The Gun Industry's "Insider": A Tribute to Bob Ricker

It was May of 2001 and I was sitting at the counsels' table in the courtroom of the California Supreme Court, preparing to argue a case against notorious assault weapon manufacturer Navegar, Inc. for the victims of a mass shooting at the 101 California St. office building in San Francisco. Among the spectators in the courtroom was Bob Ricker, former lawyer for the National Rifle Association and longtime strategist and spokesperson for the gun industry. Bob approached me after the argument. "Dennis," he said, "I'm not in the gun industry anymore. We should talk."

Thus began Bob's journey from industry advocate to industry whistleblower. He became the gun industry's Jeffrey Wigand - the consummate industry insider who had the courage to tell the truth. I was saddened to hear this week that Bob had passed away after a long struggle with cancer. All Americans who seek to put our nation on a path to sanity on the gun issue owe him a debt of gratitude.

Although Russell Crowe never played him in the movies, Bob actually had a far more pivotal position in the gun industry than Wigand had within the tobacco industry. I regarded him as the industry's most effective advocate and my toughest opponent. Soft-spoken in manner, he skillfully avoided the strident tone and extreme statements so common among gun lobby spokespeople. But I always felt that Bob's heart wasn't really in it.

It turns out that he was a consistent and forceful advocate for reform from within the industry, urging gun makers to take voluntary action to reduce the risk of gun death and injury. For example, he was instrumental in persuading major gun makers to enter into an agreement with the Clinton White House to sell child safety locks with their guns. But the hardliners in the industry, beholden to the extremists at the NRA, ultimately forced Bob out, along with other reformers.

Bob's response was to try to change the industry from the outside. In appearances on 60 Minutes and other shows, he ridiculed the industry's disavowal of all responsibility for the gun violence problem. In sworn testimony introduced in court, he revealed that industry leaders were well aware that the illegal market in guns was constantly fed by corrupt or irresponsible dealers, knew that manufacturers and distributors could take steps to sell only to dealers adopting safe sales practices, yet consciously decided to do nothing. As Ricker described it, the industry adopted a "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil approach" that encouraged "a culture of evasion of firearms laws." Based in part on his testimony, a federal judge in New York found that the industry's irresponsible distribution of guns constituted a public nuisance.

Because Bob Ricker told the truth to the American people, we now understand the close connection between the gun industry and the vast pool of illegal guns available to criminals. Unfortunately, we also understand that the industry, no doubt motivated by the profitability of the illegal market, will not police itself. It is critical that we strengthen federal gun laws to crack down on the dealers who pollute the streets of our cities with illegal guns.

Based on my personal experience taking on the gun lobby, I have some idea of the vitriol Bob Ricker likely had to endure after he became the industry's worst nightmare. He never backed down, continuing to be a voice for common sense against the din of NRA propaganda, until his final days. His impact will be felt for years to come.

For more information, see Dennis Henigan's new book, Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy.