partly tactical. He and his allies wanted “to take a responsible position to head off any further restrictions that might even have banned all semi-automatic firearms,” Robert L. Wilson wrote in the book “Ruger and His Guns.”

From the gun industry’s point of view, Ruger’s stance is a cautionary tale. If he aimed to forestall a ban on assault weapons, in the end, both assault weapons and high-capacity magazines were banned through a 1994 measure signed by President Bill Clinton. The ban expired in 2004. “You give people who are truly anti-gun an inch, and they’ll take a mile,” Stephen L. Sanetti, a former Ruger executive, told The Hartford Courant in 2013. Sanetti, who now runs the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a lobby group, declined to comment through a spokesman.

In an email, Kevin B. Reid Sr., vice president and general counsel of Sturm, Ruger, said, “As I am sure you can appreciate, Mr. Ruger died many years ago and folks who were around and worked with him directly are long gone.”

“Indeed, none of the Ruger family has been involved in the day-to-day operation of the business for more than a decade,” he added. (In 2006, the family made a large sale of its holdings back to the company.) “As such, there really isn’t anyone who can speak to his comments or views.”

Gunmakers are not proposing gun control anymore. After the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre led to the deaths of 20 first-graders and six adults, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., was a co-sponsor of legislation that would have required universal background checks.

“I’m a big believer in the Second Amendment, I’m a gun owner and take my son shooting,” he said in an interview. But at the same time, he said, “I think it’s completely reasonable to make it more difficult for those who do not have a legitimate right to a firearm to obtain them.”

The legislation, which was also sponsored by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., failed.

“You know, the NRA used to be very big supporters of mine, institutionally; they are not so much anymore,” Toomey said. “I will say honestly, a vast majority of Pennsylvanians agree with my approach on background checks, so on balance, I don’t think it hurt me politically.”

The NRA, which did not return calls for comment, has lately been pushing to compel states that do not allow concealed carry permits to honor permits issued by other states. It is trying to deregulate silencers.

John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group backed by Michael R. Bloomberg, said his group spent more money lobbying states than the federal government. Restrictions on bump stocks, the device that makes semi-automatic weapons more like machine guns, faltered in Washington after they were used in the Las Vegas massacre. But bans have been enacted in Massachusetts and New Jersey.

“The way to move Congress is to show where the people stand on this issue, and you do that most effectively through state ballots and state legislation,” Feinblatt said, likening the approach to the way gay rights advocates methodically advanced marriage rights through state legislatures.

Many other western democracies have far tighter gun control laws. The rate of homicides with guns in the United States is 16 times higher than it is in Germany, 6.6 times higher than it is in Canada and more than 30 times higher than in Australia or Britain, according to data collected by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

Ruger once said he was open even to waiting periods for handgun purchases. “If the truth be known, I see no real harm in the concept,” he said, but cautioned, “the trouble is, where does it end?”

Twenty-six people died in the Sutherland Springs shooting, including the pastor’s 14-year-old daughter and a pregnant woman, while another 20 were injured by a gun bearing the Ruger name. If he were alive today, America’s most outspoken gunmaker would most likely have had something to say.

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