The evil gun
8/14/2001 12:00:00 AM - Jacob Sullum
The TEC-DC9 is said to be a gun that only a criminal could love. With its black finish, barrel shroud and 32-round magazine, the semiautomatic pistol has a menacing, militaristic look that apparently appealed to Gian Luigi Ferri, a down-on-his-luck California businessman with a chip on his shoulder.
On July 1, 1993, Ferri entered a San Francisco high-rise and rode the elevator to the offices of a law firm he blamed for his financial troubles. Using two TEC-DC9s and a .45-caliber Norinco pistol, he killed eight people and wounded six others before shooting himself.
Denied the chance to bring Ferri to justice, the relatives of several victims sued Navegar, the Miami-based manufacturer of the TEC-DC9, for making a weapon they said was good for nothing but murder. The California Supreme Court recently put a stop to their case, finding that state law does not allow jurors to award damages based on their judgment that a gun's dangers outweigh its benefits.
The decision is yet another setback for supporters of the ongoing legal assault on gun makers by local governments (including 12 cities and counties in California). The defeat is especially striking given the notoriety of the defendant and its product, which is now banned under federal law.
In response to the ban, Navegar introduced the AB-10, a similar weapon with a smaller magazine; the letters stand for "after ban." As that maneuver suggests, Navegar was not especially concerned about its public image.
Responding to criticism from law enforcement officials who said the TEC-DC9 was favored by criminals, Navegar's marketing director told The New York Times: "I'm kind of flattered. It just has that advertising tingle to it. Hey, it's talked about, it's read about, the media write about it. That generates more sales for me."
It would be poetic justice if all the hysteria about "assault weapons" actually boosted sales of the very models identified as especially evil by the anti-gun lobby. There was never any evidence that doing away with this arbitrary category -- reminiscent of the "Saturday night specials" that were once said to be the criminal's "weapon of choice" -- would have any impact on crime rates. And it was galling how readily anti-gun activists and politicians leaped from the premise that thugs liked a given gun to the conclusion that no one else did.
To bolster their argument that the TEC-DC9 had no legitimate use, Navegar's critics often quoted from the company's promotional literature. Ads and brochures emphasized the pistol's "high capacity" and "excellent resistance to fingerprints," while the company's slogan boasted to dealers that its weapons were "as tough as your toughest customer."
In a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece published after the California Supreme Court's ruling, USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky noted that experts had testified that the TEC-DC9 was "completely useless" for hunting and inferior to other guns for self-defense. "This gun clearly was designed to appeal to criminals," Chemerinsky wrote, citing the military-style barrel shroud and the threads that allow a silencer or flash suppresser to be attached. He called the TEC-DC9 "a weapon that has no purpose other than murdering human beings."
Hold on there. Navegar has sold hundreds of thousands of these guns. Every one of them was purchased by a murderer?
A closer look at Navegar's promotional material gives you a better idea of who the main customers were. "Resistance to fingerprints," for example, is just one feature of the TEC-DC9's "TEC-KOTE finish," which is also said to resist "sweat rust, petroleum distillates of all types, gun solvents, gun cleaners, and all powder residues," plus "salt spray corrosion." The weapon is described as "ideal for self-defense or recreation," delivering "more gutsy performance and reliability than ANY other gun on the market."
In light of the details that Navegar's critics tend to leave out, the typical TEC-DC9 buyer looks less like a gang-banger or mass murderer and more like a mild-mannered fellow who reads Soldier of Fortune, dreams of a more adventurous life, and gets a thrill out of blasting stuff in his spare time. "It's the Walter Mitty types," says gun policy scholar David Kopel.
When someone who is unfamiliar with guns -- someone like Gian Luigi Ferri -- plans a murderous rampage, he may be inclined to pick a gun that looks like a TEC-DC9. But that doesn't mean the existence of such guns makes murderous rampages more likely.