Skip to main content

Interview: October 17, 2003

October 17, 2003

Richard North Patterson likes to grapple with controversial topics, and his new novel, BALANCE OF POWER, is no exception --- this time, he takes on gun control. His timing couldn't be better; the book was published just as the suspects in the DC sniper shootings went on trial and as the Senate was moving toward a vote on a bill that would give gun manufacturers and dealers immunity from civil lawsuits. So as he talked with Jesse Kornbluth, he often left the book behind to deal with politics --- and the political agenda of the National Rifle Association.

BRC: You note that gun shows are a great place for gun dealers to call themselves "collectors" and sell weapons to almost anyone --- with no background checks. As part of your research, you went to a gun show in Nevada. How much of what you saw there did you use in the book?

RNP: Everything. I saw people pushing baby carriages near grenades. I saw bumper stickers that said "You can't shoot if you can't breathe." It was a room filled with raging paranoia --- but that's what the gun culture does: raise fear. One thing wasn't in Vegas --- a cardboard cut-out of President and Mrs. Clinton, with a target circled on them. That I borrowed from a gun store in New Hampshire.

BRC: How did it feel to be doing this research surrounded by people selling guns?

RNP: You feel pretty weird being the only one with a pad and paper. But what's really weird is the sense of being in an alternate reality. These people see themselves fighting King George. They're more like kids in tree forts --- except their guns are real.

BRC: In your novel, the president of a gun company makes the argument that guns never wear out if you treat them right. So gun companies invent more powerful weapons and deadlier bullets not because they want to appeal to criminals, wife abusers and the like, but for a much simpler reason: They want to stay in business. Is there another way for gun manufacturers to prosper?

RNP: Absolutely --- just make safer, smarter guns. Develop technology that responds to fingerprints. Let's be clear: "Anti-gun" groups have no problem with guns that are used for lawful purposes. But there's a big difference between sporting rifles and handguns and sniper rifles, which can kill at 1.5 miles.

BRC: But if you modernize guns and they don't become obsolete, the gun manufacturers will still be unhappy --- their profits will be smaller.

RNP: Sure, if Americans have an alternative to arming themselves, they'll sell fewer guns. But gun companies prospered for 100 years --- they can survive.

BRC: An "alternative" to guns sure sounds scary to more than gunmakers. Could some Americans want to make sure we're at each other's throats?

RNP: Guns and a right wing agenda are first cousins. We're in a culture war. The right says our troubles come from the '60s: women's lib, hippies, drugs. Now, that line of thinking goes, only white males are targeted. So guns take on totemic importance for those men. Create that level of hatred, it's easier to demonize than explore common sense measures.

BRC: The NRA uses the Second Amendment as the basis for all its lobbying. What doesn't it understand about the right to bear arms?

RNP: The right to form a militia does not mean, 200 years later, we need gun show loopholes so a criminal can own an AK-47. Even in the Constitution, no right is absolute. Nothing in the Second Amendment bars us from making laws that keep guns out of the hands of criminals.

BRC: Of the 3 million members of the NRA, how many do you think will read your book?

RNP: Very few. It's too bad. Because the problem is not sensible gun owners --- it's the extremists.

BRC: Do you expect BALANCE OF POWER will be reviewed by America's First Freedom, the NRA magazine?

RNP: No. And while I'm at it, I was devastated I wasn't on the NRA's "enemies list." I hope they'll correct this in whatever way they deem appropriate.

BRC: In the book, there's nothing the gun lobby won't do to win. And in real life. Do you fear that a crazed gun owner will come looking for you?

RNP: In fairness to this debate, the dangerous book was about partial-birth abortion. Pro-choice folks do get killed. I've talked at clinics and met people who have been shot at. Anything that alarms people who aren't rational adds risk --- but I hope people have better things to do than shoot writers!

BRC: You cite some terrifying statistics: half the states have entered less than 60% of all criminal convictions into the computer systems. If we had a state-of-the-art database of criminals, would that make a real difference in weapons sales?

RNP: It would certainly impact the number of situations in which we have a gun sale because three days have passed without negative information about the buyer. And that's just the tip of the iceberg --- 40% of gun transfers occur without background checks because it's not required in the secondary market. This sounds crazy, but you can shoot your wife, go to jail for manslaughter, get out of jail, cross the street and get an AK-47.

BRC: You note that "in over half our domestic violence murders last year, the murderer killed himself." Himself --- it's always guys. What is it with men and guns?

RNP: I don't know. Some say women would be empowered if they carried weapons. But if you take a toy gun from a boy, he goes "kew kew kew" and points his finger. Girls don't.

BRC: What's the case against background checks?

RNP: The NRA says they're an invasion of privacy. They offer a sentimental example: What about a guy who wants to give his 15 year-old his first hunting rifle? I say: when you give a car to your son, he needs a license. Why not when you give him a gun?

BRC: Attorney General Ashcroft is so wedded to the NRA interpretation of the 2nd Amendment he's been protecting the "rights" of dead 9/11 terrorists. Why?

RNP: I don't understand why. But there's so much about John Ashcroft I don't understand. Under the Patriot Act, he's obsessed with reading habits, yet he wants to destroy instantly the record of purchasing habits of gun-buyers. Is "Harry Potter" really more dangerous than a terrorist?

BRC: Do you think that those who have grown up in a home where they knew fear --- like Kerry Kilcannon in your novel --- have a different view of guns and their usefulness than those who do not?

RNP: Those who grew up in those homes do see guns differently --- because they've seen for themselves how a gun in hand can lead to irreversible tragedy. Our problem as a nation is that we suffer from huge doses of failure of imagination; if we don't see gun violence for ourselves, it doesn't register.

BRC: Ohio has just legalized carrying concealed weapons. What's the logic?

RNP: These laws mean you can take guns to hospitals, churches, stadiums, parks and schools. I guess the idea is to pop off your priest before he gets you. What's scary is that this is sheer opportunity theory --- the more of anything, the more it's likely to be abused. I was on a panel recently. And someone on the panel was shocked by a scene in my book in which the President's in-laws are shot at the baggage claim of the San Francisco airport. Her point wasn't the savagery of the shootings. It was: These women could have been armed. But I ask you: In what world do people at airports pack heat?

BRC: When did you first begin preparing to write a book on gun control? What made you sit up and say, "I HAVE to write about this"?

RNP: 1968 changed our history, with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. But I didn't feel the need to write about guns until the early '90s. Down the street from me is a law firm where a gunman killed eight people, including the wife of a friend.

BRC: Out of all of the political/social topics you have covered over your writing career, which issue is the most important to you personally? Why?

RNP: Hard to chose among babies. Women's choice and guns --- both are compelling. Right now, I'm most disturbed by media intrusion into the private lives of public figures. Call me silly, but oral sex strikes me as less of a problem than the use of preemptive force for reasons that turn out to be pretexts.