[Note from BenIndy: We know that words can sometimes fail us, but numbers don’t always fare so well, either. Lewiston, Maine’s mass shooting, in which 18 people lost their lives horrifically, was the 36th mass shooting of 2023. This year alone, we have lost at least 190 people to mass shootings, defined by the FBI as incidents in which four or more people (not including the killer) have died within a 24-hour period. We live in a country where statistics have shown us time and time again how truly deadly our lax gun laws are, and how gun violence disproportionately impacts people of color, children and teens. Gun violence is an epidemic with roots so deep and tangled in American culture that even the slaughter of children doesn’t stir us to think boldly.]
A teen bowler, a shipbuilder and a sign language interpreter are among the Maine shooting victims
This week’s mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine, was the nation’s deadliest of the year.
Eighteen people were killed in the attacks on a local bowling alley and bar, and 13 others were injured.
Law enforcement announced on Friday that suspect Robert Card had been found dead.
The 40-year-old was the only person suspected in the deadly assault at the Just-in-Time Recreation bowling alley and Schemengees Bar & Grille on Wednesday.
This announcement, made late Friday night, marked the conclusion of a pursuit that left residents seeking shelter and led to the temporary closure of businesses and government offices. State and federal law enforcement agencies conducted an extensive search across multiple towns for Card.
The Maine Department of Public Safety released the names, ages and photos of the victims at a press conference Friday.
Before then, some families had publicly shared the news they had been given, taking to social media to update their friends and neighbors on an unimaginable reality now settling in.
Here is what we know about the victims:
TRICIA ASSELIN, 53
Tricia Asselin was one of the victims of the mass shootings in Lewiston on Wednesday night, ABC News said. She was an accomplished athlete, a volunteer, and on the day of her death, a hero, her mother, Alicia Lachance, told NPR.
Lachance, 75, said her two daughters, Tricia and Bobbi-Lynn Nichols, 57, went bowling at Just-In-Time Recreation, where Asselin worked.
Asselin and Nichols were talking near a center lane in the bowling alley when the shots first rang out, though due to the noise in the venue, the sisters didn’t realize they were shots until they rang out a second time. As Nichols began running toward the exit, she thought Asselin was behind her, but Asselin stopped to call for help and was shot.
Lachance, who lives in Florida, said she was watching Celebrity Wheel of Fortune when she saw the news break on the screen. She said she recognized the bowling alley immediately, as it is the only one in Lewiston and was started by a family friend.
“I know Tricia is there, and Bobbi, as they were going bowling. I call both their phones – nothing and no answer,” she said.
Nichols tried to go back into the bowling alley, but was denied.
In high school, Asselin played baseball and softball, and was offered a softball college scholarship, but turned it down because she was getting married.
She also was skilled in golf and fishing, which she did often with her son Brandon, 25.
In her free time, she went on cruises with her son and volunteered with several charitable organizations, including the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Susan G. Komen for the Cure. She had raised $900 for the upcoming Susan G. Komen breast cancer walk in her area, Lachance said.
“She was just a great person,” Lachance said. “Anybody that knows Tricia is devastated today.”
In addition to her son and mother, Asselin is survived by two brothers, Mark Johnson, 54, and Jason Johnson, 51.
The family has not yet been able to see Asselin’s body.
“We just don’t know what to do,” Lachance said. “There’s nothing we can do. As soon as I find out when they’re going to release the body, I want to fly home and I want to hold my daughter in my arms and my heart. I’ll hold her in my heart forever, but I want her in my arms one more time.”
Tricia was fatally shot at Just-in-Time Recreation as she ran to call 911.
BILL BRACKETT, 48
William “Billy” Bracket was an avid sports fan with a natural athletic ability, according to close friends and family.
He was killed at Schemengees Bar and Grille, playing in the cornhole tournament alongside Joshua Seal, Steve Vozzella, and Bryan MacFarlane.
Karen Hopkins, executive director of the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf, where Brackett attended classes, said that the deaf community is devastated by the tragic losses.
“Our staff is struggling because they are our friends,” she said, according to The Associated Press.
Owen Horr, a close childhood friend, posted a tribute to Brackett on Facebook. In it he described him as a kind and shy friend who was an avid Longhorns fan and obsessed with nearly all sports from a very young age.
“He had natural-born athletic skills,” Horr recalled, adding that Brackett was usually picked first. “He was the best soccer goalie, playing baseball and basketball. He made more than 1,000 points during his senior high school years. Also, he was the outstanding baseball player in the league in Auburn/Lewiston, ME.”
The Lewiston Sun Journal reports that Brackett met his wife Kristina through mutual friends in the Deaf community. They celebrated their third wedding anniversary in August, and share a 2 1/2-year-old daughter named Sandra.
Bill was part of a gathering of deaf people playing cornhole at Schemengees Bar & Grill when he was fatally shot.
Peyton Brewer Ross, a new father, died in the shooting, according to the Maine AFL-CIO. They add he was loved by the community.
It is unclear what location Peyton was Wednesday when he was fatally shot.
TOMMY CONRAD, 34
When the gunman entered Just-In-Time Recreation, several men attempted to take him down. Thomas Ryan Conrad, a manager at the bowling alley, was one of them.
Conrad, who’d served in the Army, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, made the ultimate sacrifice, friend Adam Stoddard told the Lewiston Sun Journal.
“He was great with all of the bowling community kids,” Stoddard told the newspaper. “They all loved him. He loved them so much he put his life in harm’s way to charge the gunman and save the children who were there. He died a hero.”
The 34-year-old had returned to Maine to live near his daughter, Caroline.
“My nephew loved his daughter more than words can say.. We love and will miss You Tommy.. We will all help take care of Caroline,” Conrad’s aunt, Holly Mireault, wrote on Facebook. He is survived by his 9-year-old daughter.
Tommy was in Just-In-Time Recreation when he was shot trying to rush the gunman.
JOSHUA SEAL, 36
Joshua Seal was a husband, a father of four and a tireless advocate for the Deaf community.
A skilled sign-language interpreter, Seal was widely known as the ASL interpreter for Dr. Nirav Shah’s pandemic briefings. He was among several members of the deaf and hard of hearing community in Lewiston who regularly went to Schemengees Bar & Grille to play cornhole. On Wednesday, the father of four was participating in a cornhole tournament for the deaf, along with Steve Vozzella, Bryan MacFarlane, and Billy Brackett, who were also killed.
In many ways, Seal was the conduit for the deaf community, especially during times of crisis.
“For so many in the deaf community in Maine, Josh was the voice of COVID and the face of COVID,” said former Maine Center for Disease Control director Dr. Nirav Shah, who is now the deputy director at the U.S. CDC.
Shah worked alongside Seal for almost two full years during the pandemic. Seal, an American Sign Language interpreter, had been brought in to communicate the latest updates on the virus and vaccines to people who needed to know about them, but often can’t.
His translations of mRNA, monoclonal antibodies and other pandemic vernacular were high energy and helped make him a star among the deaf and hard of hearing.
The killing of Seal, Vozzella, MacFarlane, and Brackett appears to be the deadliest mass shooting of deaf people in U.S. history.
Seal was also the director of interpreting services and coordinated summer camps for deaf and hard of hearing kids to keep them engaged and not feel isolated.
At approximately 7:08 p.m., Seal and his three friends were hit by the bullets of the gunman who had entered the billiards hall after first attacking the bowling alley. All four of them were killed. Three of them — MacFarlane, Brackett and Seal — had been students at the Maine Education Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, according to director Karen Hopkins.
Joshua was killed at Schemengees.
ARTHUR STROUT, 42
On Wednesday night, Arthur Strout was playing pool at Schemengees Bar and Grill with his father. The pair were planning on leaving together because the 42-year-old hadn’t driven that night, his father, Arthur Barnard told CBS News. But instead, Strout decided to stay behind.
“I said, ‘OK,’ and he said ‘I love you,’ because all my kids tell me that every time we see each other,” Barnard told the news outlet. “Ten minutes later, I get a phone call.”
Strout’s wife, Kristy, described the 42-year-old as a Christmas person, who sometimes started preparing for the holiday as early as Halloween. Taken by the spirit of the holiday, she told the Lewiston Sun Journal, he’d gather their large blended family of five children, to decorate the tree just so.
“If it wasn’t perfect, he’d go back to make sure it was perfect and looked like one of those pictures out of a magazine,” Kristy said.
The pair had been married for nearly seven years, but they began dating 16 years ago. Together, they share a 13-year-old daughter, Brianna, whose birthday is on Halloween. Both Arthur and Kristy also had two children from a previous relationships.
Maria Wilson, a close friend, told the newspaper that Strout had an infectious, silly laugh. She also described him as a generous person, who was willing to share all he had with others.
“He looked out for anyone and everyone. It was a ‘here you don’t have a shirt, take mine,’ kind of mentality,” Wilson said.
Arthur was fatally shot at Schemengees.
BOB & LUCIELLE VIOLETTE, 76 & 73
Friends say Bob Violette should be remembered as a wonderful person who died trying to protect children. Bob Violette was a dedicated volunteer coach for a youth bowling league. He was killed at Just-in-Time while trying to save those around him, his daughter-in-law told Maine Public on Thursday. Violette’s wife, Lucy was also shot at the bowling alley.
“I have no doubt that he was protecting those kids til the end. He is just such a good man, that he deserves people to know about him and what he meant to everyone,” Brandon Dubuc said.
Lewiston schools superintendent Jake Langlais described Lucielle as “one of the kindest people I have ever met.”
“She supported youth, their development, loved bowling, a good laugh, and was a valued member of the business office at Lewiston Public Schools. Lucy served the public for over 52 years. Lucy was a mentor providing various levels of guidance and care to many from youth bowling, life mentoring, and so much more.”
The couple was fatally shot at the Just-In-Time recreation center.
STEVEN VOZZELLA, 45
Steven Vozzella was part of a gathering of deaf people playing cornhole at Schemengees Bar & Grill, ABC News reported.
On Wednesday night, Steve Vozzella was playing in Schemengees Bar & Grille’s cornhole tournament for the deaf, Maine Public reported.
The sport was a big part of Vozzella’s life — he was an active member of the New England Deaf Cornhole — and he was quite good at it, with several victories to prove it.
“With sadly and heavy hearts, NEDC has lost a member of our community,” the group wrote in a Facebook post, adding that the 45-year-old had won several games and was eager to play more. “He will be missed on and off the courts.”
Away from the cornhole boards, Vozzella was a father of two who was preparing to celebrate his one year anniversary with his wife Megan next month. He also worked as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service and was a member of the National Association of Letter Carriers.
NALC President Brian Renfroe said in a statement that he was heartbroken to learn that Vozzella had been killed in the mass shooting.
“He had much more life to live before it was stolen from him in an all-too-common senseless act of gun violence,” Renfroe said. “We mourn the loss of Stephen and all the innocent victims of this tragedy. Our hearts are with Stephen’s loved ones, all of those affected and the entire town of Lewiston.”
Vozzella, as well as Billy Brackett and Bryan MacFarlane, who were also killed on Wednesday night, were stalwart members of Maine’s community of deaf people who died in the shootings, according to the Maine Educational Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
Joseph Walker’s family was frantically trying to track him down after news of the mass shooting spread.
His father, Leroy Walker, a city councilor in Auburn, Maine, told WGME news that he was unaware of his son’s condition for almost 14 hours. He eventually learned that his son, who was a manager at Schemengees Bar and Grille, had died at the scene of the horrific shooting.
“My son was a great son,” the elder Walker told the news outlet. “Never got in any trouble, and he did a lot of good things for a lot of good people.”
Maine State Police said Walker had grabbed a kitchen knife and was apparently running toward the shooter to stop him, when he was shot twice in the stomach.
When asked if he was surprised to hear his son attempted to run to the shooter, his father – Leroy Walker Sr. — said: “No, not at all. I know he would have done that to protect his people.”
According to police, the final moments of Joseph Walker’s life were some of his most heroic.
“Picked up a butcher knife and went after the gunman to try and stop him from killing other people,” Leroy Walker recounted. “And that’s when he shot my son to death. He tried to save some more lives, and he ended up losing his life.”
He added: “I know if my son were here with me, he would say that he’s sorry for all the others that were lost.”
Joseph was fatally shot at Schemengee’s.
AARON YOUNG, 14
Aaron Young was only 14 years old. He and his father, Bill, were both killed at Just-In-Time in Lewiston Recreation on Wednesday night.
“I knew it would hit me when I got here, and he wasn’t here to greet me with a huge smile and a hug when we got in,” Aaron’s sister, Kayla Putnam, said. “My mom just keeps saying, ‘He gives the best hugs.'”
Aaron was a son, brother and beloved classmate. Both he and his father were killed in the deadly rampage.
“He was an honor student there. He was really proud of his grades, and his friends really miss him,” Putnam said.
Bill Young, 44, and his 14-year-old son, Aaron, were at Just-in-Time for the youth league night, a family member confirmed to The Associated Press. Bill was a “man dedicated to his family” who was “always trying to be a funny guy.” Aaron was an avid bowler, the AP reported.
Aaron was fatally shot at Just-in-Time Recreation.
BILL YOUNG, 44
Bill Young was a father and an auto mechanic.
He and his son, Aaron, were both killed at Just-In-Time in Lewiston Recreation on Wednesday night.
Kayla Putnam, Bill Young’s step daughter, said he was the rock of the family.
“He’s going to be very missed,” Putnam said. “It’s going to be very hard for the family right now to deal without him because he was kind of the center of the family and everything. We are going to have a lot to deal with and plan and make sure everyone is taken care of.”
Bill was fatally shot at Just-in-Time Recreation.
BRYAN MACFARLANE, 40
Bryan MacFarlane was playing in the cornhole tournament for the deaf at Schemengees Bar & Grille when he was killed, his sister Keri Brooks told CNN.
Brooks later told The Daily Moth, an online news outlet featuring news for the Deaf community, that there were nine deaf people at the bar that night.
MacFarlane, who was 40 and would have turned 41 in December, was on the same team as Billy Brackett, Steve Vozzella, and Joshua Seale, the Lewiston Sun Journal reported. Brooks said the men all knew each other through the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf.
She told the paper that MacFarlane grew up in Portland, Maine, but had only recently moved back to the state to be near his mother. She described him as an outdoorsy man, who lived camping, fishing and riding his motorcycle.
Brooks added that MacFarlane also loved spending time with deaf friends and his dog, M&M, who was named after his favorite candy and regularly joined him on the road as a commercial trucker.
She told CNN that MacFarlane was one of the first deaf people in the state of Vermont to get his commercial trucking driver’s license.
“Many states don’t let deaf drive trucks so I’m very proud of him for achieving that. He worked as a truck driver for several years,” she said.
MacFarlane was fatally shot at Schemengees.
JASON ADAMS WALKER, 51
Jason Walker, a close friend of Deslauriers Jr., was also killed at the bowling alley, according to the same Facebook post. “They made sure their wives and several young children were under cover then they charged the shooter,” Michael Deslauriers Sr. wrote in the post about Walker and his son.
Walker was fatally shot at Just-In-Time Recreation.
KEITH MACNEIR, 64
Unlike the other victims killed by the gunman, Keith Macneir was not a local. He had traveled from his home in Florida to Maine last week, to celebrate his 64th birthday with his son, The Boston Globe reported.
In a Facebook post, Macneir’s niece, Grace Chilton, said he had been visiting his son Breslin Macneir.
“Keith was at Schemengees (making new friends, I’m sure) at the time of the shooting,” Chilton wrote. “Keith was the friendliest & kindest guy in any room – his loss will leave a huge hole in the lives of many, many people.”
Keith was fatally shot at Just-In-Time.
MAXX HATHAWAY, 35
Maxx Hathaway spent Wednesday night playing pool at Schemengees Bar & Grille with his pregnant wife Brenda. But by the time the shooter burst into the restaurant Hathaway was there alone, friends told the Lewiston Sun Journal.
In a GoFundMe post, Hathaway’s sister, Kelsay Hathaway, said that the couple was expecting their third child in a little over a month. She described the father as a full-time stay-at-home dad and “a goofy, down to earth person” who “loved to joke around and always had an uplifting attitude no matter what was going on.”
She added: “Growing up he would always play dolls with my younger sister Courtney and always loved to get into trouble.”
In a Facebook post, Hathaway’s other sister, Courtney Hathaway, wrote about her own devastation. “I’m feeling a lot of things right now but I’m mostly heartbroken that he’s gone,” she wrote. “Nothing really prepares you for the sudden and shocking loss of a loved one, especially when it happens in such a tragedy.”
Hathaway was fatally shot at Schemengees Bar & Grille.
RONALD MORIN, 55
Ron Morin was a dedicated husband and father of two, and a gregarious man who was well-known for having jokes at the ready, several family members have said in remembrances on social media.
Case in point, just one day before the mass shooting in Lewison, the 55-year-old posted a funny quip on Facebook — apparently a near daily habit, according to his friends.
“Why do men go to bars to meet women. Go to Target. The female to male ratio is 10 to 1. And they’re already looking for things they don’t need,” Morin wrote.
Morin was among the eight men killed at Schemengees Bar and Grille. His death has left his family “torn and shattered.”
In a GoFundMe post, Morin’s younger sister Tanya Morissette described him as having “an infectious personality.”
She added: “He was an incredible husband, father, brother, uncle, son, and friend. To know Ron, was to instantly love him. He was a man who always put others before himself and looked for the humor and positivity in even the most tragic circumstances.”
In a post on Facebook added after the shooting, Morin’s son Eric called him his “best friend.”
In an interview with the Bangor Daily News, another family member, Cecile Francoeur Martin, described Morin as an upbeat and happy person.
Martin told the outlet Morin was “just one of those people that if you are having a bad day, he was going to make your day better just by his presence.”
Ron was fatally shot at Schemengees Bar & Grille.
MICHAEL DESLAURIERS II, 51
Michael Deslauriers Jr. was killed at the bowling alley while trying to rush the gunman, according to a Facebook post shared by his father, who goes by the same name. “I have the hardest news for a father to ever have to share,” he wrote in the post.
Michael was fatally shot at Just-In-Time Recreation.
[BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian: I am going to use this opportunity to call attention to a shooting that occurred recently in Benicia. And I’d like to note the (embarrassingly predictable) first comment in response to the Nextdoor post I’m linking, saying “Let’s not get like Vallejo please!” The truth this: Gun violence is everywhere, even here in Benicia. We’re less impacted, but only by so much; we are not and have never been immune to it. No one is. No one can be. Gun violence touches every part of American culture. Gun violence transcends age, race, gender identity, political preferences, religious affiliation, education, relationship status, job status, place of origin, geographic location, and so on. It is the number one cause of death in kids aged 1 to 17. There are situations and communities more vulnerable to it, yes, but – gun violence can touch anyone, at almost any time. This report by the NYT details the path to polarization engineered by gun lobbyists and a cohort of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, a path designed to stall progress on seeing this problem for what it is and then actually doing something about it.]
The Secret History of Gun Rights: How Lawmakers Armed the N.R.A.
They served in Congress and on the N.R.A.’s board at the same time. Over decades, a small group of legislators led by a prominent Democrat pushed the gun lobby to help transform the law, the courts and views on the Second Amendment.
Long before the National Rifle Association tightened its grip on Congress, won over the Supreme Court and prescribed more guns as a solution to gun violence — before all that, Representative John D. Dingell Jr. had a plan.
First jotted on a yellow legal pad in 1975, it would transform the N.R.A. from a fusty club of sportsmen into a lobbying juggernaut that would enforce elected officials’ allegiance, derail legislation behind the scenes, redefine the legal landscape and deploy “all available resources at every level to influence the decision making process.”
“An organization with as many members, and as many potential resources, both financial and influential within its ranks, should not have to go 2d or 3d Class in a fight for survival,” Mr. Dingell wrote, advocating a new aggressive strategy. “It should go First Class.”
To understand the ascendancy of gun culture in America, the files of Mr. Dingell, a powerful Michigan Democrat who died in 2019, are a good place to start. That is because he was not just a politician — he simultaneously sat on the N.R.A.’s board of directors, positioning him to influence firearms policy as well as the private lobbying force responsible for shaping it.
And he was not alone. Mr. Dingell was one of at least nine senators and representatives, both Republicans and Democrats, with the same dual role over the last half-century — lawmaker-directors who helped the N.R.A. accumulate and exercise unrivaled power.
Their actions are documented in thousands of pages of records obtained by The New York Times, through a search of lawmakers’ official archives, the papers of other N.R.A. directors and court cases. The files, many of them only recently made public, reveal a secret history of how the nation got to where it is now.
Over decades, politics, money and ideology altered gun culture, reframed the Second Amendment to embrace ever broader gun rights and opened the door to relentless marketing driven by fear rather than sport. With more than 400 million firearms in civilian hands today and mass shootings now routine, Americans are bitterly divided over what the right to bear arms should mean.
The lawmakers, far from the stereotype of pliable politicians meekly accepting talking points from lobbyists, served as leaders of the N.R.A., often prodding it to action. At seemingly every hint of a legislative threat, they stepped up, the documents show, helping erect a firewall that impedes gun control today.
“Talk about being strategic people in a place to make things happen,” an N.R.A. executive gushed at a board meeting after Congress voted down gun restrictions following the 1999 Columbine shooting. “Thank you. Thank you.”
The fact that some members of Congress served on the N.R.A. board is not new. But much of what they did for the gun group, and how, was not publicly known.
Representative Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican, sent confidential memos to the N.R.A. leader Wayne LaPierre, urging action against gun violence lawsuits. Senator Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, chided fellow board members for failing to advance a bill that rolled back gun restrictions, and told them how to do it.
Republican Representative John M. Ashbrook of Ohio co-wrote a letter to the board describing “very subtle and complex” tactics to support “candidates friendly to our cause and actions to defeat or discipline those who are hostile.” Senator Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican who was a key strategic partner for the N.R.A., flagged and scuttled a proposal to require the use of gun safety locks.
And then there was Mr. Dingell. In a private letter in October 1978, the N.R.A. president, Lloyd Mustin, said his “insights and guidance on the details of any gun-related matter pending in the Congress” were “uniformly successful.” Just as valuable, he said, was the congressman’s stealthy manipulation of the legislative process.
“These actions by him are often carefully obscured,” Mr. Mustin wrote, so they may “not be recognized or understood by the uninitiated observer.”
As chairman of the powerful House commerce committee, Mr. Dingell would send “Dingellgrams” — demands for information from federal agencies — drafted by the N.R.A. Other times, on learning of a lawmaker’s plan to introduce a bill, he would scribble a note to an aide saying, “Notify N.R.A.”
Beginning in the 1970s, he pushed the group to fund legal work that could help win court cases and enshrine policy protections. The impact would be far-reaching: Some of the earliest N.R.A.-backed scholars were later cited in the Supreme Court’s District of Columbia vs. Heller decision affirming an individual right to own a gun, as well as a ruling last year that established a new legal test invalidating many restrictions.
The files of Mr. Dingell, the longest-serving member of Congress, were donated to the University of Michigan but remained off-limits for nearly eight years. They were only made available in May, five months after The Times began pressing for their release.
Mr. Barr, who has remained on the N.R.A. board since leaving government in 2003, said in an interview that he did not recall the memos he wrote to Mr. LaPierre, which were among the congressman’s papers at the University of West Georgia. But during his nearly six years in office while also a N.R.A. director, he said, the group “never approached me to do anything that I didn’t want to do or that I would not have done anyway.”
“I’m doing it as a member of Congress who also happens to be an N.R.A. board member,” Mr. Barr said.
N.R.A. manuals say its board has a “special trust” to ensure the organization’s success and to protect the Second Amendment “in the legislative and political arenas.” Under ethics rules, lawmakers may serve as unpaid directors of nonprofits, and the gun group is classified by the I.R.S. as a nonprofit “social welfare organization.” No current legislators serve on its board.
In 2004, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence objected to three Republican lawmakers then serving as unpaid N.R.A. directors: Mr. Craig and Representatives Don Young of Alaska and Barbara Cubin of Wyoming. The Brady organization argued that their fiduciary duty to the N.R.A. conflicted with their government roles.
“Here, the lobbyist and the lobbied are the same,” said the complaint. It was rejected by Senate and House ethics committees.
Mr. Dingell eventually left the N.R.A. board. The turning point was his support for a 1994 crime bill that included an assault weapons ban. In a terse resignation letter, he acknowledged a problem in serving as an elected official and a director — though he would continue to work closely with the group for years.
“I deeply regret,” Mr. Dingell wrote, “that the conflict between my responsibilities as a Member of Congress and my duties as a board member of the National Rifle Association is irreconcilable.”
John Dingell was comfortable with firearms at an early age: When not blasting ducks with a shotgun, he was plinking rats with an air gun in the basement of the U.S. Capitol, where he served as a page. They were pursuits he picked up from his father, a New Deal Democrat representing a House district in Detroit’s working-class suburbs, who enjoyed hunting and championed conservation causes.
After serving in the Army in World War II, the younger Mr. Dingell earned a law degree and worked as a prosecutor. He succeeded his father in 1955 at age 29. Nicknamed “the Truck” as much for his forceful personality as his 6-foot-3 frame, Mr. Dingell was an imposing presence in the House, where he became a Democratic Party favorite for pushing liberal causes like national health insurance.
Mr. Dingell recalled, in a 2016 interview, that he saw President John F. Kennedy “fairly frequently” at the White House and generally “traveled the same philosophical path.”
“Except on firearms,” he added.
In December 1963, just weeks after Mr. Kennedy was murdered with a rifle bought through an N.R.A. magazine ad, Mr. Dingell complained at a hearing about “a growing prejudice against firearms” and defended buying guns through the mail. His advocacy made him popular with the N.R.A., and by 1968 he had joined at least one other member of Congress on its board.
Historically, the N.R.A.’s opposition to firearms laws was tempered. Founded in 1871 by two Union Army veterans — a lawyer and a former New York Times correspondent — the association promoted rifle training and marksmanship. It did not actively challenge the Supreme Court’s view, stated in 1939, that the Second Amendment’s protection of gun ownership applied to membership in a “well regulated Militia” rather than an individual right unconnected to the common defense.
During the 1960s, public outrage over political assassinations and street violence led to calls for stronger laws, culminating in the Gun Control Act, the most significant firearms bill since the 1930s. The law would restrict interstate sales, require serial numbers on firearms and make addiction or mental illness potential disqualifiers for ownership. The N.R.A. was divided, with a top official complaining about parts of the bill while also saying it was something “the sportsmen of America can live with.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson wanted the bill to be even stronger, requiring gun registration and licensing, and angrily blamed an N.R.A. letter-writing campaign for weakening it. The Justice Department briefly investigated whether the group had lobbied without registering, and in F.B.I. interviews, N.R.A. officials “pointed out” that members of Congress sat on its board, as if that defused any lobbying concerns. (The case was closed when the N.R.A. agreed to register.)
The debate over the Gun Control Act agitated Mr. Dingell, his files show. He asked the Library of Congress to research Nazi-era gun confiscations in Germany to help prove that regulating firearms was a slippery slope. He considered investigating NBC News for a gun rights segment he viewed as one-sided. At an N.R.A. meeting, he railed about a “patriotic duty” to oppose the “ultimate disarming of the law-abiding citizen.”
As Mr. Johnson prepared to sign the act in fall 1968, Mr. Dingell was convinced that gun ownership faced an existential threat and wrote to an N.R.A. executive suggesting a bold strategy.
The group, he said, must “begin moving toward a legislative program” to codify an individual’s right to bear arms “for sporting and defense purposes.” It was a major departure from the Supreme Court’s sparse record on Second Amendment issues up to that point. The move would neutralize arguments for tighter gun restrictions in Congress and all 50 states, he said.
“By being bottomed on the federal constitutional right to bear arms,” he wrote, “these same minimal requirements must be imposed upon state statutes and local ordinances.”
A New Aggressiveness
Mr. Dingell’s legislative acumen proved indispensable to the gun lobby.
The 1972 Consumer Products Safety Act, designed to protect Americans from defective products, might have reduced firearms accidents that killed or injured thousands each year. But the N.R.A. viewed it as a backdoor to gun control, and Mr. Dingell slipped in an amendment to the new law, exempting from regulatory oversight items taxed under “section 4181 of the Internal Revenue Code” — which only covers firearms and ammunition.
While Mr. Dingell’s office was publicly boasting in 1974 of his bill to restrict “Saturday night specials,” cheap handguns often used in crimes, C.R. Gutermuth, then the N.R.A.’s president, confided in a private letter that the congressman had only introduced it to “effectively prevent” stronger bills. “Obviously, this comes under the heading of legislative maneuvering and strategy,” he wrote.
Still, the public generally favored stricter limits. After a 3-year-old Baltimore boy accidentally killed a 7-year-old friend with an unsecured handgun, a constituent wrote to Mr. Dingell asking, “How long is it going to be before Congress takes effective action?” He instructed an aide to “not answer.”
When the N.R.A. board met in March 1974, Mr. Gutermuth reported that “Congressman Dingell and some of our other good friends on The Hill keep telling us that we soon will have another rugged firearms battle on our hands.” Yet he expressed dismay that N.R.A. staff had not come up with a “concrete proposal” to fend it off.
Mr. Dingell had an idea.
In memos to the board, he complained of the N.R.A.’s “leisurely response to the legislative threat” and proposed a new lobbying operation. Handwritten notes reflect just how radical his plans were. He initially said the group, which traditionally stayed out of political races, would “not endorse candidates for public office” — only to cross that out with his pen; the N.R.A. would indeed start doing that, through a newly created Political Victory Fund.
The organization’s old guard, whose focus continued to be largely on hunting and sports shooting, was uncomfortable. Mr. Gutermuth, a conservationist with little political experience, wrote to a colleague that Mr. Dingell “wants an all out action program that goes way beyond what we think we dare sponsor.”
“John seems to think that we should become involved in partisan politics,” he said.
Mr. Dingell got his way. A 33-page document — “Plan for the Organization, Operation and Support of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action” — was wide-ranging. The proposal, largely written by Mr. Dingell, called for an unprecedented national lobbying push supported by grass-roots fund-raising, a media operation and opposition research.
It would “maintain files for each member of Congress and key members of the executive branch, relative to N.R.A. legislative interests,” and “using computerized data, bring influence to bear on elected officials.” The plan reflected Mr. Dingell’s savvy as a lawmaker: “For greatest effectiveness and economy, whenever possible, influence legislation at the lowest level of the legislative structure and at the earliest time.”
Walt Sanders, a former legislative director for Mr. Dingell, said the congressman viewed the N.R.A. as useful to his goal of protecting and expanding gun rights, particularly by heading off efforts to impose new restrictions.
“He believed very strongly that he could affect gun control legislation as a senior member of Congress and use the resources of the N.R.A. as leverage,” Mr. Sanders said.
The changes mirrored an increasingly uncompromising outlook within the N.R.A. membership. In what became known as the “Revolt at Cincinnati,” a group of hard-liners seized control of the group at its 1977 convention.
The coup drew inspiration from Mr. Dingell, who a month before had circulated a blistering attack on the incumbent leadership. He was revered by many members, who saw little distinction between his roles as a lawmaker and an N.R.A. director, and would write letters praising his fight on their behalf against “gun-grabbers.”
In his responses, he would sometimes correct the impression that he represented the N.R.A. in Congress.
“I try to keep my responsibilities in the two capacities separate so that there is no basic conflict,” he wrote to one constituent.
When gunshots claimed the life of John Lennon in December 1980 and nearly killed President Ronald Reagan a few months later, the N.R.A. readied itself for a familiar battle. Its officials, meeting in May 1981, grumbled that their “priorities, plans and activities have necessarily been altered.”
But remarkably, no new gun restrictions made it through Congress.
The group saw the failure of gun control efforts to gain traction as a validation of its new agenda and a sign that, with Reagan’s election, there was “a new mood in the country.” The N.R.A. and its congressional allies seized the moment, eventually pushing through the most significant pro-gun bill in history, the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986, which rolled back elements of the Gun Control Act.
The bill — largely written by Mr. Dingell but sponsored by Representative Harold L. Volkmer, a Missouri Democrat who would later join the N.R.A. board — was opposed by police groups. It lifted some restrictions on gun shows, sales of mail-order ammunition and the interstate transport of firearms.
The N.R.A. also went ahead with Mr. Dingell’s plans “to develop a legal climate that would preclude, or at least inhibit, serious consideration of many anti-gun proposals.” A strategy document from April 1983 laid out the long-term goal: “When a gun control case finally reaches the Supreme Court, we want Justices’ secretaries to find an existing background of law review articles and lower court cases espousing individual rights.”
The document listed several scholars the N.R.A. was supporting. Decades later, their work would be cited in the Supreme Court’s landmark 2008 decision in Heller, affirming gun ownership as an individual right. And it would surface in last year’s New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen ruling, which established a right to carry a firearm in public and a novel legal test weakening gun control efforts — prompting lower courts to invalidate restrictions on ownership by domestic abusers and on guns with serial numbers removed.
Key to those victories were appointments of conservative justices by N.R.A.-backed Republican presidents. By the time Antonin Scalia — author of the Heller opinion — was nominated by Reagan in 1986, the joke was that the “R” in N.R.A. stood for Republican, and internal documents from that era are laced with partisan rhetoric.
A 1983 report by a committee of N.R.A. members identified the perceived enemy as liberal elites: “college educated, intellectual, political, educational, legal, religious and also to some extent the business and financial leadership of the country,” inordinately affected by the assassinations of “men they admired” in the 1960s.
Lawmakers joining the board during that time — Mr. Ashbrook, Mr. Craig and Mr. Stevens — were all Republicans. Mr. Craig, a conservative gun enthusiast raised in a ranching family, would become “probably the most important” point person for the N.R.A. in Congress after Mr. Dingell, said David Keene, a longtime board member and former N.R.A. president.
“He was actually like having one of your own guys there,” Mr. Keene said in an interview.
He added, however, that a legislator need not have been a board member to be supportive of the group’s ambitions.
Mr. Craig did not respond to requests for comment, and Mr. Ashbrook and Mr. Stevens are dead. The N.R.A. did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Dingell, under increasing pressure as a pro-gun Democrat, faced a reckoning of sorts in 1994, when Congress took up an anti-crime bill that would ban certain semiautomatic rifles classified as assault weapons. He opposed the ban but favored the rest of the legislation.
A year earlier, he had angered fellow Democrats by voting against the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which imposed a background check requirement. This time, after intense lobbying that included urgent calls from President Bill Clinton, Mr. Dingell lent crucial support for the new legislation — and resigned from the N.R.A. board.
His wife, Representative Debbie Dingell, a proponent of stronger gun laws who now occupies his old House seat, said her husband faced a backlash from pro-gun extremists that left him deeply disturbed.
“He had to have police protection for several months,” Ms. Dingell said in an interview. “We had people scream and yell at us. It was the first time I had seen that real hate.”
Despite voting for the ban, Mr. Dingell almost immediately explored getting it overturned. Notes from 1995 show his staff weighing support for a repeal proposal, conceding that “a solid explanation will have to be made to the majority of our voters who favor gun control.”
‘Best Foot Forward’
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were too young to legally purchase a firearm, so in November 1998 they enlisted an 18-year-old friend to visit a gun show in Colorado and buy them two shotguns and a rifle. Five months later, they used the weapons, along with an illegally obtained handgun, to kill 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School.
The massacre was a turning point for a country not yet numbed to mass shootings and for the N.R.A., criticized for pressing ahead about a week later with plans for its convention just miles from Columbine. That sort of response would be repeated years later, after a teenager killed 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, and the N.R.A. went on with its convention in the state shortly afterward.
After Columbine, the organization mobilized against a renewed push for gun control. It had a new lawmaker-director to help: Mr. Barr, who had joined the board in 1997.
A staunchly conservative lawyer with a libertarian bent, Mr. Barr was among the House Republicans to lead the impeachment of Mr. Clinton. He served on the Judiciary Committee, which has major sway over gun legislation, and proved an eager addition to the N.R.A. leadership.
Mr. Barr wrote to another director with a standing offer to use his Capitol Hill office to ensure that any “information you have is cranked into the legislative equation.” Mr. Barr’s chief of staff sent the congressman a memo saying the gun group wanted him to review the agenda for a meeting on the “upcoming legislative session” and “make any changes or additions.”
The post-Columbine legislative battle centered on a bill to extend three-day background checks to private sales at gun shows, something the N.R.A. vigorously opposed, saying most weekend shows ended before a check could be completed. In the Senate, Mr. Craig engineered an amendment softening the impact, and Mr. Barr worked the House, earning them praise at an N.R.A. board meeting as “two people that put our best foot forward.”
The N.R.A. also turned to an old hand: Mr. Dingell.
Together, they came up with another amendment that narrowed the gun shows affected and required background checks to be completed in 24 hours or else the sale would go through. Publicly, Mr. Dingell argued that the shortened time window was reasonable.
But his papers include notes explaining that while most background checks are done quickly, some take up to three days because the buyer “has been charged with a crime” and court records are needed. Gun shows mostly happen on weekends, when courthouses “are, of course, closed.”
“It is becoming increasingly tougher to make our case that 24 hours is indeed enough time to do the check,” a member of Mr. Dingell’s staff wrote to an N.R.A. lobbyist.
Nevertheless, Mr. Dingell succeeded in amending the bill. He tried to win over his fellow Democrats with a baldly partisan message: “We’re doing this so that we can become the majority again. Very simply, we need Democrats who can carry the districts where these matters are voting issues.”
But his colleagues pulled their support. Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who fought for the stronger bill, said she believed Mr. Dingell was “trying to make progress, and had, he felt, some credibility with the N.R.A. that might allow him to do that.”
“Even though what he wanted to do was far from what I wanted to do,” she said.
At the N.R.A., the collapse of the bill was seen as a victory. An internal report cited Mr. Dingell’s “masterful leadership.” A year later the group honored him with a “legislative achievement award.”
‘We Can Help’
Despite the victories, Mr. Barr saw bigger problems ahead. In memos to Mr. LaPierre in late 1999, he warned that the “entire debate on firearms has shifted” and advised holding an “issues summit.”
Specifically, he pointed to civil lawsuits seeking to hold the firearms industry liable for making and marketing guns used in violent crimes. Gun control advocates saw them as a way around the political stalemate in Washington — Smith & Wesson, for instance, chose to voluntarily adopt new standards to safeguard children and deter theft.
Mr. Barr had introduced a bill that would protect gun companies from such lawsuits, but lamented that “I have received absolutely zero interest, much less support, from the firearms industry.”
“We can help the industry through our efforts here in the Congress,” he wrote.
Mr. Craig took up the issue in the Senate, drafting legislation that mirrored Mr. Barr’s House bill. After Mr. Barr lost re-election in 2002, a new version of his liability law was sponsored by others, with N.R.A. guidance. To draw support from moderates, an incentive was added mandating that child safety locks be included when a handgun is sold, but N.R.A. talking points assured allies that the provision “does not require any gun owner to actually use the device.”
The political climate shifted enough under President George W. Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress that the assault weapons ban of 1994, which had a 10-year limit, was allowed to sunset, and the gun industry’s liability shield finally passed in 2005. The twin developments helped turbocharge the firearms market.
The private equity firm Cerberus Capital soon began buying up makers of AR-15 semiautomatic rifles and aggressively marketing them as manhood-affirming accessories, part of a sweeping change in the way military-style weapons were pitched to the public. The number of AR-15-type rifles produced and imported annually would skyrocket from 400,000 in 2006 to 2.8 million by 2020.
Asked about his early role in pressing the N.R.A. for help with the liability law, Mr. Barr said he believed the legal threat was significant enough “that the Congress step in.”
“The rights that are front and center for the N.R.A., the Second Amendment, are very much under attack and need to be defended,” Mr. Barr said. “And I defended them both as a member of Congress in that capacity and in my private capacity as a member of the N.R.A. board.”
With each new mass shooting in the 2000s, pressure built on Congress to act, and the politics of gun rights became more polarized.
The N.R.A. lost another of its directors in Congress — Mr. Craig was arrested for lewd conduct in an airport men’s room and chose not to run again in 2008. But by then, the group’s aggressive use of campaign donations and candidate “report cards” had achieved a virtual lock on Republican caucuses.
That left Mr. Dingell increasingly marginalized in the gun debate. For a time, his connections were useful to Democrats; in 2007, after the shooting deaths of 32 people at Virginia Tech, he helped secure N.R.A. support to strengthen the collection of mental health records for background checks.
But by December 2012, when Adam Lanza, 20, shot to death 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, any vestige of good will between the N.R.A. and Democrats was gone. When House Democrats created a Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, they included the 86-year-old Mr. Dingell as one of 11 vice chairs, but his input was limited.
Notes from a task force meeting in January 2013 show that when it was Mr. Dingell’s turn to speak, he joked that he was the “skunk at the picnic” who had set up the N.R.A.’s lobbying operation — the “reason it’s so good.” He went on to underscore the rights of hunters and defend the N.R.A., saying it was “not the Devil.”
A few days earlier, he had privately conferred with N.R.A. representatives. Handwritten notes show that they discussed congressional support for new restrictions and the N.R.A.’s desire to delay legislation:
“Need to buy time to put together package can vote for, and get support, also for sensitivities to die down,” the notes said.
Three months later, a bipartisan gun control proposal failed after implacable resistance from the N.R.A. It was not until June 2022, after the Uvalde shooting, that a major firearms bill was passed — the first in almost 30 years. The legislation, which had minimal Republican support and fell far short of what Democrats had sought, required more private gun sellers to obtain licenses and perform background checks, and funded state “red flag” laws allowing the police to seize firearms from dangerous people.
By the time Mr. Dingell retired from the House in 2015, his views on gun policy had evolved, according to his wife, who said he no longer trusted the N.R.A.
“I can’t tell you how many nights I heard him talking to people about how the N.R.A. was going too far, how they didn’t understand the times,” Ms. Dingell said. “He was a deep believer in the Second Amendment, and at the end he still deeply believed, but he also saw the world was changing.”
In June 2016, after 49 people were killed in a mass shooting at an Orlando, Fla., nightclub, Ms. Dingell joined fellow Democrats in occupying the House floor as a protest. When she gave a speech, in the middle of the night, she broached the difference of opinion on guns she had with her husband.
“You all know how much I love John Dingell. He’s the most important thing in my life,” she said. “And yet for 35 years, there’s been a source of tension between the two of us.”
Mr. Dingell, too, briefly addressed that tension in a memoir published shortly before he died. He recalled that as he watched a recording of his wife’s speech the following morning, “I thought about all the votes I’d taken, all the bills I’d supported,” and “whether the gun debate had gotten too polarized.”
“As Debbie had said with such passion the night before, ‘Can’t we have a discussion?’” he wrote. “And I thought about the role I know I played in contributing to that polarization.”
Julie Tate contributed research.
Mike McIntire is an investigative reporter. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2022 for his reporting on the hidden financial incentives behind police traffic stops, and has written in depth on campaign finance, gun violence and corruption in college sports.
A version of this article appears in print on July 30, 2023, Section A, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: Lawmakers’ Files Reveal Secret History of N.R.A..
Firearms are now the number one cause of death for children in the United States, but rank no higher than fifth in 11 other large and wealthy countries, a new KFF analysis finds.
Guns – including accidental deaths, suicides, and homicides – killed 4,357 children (ages 1-19 years old) in the United States in 2020, or roughly 5.6 per 100,000 children.
In each of the peer countries, guns kill fewer children than motor vehicles, cancer, congenital diseases, and other injuries, and often behind other conditions such as heart disease.
The U.S. is the only country among its peers that has seen a substantial increase in the rate of child firearm deaths in the last two decades (42%). All comparably large and wealthy countries have seen child firearm deaths fall since 2000. These peer nations had an average child firearm death rate of 0.5 per 100,000 children in the year 2000, falling 56% to 0.3 per 100,000 children in 2019.
Source: Kaiser Family Foundation
Jon Stewart’s Interview with Gun Violence Extremist, Oklahoma State Sen. Nathan Dahm
Stick with the video to the end, when Stewart totally destroys this bozo’s ridiculous argument. Jon Stewart is an amazing prosecutor!
YouTube, “The Problem With Jon Stewart”, March 3, 2023 State Sen. Nathan Dahm (R-OK) has penned several bills loosening gun restrictions, including the nation’s first anti-red flag law against restricting gun access to those deemed dangerous. Not only does he want to protect the Second Amendment, but he also believes guns make us safer.