A disarming man

Posted: Apr 11, 2003 12:00 AM

When The New York Times runs stories about a former gun lobbyist who has become an expert witness for groups suing gunmakers and dealers, and (some 15 years ago) you were friendly with that guy and his wife, if you're a columnist, you get on the phone, you call the guy, you call people who know the guy and then you write a column on Bob Ricker.

To anti-gunners, Ricker is a hero, a whistle-blower who bristled at the gun lobby's zealous resistance to any attempts at reform. To the "gunnies," he's a turncoat. Off the record, some of Ricker's former brethren suggest that Ricker is a sellout who makes $225 an hour testifying against his former friends.

The Bob Ricker I know is an honest man who probably never should have been a gun lawyer or lobbyist. He's not a true believer. Ricker believed his job was to compromise, as lobbyists do. The gunnies have an almost religious belief that the gun lobby should fight, as National Rifle Association spokesman Andrew Arulanandam put it, any regulations that target "law-abiding citizens," not criminals.

On some issues, Ricker was on the side of the angels. Anti-gunners wanted mandatory gun locks. Gunnies opposed them. Arulanandam explained that his group opposes a "one-size-fits-all" approach to safety.

Ricker says he helped craft a voluntary agreement whereby gunmakers now offer a lock with every gun they make. Ricker figures the move saved lives and spared the industry from regulatory overkill. It angered him that the NRA had opposed something so benign. (Randy Rossi of California Attorney General Bill Lockyer's office can recite a list of "safety" legislation the industry opposed.)

Then Ricker went too far. He endorsed a 1999 Clinton White House proposal to prohibit Americans under the age of 21 from purchasing handguns. It was a betrayal for Ricker, as executive director of the American Shooting Sports Council, to support a measure that would make it illegal for 19-year-old Pfc. Jessica Lynch to buy a gun.

Lawrence Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said that Ricker's accommodating ways lost him the support of his association's board.

This week, Ricker testified for the NAACP in a lawsuit aimed at the gun industry. As Keane sees it, "These lawsuits aren't about locks, they're about destroying the industry through litigation." You see, the NAACP wants a federal judge to write regulations in response to the suit. "It's unconstitutional. It violates the separation of powers," Keane noted.

I asked Ricker if he supported a case designed to boost judicial activism. In principle, Ricker said, he opposed courts making law, "but sometimes you have to hold your nose and move forward."

Sometimes, you get pushed, and then you push back too far.

Only time will tell if hardball lobbies such as the NRA -- or NARAL Pro-Choice America -- are right to oppose almost all compromises. To them, this is war, and the other side is the enemy.

Arulanandam said of anti-gun groups, "Their aim is to repeal the Second Amendment and make the very act of owning a firearm illegal. This begs the question, 'Why do you compromise with someone whose endgame is to drive you into the sea?'"

Ricker argued that if the gun industry doesn't bend, another Columbine will occur, and the other side will be able to enact worse, draconian gun laws. As a cure, oddly, Ricker is supporting draconian lawsuits that are poison to his old buddies.

"I've now been banished, if you will. I've crossed over that line," said Ricker.

Only time will tell if the NRA's hard-line keeps bad laws from creeping in, or pushes out all but the truest of believers.