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December 7, 2009

A Profile in Courage

Over my many years in the gun control movement, I have been privileged to work with, for, and against many interesting people. One of the most interesting is a man named Bob Ricker who, sadly, was taken from us on Friday after a bout with cancer.

As a promising young lawyer, Ricker was hired in 1981 to be the Assistant General Counsel for the National Rifle Association (NRA). Ricker represented the NRA in many important federal and state legislative battles and gained a deep understanding of the political and legal process. Eventually, he became the executive director of the American Shooting Sports Council (ASSC), the gun industry’s leading trade organization at the time.

In this position, Ricker participated in a series of gun industry meetings between 1992 and 1997, during which manufacturers questioned whether they should take voluntary action to better control the distribution of guns. As Ricker later stated, gun makers had long known that “the diversion of firearms from legal channels of commerce to the black market” takes place “principally at the distributor/dealer level.” This is because corrupt dealers make it easy for criminals and juveniles to buy guns by allowing practices like “straw purchases,” in which an individual with a clean criminal record buys a gun(s) on behalf of someone who is prohibited under federal law from doing so (i.e., a convicted felon, domestic abuser, “mental defective,” drug addict, etc.).

During these industry meetings, Ricker heeded Ralph Waldo Emerson’s advice that, “A little integrity is better than any career.” At a time in life when men are supposed to be incapable of real change, he had the moral resolve to transform his thinking regarding the gun industry’s business practices. Ricker proposed strict standards and guidelines to his industry colleagues. Under his plan, firearm manufacturers would have been able to sell guns only to distributors and retailers who could demonstrate that they had a firm understanding of applicable laws, safety rules, and warning signs for illegal firearm trafficking. Dealers would have also been prohibited from selling multiple guns at one time to a single individual. His plan was rejected. As Ricker described it, “the prevailing view was that if the industry took action voluntarily, it would be an admission of responsibility for the problem.” Ultimately, the industry’s lawyers decided that even holding the meetings was “dangerous” and they were stopped altogether.

Ricker was not done, though. Following the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, he traveled to the White House on behalf of ASSC to meet with President Bill Clinton and see if something could be done to prevent future school shootings (the teenage killers had acquired their guns through unregulated private firearm sales). For an NRA run by “right-wing wackos,” this was the last straw. Ricker was forced to resign and the ASSC was disbanded in favor of the more conservative National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF).

In 2003, Ricker would go public with his concerns about the gun industry when he provided testimony in an affidavit for a lawsuit by 12 California cities and counties against the gun industry. A few months later, he appeared on “60 Minutes” to tell his full story. When he was asked why he would risk his reputation and the wrath of gun rights activists by coming forward, Ricker stated, “I don't want to have to come home some night from the office and have my wife tell me that, ‘Your son was shot in a drive-by shooting,’ or, ‘The neighbor's kids were killed.’ And these people who sit up there in their corporate offices, they know about the problem. They've known about it for a long time. And the time is up.”

In his final years, Ricker backed up those words. He worked with the Virginia Center for Public Safety as they campaigned to close the Gun Show Loophole in that state. He was also a co-founder of the American Hunters and Shooters Association, a more moderate gun rights group that has been willing to acknowledge the legitimate public safety concerns aroused by gun violence in this country.

In the end, Ricker left quite a legacy of good works. But what I admire most about him is his courage to reexamine his beliefs and priorities. He risked—and lost—a lot of friendships in the pro-gun movement because of his determination to be a responsible citizen in our society. He was pilloried, mocked, and made an object of scorn for making this stand—but he never wavered. Even in his last months, Ricker was focused on making good public policy for the benefit of all.

Perhaps the best epitaph for Bob comes from Psalms 112 from the King James Bible:

1. Blessed is the man who fears the LORD,
Who delights greatly in His commandments.

2. His descendants will be mighty on earth,
The generation of the upright will be blessed.

3. Wealth and riches will be in his house,
And his righteousness endures forever.

4. Unto the upright there arises light in the darkness,
He is gracious, and full of compassion, and righteous.

5. A good man deals graciously and lends,
He will guide his affairs with discretion.

6. Surely he will never be shaken,
The righteous will be in everlasting remembrance.

7. He will not be afraid of evil tidings,
His heart is steadfast, trusting in the LORD.

8. His heart is established,
He will not be afraid,
Until he sees his desire upon his enemies.

9. He has dispersed abroad,
He has given to the poor,
His righteousness endures forever,
His horn will be exalted with honor.

10. The wicked will see it and be grieved,
He will gnash his teeth and melt away,
The desire of the wicked shall perish.

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