Colt Industries — West Hartford, Connecticut
Connecticut had a problem, and its name was Colt. The “Constitution State” had long
been the heart of America’s gun industry — home not just to Colt, but to Winchester, Sturm & Ruger, Marlin, Mossberg, and dozens more. But Colt was special. Connecticut was betting on Colt.
The iconic gun maker had been in trouble ever since 1,000 of their workers walked off
the job at their West Hartford plant. It was the factory that made their M-16’s for the military, and the AR-15’s for the civilians. It continued operating throughout the strike, but with cheaper, non-union labor, and at reduced capacity — until 1989, when the Army announced they were dropping Colt as the manufacturer of their M16’s. Colt had relied on revenue from that contract since 1964, and the Pentagon said that their M16s were as good as ever, but a Belgian company, Fabrique Nationale, had simply given the lower bid.
Then, Stockton happened. California’s gun ban singled out Colt’s AR-15 by name, so they
decided to surrender it to the ATF altogether; the writing was on the wall. The strike was in its fourth year by then, the longest labor dispute in state history. Colt’s parent company decided to call it quits, and put their firearms unit up for sale.
That was when Connecticut placed its bet: the state’s treasurer assembled a group of
investors to purchase Colt Firearms, and invested $25 million of Connecticut’s pension fund along with them. “The state’s participation is not a bailout, not a handout and not a subsidy,” the Treasurer told The New York Times. “Let me emphasize that this is a carefully thought out, carefully structured, potentially very profitable business venture.” The state legislature was on board, though a few expressed uneasiness about the wave of gun legislation that seemed to be imminent after Stockton. A colleague reassured them: “the state treasurer has made very clear his opposition to the manufacture of assault rifles by companies in which the state has invested, [and] I think the treasurer has in fact been shown to be extremely prudent.”
The state approved the buy, and Colt’s firearms division was reborn as an independent entity, Colt Manufacturing Company Inc. Soon the strike was over, and the UAW workers finally came back to the plant, where all the machine tools had been updated and configured to produce Colt’s brand-new product, the one they all needed to be success: the Colt Sporter. It was a name meant to evoke “sporting purposes.” The Sporter was a black rifle, one that fired the exact same ammunition as Colt’s now-retired AR-15. And when the finished Sporters came down the end of the assembly line, even the workers who had been making AR-15s for decades would have been hard-pressed to tell the difference.
The name was the difference. In California, it had been enough to get the gun past the
post-Stockton ban, filling the empty shelves where Colt’s now-banned AR-15s had sat. The
state’s lawmakers, who had just been praising Colt’s benevolence, were furious. They sued to get Sporter added to the name-ban at the last minute — “the Colt Sporter rifle is a redesigned, renamed and renumbered version of the banned Colt AR-15 assault rifle” — but it didn’t matter. Different name, different gun. It would take them years to get the Sporter name added to the ban list.
June 8, 1993 — Connecticut General Assembly — Hartford
Connecticut was one of the states that resisted the shockwaves from Stockton; an assault
weapons ban came up a few votes short, less than a year after the tragedy in California — an important victory for the NRA. It seemed unlikely that the same bill would fare any better in 1993. But gang violence in America had only gotten worse in four years, and it was plain to see on the city streets. The champions of the assault weapons ban decided the time was right to try again. And they were determined to learn from California’s mistakes: theirs would have a “name ban,” but combined with a “military features” ban, like the ATF did with imports. One of the features they’d ban would be any detachable magazine carrying over 15 rounds, like Bill Ruger suggested — though this only applied to the magazine that came with the gun, from the factory.
Colt’s AR-15 was on Connecticut’s name-ban list, just like it had in California. But then
another of that state’s lessons reared its head: what about the Sporter?
The Sporter would make it through the “features” ban, the Colt loyalists said. But a
supporter of the ban headed them off. “There’s a funny thing about the Colt Sporter,” he said. “You take out the clip for five bullets and you stick in a new one, readily available on the market for 30, for 50, for 70 bullets. It’s an assault weapon. Make no doubt about it.” An officer from the state police provided a demonstration, with a Sporter in one hand and a (empty) 30-round magazine from an AR-15 in the other: “it snapped right in. This is basically the same gun.”
The Sporter came to symbolize the debate. Eventually, the opponents of the ban decided
to use the controversy to make a risky maneuver: they added the Sporter to the proposed list of name-banned guns themselves, a “poison amendment.” One of undecided representatives begged them “why in God’s name would you invest in a company, whether you agree with it or not, and then try to restrict their operation by limiting the use of the weapon that they produce? I think we have our priorities a little mixed up here.” His fears were well-founded; the ban’s advocates called their opponents’ bluff, and agreed to add the Sporter to the list. As the now-poisoned ban continued on the path toward becoming law, the exchanges on the assembly floor grew more heated; at one point, a representative challenged a colleague to list his “credentials” when it came to firearms. The man answered back that he owned a piece of Colt, just like everybody else. “I guess all of the taxpayers in the State of Connecticut are now part-owner of a gun factory.”
As time was running out on the legislative session, and the final vote approached, one of
the opponents the ban called attention to the balcony overlooking the Assembly chamber, where a swarm of men and women in signature yellow-on-blue Colt caps — the recently-returned employees from the factory in Hartford — were watching as their jobs hung in the balance once again:
“Do they look like gun-toting maniacs to you? They’re here for one reason. You look in their eyes. When they lose their job if the assault rifle is not made at Colt — and you maybe say one percent [of the workforce] isn’t much — one percent of 1,000 is 100 people. It may be everybody up in that balcony up there. Those are not gun-toting maniacs. Those are people that are wondering if it’s going to be worth shooting themselves in the head with an assault rifle or a pistol if they could or lose their jobs.”
The ban’s advocates insisted that Connecticut needed to do something about assault
weapons before it was too late; a new epidemic of gun violence seemed just around the corner. An assemblyman described visiting the Bridgeport Police Department’s gun locker, and seeing the seized firearms, grouped by year, unfolding across time like a military preparing for war. “There’s a box — one box — for 1978. It’s not even a very big box. And you look for 1979. That box is not a very big box either.” But suddenly, something changed in the 1980’s, and the same trend seen in LA and Oakland took hold. Instead of just one box a year, two or three were needed to hold all the guns seized in Bridgeport. And “not only is the number of boxes growing larger and larger, but the guns in them are changing. They’re bigger. They’re stronger and more and more frequently they are assault weapons.” With the trajectory going the way it was, the senator said, it was “only a matter of time” before tragedy struck.
His vote put it over the top; when the governor signed the ban into law in June of 1993,
he remarked proudly “this is a vote for our children and against the NRA. This New-England state very much has its head screwed on straight, and its priorities in order.”
In the aftermath, one disappointed legislator openly struggled to comprehend the reality:
that after Connecticut “invested $25 million in Colt on a pledge by the former State Treasurer that Colt did not make assault weapons, the legislature has now concluded that that is exactly what the company does.” Indeed, the Colt Sporter had been banned in its home state; but it would still be produced for interstate sales. As a consequence, not only was every Connecticut citizen “part owner of a gun factory,” they were now part owners, officially, of an assault rifle factory.
November 30, 1993 — The White House — East Room
James Brady watched from stage, as the bill named in his honor was signed into law. He
was president Reagan’s first White House Press Secretary, and he had been walking next to the president on the morning of March 30, 1981, exiting the Washington Hilton hotel in D.C. when an attempted assassin shot them both. Jim Brady never walked again.
It turned out the shooter had purchased his .22 revolver from a pawn shop in Dallas; he
lied on the paperwork, so it was an illegal sale, but there was no way of knowing that. Not until it was too late. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was a first step toward fixing all that.
The “Brady Bill” would create a permanent 7-day waiting period, and a background
check requirement for all handgun purchases. To process the background checks, the bill also created the National Instant Criminal Background Check system. “NICS” is what the country would be relying on, to tell if a person was allowed to have a handgun or not.
Immediately after the assassination attempt in ‘81, both Reagan and Brady had been
rushed to the hospital at nearby George Washington University. On the tenth anniversary of that day, President Reagan returned to GWU, to accept an honorary doctorate. In his acceptance speech, he thanked the staff for healing him, and saving his friend:
“Speaking of Jim Brady, I want to tell all of you here today something that I’m
not sure you know. You do know that I’m a member of the NRA, and my position on the right to bear arms is well known. But I want you to know something else, and I’m going to say it in clear, unmistakable language: I support the Brady bill, and I urge the Congress to enact it without delay. [To cheering, applause] It’s just common sense to have a waiting period, to allow local law enforcement officials to conduct background checks on those who wish to buy a handgun.”
Reagan reminded everyone that the .22 that shot him was yet another “Saturday-night
special,” a gun practically anyone could get, and that “with the right to bear arms comes a great responsibility to use caution and common sense on handgun purchases.”
Congress didn’t meet his challenge, not then. It took two more years.
Jim said a few words himself at the ceremony. “Twelve years ago, my life was changed
forever by a disturbed young man with a gun. Until that time, I hadn’t thought much about gun control or the need for gun control,” Brady said, struggling audibly to complete each word. He tapped his wheelchair with his cane. “Maybe if I had, I wouldn’t be stuck with these damn wheels.” Turning the ceremony over to the president, Brady promised that “what we are witnessing today is more than a bill signing, it is the end of unchecked madness and the commencement of a heartfelt crusade for a safer and saner country.”
It wasn’t hyperbole. There really was a crusade underway in Washington. The man
signing the bill next to Mr. Brady was not his fellow Reagan-administration veteran George H.W. Bush, as had been planned; instead, the pen was held by a former Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton. There was no question as to the new president’s allegiances to the NRA: he had none. “We all know there is more to be done,” Clinton said to the audience. “I ask you to think about what this means, and what we can all do to keep this going. We cannot stop here.”
Earlier that month, the latest attempt at a federal Assault Weapons Ban had passed the
Senate. With the ban halfway to becoming law, and facing a fierce battle in the House, President Clinton released an “Open Letter to Hunters and Sportsmen.” He wanted the classical gun owners to know that he was on their side; in fact, he needed their help. “I have been a hunter since I was 12. Where I come from, it’s a way of life. And I will not allow the rights of hunters and sportsmen to be infringed upon,” he promised, in language jarringly reminiscent of a gun-lobby mailing. “But I know the difference between a firearm used for hunting and target shooting, and a weapon designed to kill people. The 19 specific types of assault weapons that would be banned by the proposal currently being considered in Congress have no place on a deer hunt, in a duck blind, or on a target range—and they certainly don’t belong on our streets, in our neighborhoods, or on our schoolyards. The president urged these gun owners to call their representatives, and “tell them that you know the difference between a hunting rifle and a weapon that was designed for the battlefield. Tell them you support the proposed ban on assault weapons.”
National Rifle Association Headquarters — Fairfax, Virginia
From the top floor of a glass-and-steel office tower, a man named Wayne R. LaPierre Jr.
watched the crusaders charge, with growing anxiety. Clearly, there was no longer an NRA member in the White House. And as hostile as the environment had been after Stockton, after Clinton, it was even worse.
As the NRA’s Executive Vice-President, Wayne knew his gun lobby had to adapt. Pitted
against the big-government liberal Clinton, he sought natural allies in the survivalist far-right — people who proudly stockpiled the most powerful weaponry they could, as a matter of practice in case of civil war. Accordingly, NRA mailings started to sound like the notorious gun advertisements of the 1980s, when “assault weapons” were first marketed: in 1993, after the FBI (who would be in charge of the NICS system) endorsed the Brady Bill, the NRA paid for multi-page ads in Field & Stream and other established gun magazines, asking in the reader in huge type “WHAT’S THE FIRST STEP TO A POLICE STATE?” The dot on the question mark was a scrap of a black-and-white photo, showing the boots of an army formation in mid-goose-step. The answer came on the next page: “WHEN THE FBI STATES THE RULES.” The rest of the ad was a letter from Wayne, signed next to his icy portrait. He implored readers to donate to the NRA, and fight the FBI. “Such abuse of broad investigative powers is the first step toward our Founding Fathers’ worst fear; a federal police force disarming the law-abiding populace.”
When the Brady Bill passed, the rhetoric from the NRA became downright apocalyptic;
in the January 1994 issue of American Rifleman — a monthly magazine published by the NRA — the organization wrote that “when Bill Clinton signed the Brady Bill on November 30, a drop of blood dripped from the finger of the sovereign American citizen.” Six months later, the magazine contained a “special report” from Wayne LaPierre himself, titled plainly “The Final War Has Begun.”
Wayne’s “war” was Clinton’s “crusade,” through another lens. The first shots had been
fired at Ruby Ridge, in Idaho, two years before. The ATF had been trying to recruit a man named Randy Weaver (who had illegally sawed off some shotguns) as an informant against the Aryan Nations, but Randy turned them down, went back to his cabin with his family, and waited for his court date. But when the date came, it was a misprint, and the feds thought he had skipped court. Soon, they FBI had Randy’s cabin surrounded. The standoff lasted for 12 days, and ended only after a federal marshal was shot dead, as were Randy’s son and wife. (After Randy surrendered, and the U.S. Government paid him a substantial settlement.)
Around the same time that Randy was coming down the mountain, there was a UPS
driver in Texas who was loading packages into the back of his delivery van. One box snagged, and tore; what fell out looked like a hand grenade. The grenade was inert, as were the dozens more that were boxed the same shipment. Then the driver remembered the other packages he had delivered to the same recipient, out in Waco: some the boxes had been stamped with warnings, something about being careful when handling volatile chemicals. Soon the ATF were on the case, and they discovered that the religious cult who lived in the compound on Mount Carmel, in Waco, had also been ordering
dozens of AR-15s from a manufacturer in Washington State, and part kits from a company in New Jersey that could convert those guns into fully-automatic rifles. AR15s, back into M16s. Which was very, very illegal to do.
Everything that happened at Ruby Ridge happened again at Waco, on a grand scale. An
attempted arrest turned into the the biggest gunfight in American law enforcement history. The feds retreated, beginning a standoff that stretched for 51 days. While the cabin in Idaho only held Randy’s family, in Texas there was a sprawling compound, containing 100 human beings who were members of another kind of family: all united in faith that the man leading them was god. And God would not surrender. Then, on April 19th, 1993, the ATF raided the Mount Carmel compound with tanks and helicopters. The cultists fought back. There was a spark — no one would ever take credit for it — and the Branch Davidians perished on live television, a giant orange fireball enveloping their church. It looked like a war crime.
May 3, 1994 — Senate Chamber — United States Capitol Building
One week after Clinton’s letter to hunters, a group of his predecessors in the Oval Office
sent their own message, addressed to every member of the U.S. House of Representatives. “We are writing to urge your support for a ban on the domestic manufacture of military-style assault weapons,” the presidents wrote, from one branch of government to another. “This is a matter of vital importance to the public safety. We urge you to listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of these weapons. Sincerely, Gerald R. Ford; Jimmy Carter; & Ronald Reagan.”
Clinton’s assault weapons ban was essentially the same as Connecticut’s: a name-ban of
19 rifles (including the AK-47 and Colt’s AR15, but not the Sporter) on top of a features-based ban. There was one major difference from Connecticut: the federal ban would also outlaw any ammunition magazine holding more than ten rounds — all magazines, not just the ones the manufacturer included standard. The bill had been put together by a freshman senator from California, who reminded the chamber about her state’s tragic history: the McDonald’s shooting, Stockton, an office building in San Francisco earlier that year. She shared a lesson her state learned the hard way; that “local and state initiatives are meaningless, because gun buyers can simply cross state lines and purchase their weapons of choice.”
In another session, Suzanna Gratia spoke. She told her story from Luby’s — by now,
well-polished — before urging the representatives to reject the new ban. “I hear all this talk about how many bullets can go in a clip,” she said. “I’ve been there. I can tell you, it doesn’t matter. It takes one second to switch out a clip. You can have one bullet, or a hundred bullets. It doesn’t matter, guys. He goes—” and Suzanna then demonstrated the motion, ejecting the magazine from her pantomime-pistol, and with the other hand, almost immediately, inserting another — “that’s not enough time to rush a man, I promise you.” She knew. Her father died trying.
The senator from California could see the bill was going to fail. as she set about cutting
provisions from it, weakening it, but desperate just to keep it alive. She agreed to add a ten-year “sunset provision” that would automatically cause the bill to expire when the time was up, if it was not renewed. Another compromise: current owners of banned assault weapons would be allowed to keep them, and sell them. Same for high-capacity magazines. The changes hurt the bill, the Californian thought. But its fate appeared more hopeful. “I was amazed to see the degree to which the National Rifle Association controls this body,” she told reporters. “If this cannot pass the Senate of the United States, I fear for the streets of America.”
It passed, just barely, and on September 13th, 1994, President Clinton signed the the
Federal Assault Weapons Ban into law. He cast the moment as a triumph over chaos: “My fellow Americans, this is about freedom. Without responsibility, without order, without lawfulness, there is no freedom. Today the will of the American people has triumphed over a generation of division and paralysis. We’ve won a chance to work together.” Finally, the shockwaves from Stockton came to a rest.
April 13, 1995
For the NRA, it was the most crushing loss yet. There were only two gun laws in
American history that could compare; when the National Firearms Act act sought to take the gangsters’ tommy guns away in 1934, the NRA’s president at the time openly supported the law, even saying that he “did not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” The executive Vice President, holding the same office that Wayne would assume sixty years later, said that the NRA was “absolutely favorable to reasonable legislation.” In 1968, when the post-assassinations Gun Control Act was passed, creating the ATF, Wayne’s predecessor office gave a measured response; while some of the bill’s provisions “appear unduly restrictive and unjustified in their application to law-abiding citizens,” he wrote to members, “the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.”
He was wrong; the hard-line gun advocates in the NRA grew angry, sensing that their
rights were not being defended. They established the “Institute for Legislative Action” in 1975 to focus on political strategy. Two years later, at the NRA’s annual convention in Cincinnati, a surprise vote suddenly cast out most of the NRA’s leadership team. The association’s 1,100 voting members decided to hand the reins to the hard-liners on that night in Cincinnati, launching the NRA on its modern trajectory, and now almost twenty years later, Wayne feared that the momentum may have finally stalled. He worried that if he didn’t fight back now, the NRA might die. Wayne began saying things he would regret.
On April 13th, 1995, he sent a fundraising letter to all NRA members. It began “I’m not
looking for a fight, but when you consider the facts of our current situation, you too, will see we have no other choice.” He wrote that “the semi-auto ban gives jack-booted government thugs more power to take away our Constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.” He then named the senator from California, as one among a group that would “stop at nothing until they’ve forced you to turn over your guns to the government.”
Plunging into apocalyptic imagery, Wayne painted the current reality as freedom’s
struggle against a tyrannical force, and cast the orange fireball that rose from Mount Carmel as a consequence of government oppression:
“In Clinton’s administration, if you have a badge, you have the government’s go-ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law-abiding citizens. Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge… Waco and the Branch Davidians… Not too long ago, it was unthinkable for Federal agents wearing nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to
attack law-abiding citizens. Not today, not with Clinton.”
When he invoked Waco, Wayne didn’t know that the provocative language he was using
was remarkably similar to that of another gun rights activist — a man who had been seen near the ATF checkpoint on the perimeter of Mount Carmel during the fateful 51-day standoff. The man’s name was Tim, and he was a veteran of the Persian Gulf war. He was there selling homemade bumper stickers that he had spread out on the hood of his car. They were starkly lettered with patriot-movement slogans: “Fear the Government that Fears Your Gun” and “A Man With a Gun is a Citizen, A Man Without a Gun is a Subject.” A journalism student, visiting the Waco perimeter one day, happened across Tim and asked a few questions about his beliefs. Articulate and polite, Tim told the reporter that “the government is afraid of the guns people have because they have to have control of the people at all times,“ and that “the government is continually growing bigger and more powerful, and the people need to prepare to defend themselves against government control.”
Tim sounded a lot like Wayne’s letter, but then, he sounded like a lot of pissed-off gun
owners at the time. Probably no one would have even noticed the similarity, except that just a week after Wayne had mentioned Waco in his fundraising later, on April 19th, 1995, the second anniversary of the morning Mount Carmel went up in flames, Tim blew up a federal building in Oklahoma.
Timothy McVeigh wasn’t inspired by the letter from the NRA — he had been filling
barrels with racecar fuel and fertilizer weeks before that — but his rationale came from a familiar place, and Wayne’s timing couldn’t have been worse. Still, despite a wave of public pressure in the wake of the bombing, Wayne held firm, and refused to apologize. That was war.
May 10, 1995 — Park Laureate Office Building — Houston, TX
Former President Bush had retired to a small town in Texas shortly after Clinton was
sworn in. But he still kept up his work, revising a manuscript for a book on foreign policy, and drafting letters. But his name had been conspicuously absent from the letter his three predecessors had sent, in support of the assault weapons ban.
Being an NRA member, President Bush received a copy of Wayne’s letter; he had been in office when Ruby Ridge happened, and his feelings about the ATF and other federal agencies were informed by his years as the head of the CIA. He took out a pen, and started a letter of his own, addressed directly to the NRA. He did not mince words:
“…Your broadside against Federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor; and it offends my concept of service to country. It indirectly slanders a wide array of government law enforcement officials, who are out there, day and night, laying their lives on the line for all of us.
You have not repudiated Mr. LaPierre’s unwarranted attack. Therefore, I resign as a
Life Member of N.R.A., said resignation to be effective upon your receipt of this letter. Please remove my name from your membership list.
The next day, Wayne had a change of heart. He told reporters “I really feel bad about the
fact that the words in that letter have been interpreted to apply to all federal law-enforcement officers.” He went on Larry King Live, looked into the camera, and assured the country that the NRA “never meant that letter to broad-brush all of federal law enforcement, all of BATF, or all of law enforcement in general.” He had lost a battle, but held out hope for the war.
“Colt Unit Sold, Connecticut Among Buyers” — New York Times, March 23 1990
“Critics say new Colt gun is an assault weapon” — The Milwaukee Journal April 25 1990
“Roberti Seeks State Ban on ‘Copy Cat’ Assault Rifles” — Los Angeles Times, February 24 1994
“Lundgren Files Suit to Add Semiatomatic Rifle to banned List” — Los Angeles Times, March 28 1991
“Weapons Ban is Approved By Connecticut Senate” — New York Times May 28 1993
“Gun Ban Squeaks Through” — Hartford Courant June 9 1993
“Weicker Signs Bill to Forbid Assault Rifles” — New York Times June 9 1993
“In Connecticut, Gun Ban Just Wouldn’t Die” — New York Times June 10 1993
“Man in the Middle” — Hartford Courant February 1 2009
“Crying Betrayal in Hartford, Colt Faces Uncertain Future” — New York Times June 12 1993
“Colt Unit Sold; Connecticut Among Buyers” — New York Times March 23 1990
“Debut of Colt’s ‘Sporter’ Revives Assault-Rifle Debate” — Los Angeles Times April 19 1990
“Weapons Ban is Approved by Connecticut Senate” — New York Times May 28 1993
“Judge Upholds State Ban on ‘Copycat’ Assault Guns” — Los Angeles Times November 30 1993
“NRA loses shootout in Congress” — The Times-News July 8 1991
“TERROR IN OKLAHOMA: ECHOES OF THE N.R.A.” — New York Times May 8 1995
Field And Stream, October 1993
“FBI, in shift, proposes backing gun control” — New York Times July 8 1993
“Ford, Carter, Reagan Push for Gun Ban” — Los Angeles Times, May 5 1994
“Feinstein Faces Fight for Diluted Gun Bill” — Los Angeles Times, November 9 1993
SUBCOMMITTEE ON THE CONSTITUTION OF THE COMMITTEE ON THE JUDICIARY UNITED STATES SENATE ONE HUNDRED THIRD CONGRESS SECOND SESSION ON S. 1882
“The Secret History of Guns” — The Atlantic September 2011
“Rifle Group ousts Most Leaders in Move to Bolster Stand on Guns.” – New York Times, May 23 1997
[Congressional Record Volume 141, Number 69 (Thursday, April 27, 1995)]
[Senate] [Pages S5745-S5747]
“Letter of Resignation sent by Bush to rifle association”