How They Got The Guns
TO MURDER HIS PARENTS and two classmates in Springfield, Oregon, last May, Kip Kinkel chose a .22 Ruger pistol and a 9 mm Glock, as well as a Ruger semiautomatic rifle with a fifty-round clip. For the Columbine High School massacre on April 20th in Littleton, Colorado – in which fifteen people were killed and twenty-three wounded – Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold used a Tec-DC9 semiautomatic handgun, a 9 mm Hi-Point semiautomatic carbine rifle and two sawed-off shotguns (supplemented by more than fifty bombs). All of these guns were available legally, with no licensing of the user or registration of the gun required. Shielded by the determined efforts of the gun lobby, gun makers, dealers and owners operate in their own world, with virtually no government supervision.
In 1994, the federal government did ban many assault weapons. Gun-control advocates and firearms-industry leaders agreed that a detachable ammunition magazine, which allows for clips with hundreds of rounds, was central to the definition of an assault weapon. But to the advocates’ dismay, the law as enacted specifies that a gun must have at least two additional characteristics, such as a flash suppressor or a folding stock, to be banned.
Under the law’s elaborate requirements, the 9 mm Hi-Point carbine used by Harris and Klebold does not qualify as an assault weapon. The carbine rifle is shorter and lighter than a conventional rifle; it was invented during World War II for troops charging into battle. The 9 mm caliber is particularly attractive to the younger generation of gun buyers, as it was the first big jump in caliber beyond the traditional .22, .38 and .45. The boys’ Hi-Point, which cost about $180, was designed by Tom Deeb to be an affordable weapon with a high degree of lethality. The gun has not only a detachable magazine – which Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., calls “the essence of an assault weapon” – but also a vented barrel, to prevent overheating, and a pistol grip, so that the trigger can be pulled quickly while the gun is pointed from the hip.
The law takes a more limited view than Rand. The stipulated minimum of three particular features has provided the industry with tremendous wiggle room: Companies have simply made small modifications to their existing guns without detracting from the guns’ firepower or concealability. When Colt’s AR-15, the civilian version of the Army’s M-16 rifle, was made illegal to produce by the ban, Colt replaced it with the Colt Sporter, which is different from the AR-15 only in that it is missing a flash suppressor and a bayonet mount. The industry plays the same game with gun laws at the state level.
When the Tec-9 was cited by name in a 1991 manufacturer-liability law in the District of Columbia, its maker gave the gun a nylon shoulder sling and renamed it the Tec-DC9 (reportedly for District of Columbia). This gun, which was used in the Littleton massacre, was originally designed for South African and Rhodesian police, to brutally control riots. It fires faster than an average pistol and, like the Hi-Point, has a vented barrel so the shooter’s hand doesn’t burn while emptying the thirty-two-round magazine.
Street gangs immediately liked the gun, which retailed for around $200, but it really gained popularity in the mid-Eighties after Miami Vice began to regularly feature dapper drug lords carrying it. Police called it criminals’ “weapon of choice.” Then, in July 1993, a crazed California mortgage broker used two Tec-DC9s, one of them modified with a Hell-Fire switch (enabling it to shoot 300 rounds a minute), to kill eight people and wound six in a San Francisco law office. The victims’ families sued the gun maker, Navegar, on two grounds: that the guns were marketed to criminals (with ads like “as tough as your toughest customers” and “excellent resistance to fingerprints” in Soldier of Fortune and Guns & Ammo) and that the guns were illegally “ultra-hazardous,” like explosives, because their sole purpose is to kill a large number of people as quickly as possible. When the families lost the suit, Robert Ricker of the American Shooting Sports Council said, “This is a big, big win for the firearms industry.” The judge in the case however, complained in his opinion that the California assault-weapons ban was “functionally flawed,” because it outlawed the Tec-9 but not its copycat substitute, the Tec-DC9.
The Tec-DC9 was one of nineteen guns listed by name in the 1994 federal law, but pre-existing assault weapons and accessories are still legal to own, sell and buy. The result is that hundreds of thousands of guns, including the Tec-9 and Tec-DC9, and millions of high-capacity magazines produced before the ban remain in circulation. Carlos Garcia, Navegar’s owner, estimated in the Wall Street Journal that more than 100,000 of his guns are disseminated throughout the country. That is probably a low-ball figure, since in anticipation of the ban, Navegar-like many other companies – spiked its production levels. Production of its 9 mm handguns increased from 35,260 in 1993 to 75,100 in 1994.