January 10, 1994 12:00 PM

On Dec. 7, Colin Ferguson stood up on a commuter train out of New York City and calmly turned his 9-mm semiautomatic pistol on his fellow passengers. Before he was done, he had fired 29 shots—killing six people and wounding 17 others. It was the rarest of crimes committed with guns—a deranged man shooting total strangers. Yet headline-grabbing mass murders tend to dramatize the national debate on gun control in a way mere numbers never can. Suddenly the vague but pervasive dread inspired by the 24,000 murders, suicides and accidents linked to handguns each year has a focus and a face.

The Long Island massacre came just 17 days after the passage of the Brady Bill, a federal law that requires a five-day waiting period for the purchase of any handgun. But, it turns out, Ferguson had complied nine months earlier with California’s even stricter law, traveling to Long Beach and waiting the required 15 days to buy his pistol. To gun-control advocates, this underscored their belief that the Brady Bill is just a first step—that Congress should now consider licensing gun owners and banning the sale of all assault weapons. Opponents of gun control point to the Long Island incident as further proof that gun laws don’t stop mayhem.

At the moment, however, a decisive 70 percent of Americans favor stricter gun controls. Yet as the backers of the Brady Bill (which took seven years to pass) can attest, pushing through even modest reforms remains a daunting challenge. Even as their public support has eroded, it seems, opponents of gun control are still a powerful force in U.S. politics. PEOPLE bureaus around the country recently polled police and gun-law proponents to identify some of the most outspoken and effective enemies of strong gun laws.

The NRA’s point man is the hard-liner’s hard-liner

It is a drizzly, miserable November afternoon, but Neal Knox is in fine spirits. Arriving at a gun club outside Damascus, Md., Knox flips open an oblong case and pulls out two shotguns and a pair of revolvers. “If it goes boom,” he says, “I like it.”

What he doesn’t like is when anyone tries to muzzle his joy. As a member of the board of directors of the National Rifle Association, Knox, 58, has probably fought harder than any other person to ensure the easy availability of guns in the U.S. “He’s the single most powerful individual within the No. 1 organization opposed to gun control,” says Mike Beard, head of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “He’s a true believer—and a mean S.O.B. when it comes to politics.”

In fact, Knox was ousted from the NRA’s board in 1984 for being too hard-line. He had accused the organization’s leaders of wimping out because some appeared willing to compromise on issues such as ownership restrictions. Then three years ago Knox helped engineer a coup that restored him and the hard-line faction to power. “The membership wanted a tougher leadership,” says Knox. “They got it.” Perhaps so, but some NRA members believe that Knox’s intransigent policies are hurting their cause. “It’s either black or while with Knox,” says William Deneke, a former board member of the organization. “Sometimes you have to give a little.”

Nonetheless, says Knox, NRA membership has grown by one-third, to 3 million, under his leadership. And despite legislative setbacks like the Brady Bill, Knox claims the battle is just beginning. “They remind me of snake-oil salesmen,” he says of anti-gun activists like Sarah Brady, wife of James Brady, for whom the Brady Bill was named. “There is no evidence that any city, stale or nation has reduced its crime rate by passage of a gun law. It is nonsense, and we’re going to fight it.”

Knox’s position on gun control is disarmingly simple: he is totally against it. “The gun itself,” he insists, “is a harmless, inanimate thing.”

A Cuban-born gunmaker helps arm the modern street criminal

The sleek looking TEC-9 has helped make Carlos Garcia, 42, his fortune. Garcia, who emigrated from Cuba in 1962, is the owner of Intratec, which manufactures several models of this deadly beauty. According to police, the TEC-9 is a gun of choice among drug dealers and drive-by shooters and one of the top two assault weapons used in violent crimes. The 9-mm semiautomatic can fire 32 rounds in less than a minute—but not very accurately. “The bad guys just start spraying and praying,” says Joe Gautieri, a Broward County sheriffs deputy whose colleague, deputy Jack Greeney III, was killed in 1990 by an assailant’s TEC-9. “But those guns are pointed at people. And law enforcement.”

The regular model of the TEC-9 costs $239 and is threaded to take a silencer. A more expensive model comes specially coated to resist “body oils”—which also makes it resistant to fingerprints.

One of the guns targeted by the proposed federal ban on assault weapons, the TEC-9 was in the news last summer when it was used by Gian Luigi Ferri, a mortgage broker, to murder eight people in a dispute with a San Francisco law firm. The state of California had already banned the TEC-9 and several other assault weapons, but Garcia, seeing a loophole in the law, just changed the name of his best-seller to the TEC-DC9. “I know some of the guns going out of here end up killing people,” Garcia has said. “But I’m not responsible for that.”

For one feminist, empowerment comes from the barrel of a gun

Paxton Quigley is to guns what Anita Bryant once was to orange juice. She taught Geena Davis how to shoot for her role in Thelma & Louise and she has hustled her 1989 book, Armed & Female, in dozens of magazine interviews and on 200 television shows, including 60 Minutes and Today: She is a paid spokeswoman for gunmaker Smith & Wesson and frequently appears in NRA ads touting gun ownership for women.

A professed feminist, Quigley believes she is “a role model for many women.” But critics see her in a harsher light—as a shill. The gun-makers Quigley represents, says California antigun activist Glenda Barnard, “encourage women to purchase guns by increasing their sense of insecurity and by using ignorance. You see an ad for the NRA that shows a mommy tucking a baby into bed. There’s a big picture of a handgun. What you don’t see is a sign that warns you of what happens most of the time with guns.”

Although she has titled her women-only, $150-a-day gun-handling course Women’s Empowerment in the ’90s, fear is unquestionably one of Quigley’s primary motivational tools. In fact, Quigley claims it was the 1986 rape of a friend that transformed her from antigun to progun. “I thought about the fact that I lived alone,” says the fortysomething Quigley, a former actress and journalist who lives in Beverly Hills. “My big protector was the telephone, and I knew it hadn’t helped [my friend]. I began to think about getting a gun.” Quigley was further convinced while researching her book: 11 imprisoned rapists told her that they would not intentionally target an armed female. Nor will she be deterred by studies such as the recent one on residential gunshot deaths in King County, Wash., which found that a gun in the home is 43 times more likely to be used to kill its owner, a spouse, a friend or a child than to kill an intruder. “Hall the households in the country have al least one gun,” she says, “and most Americans store their guns properly and learn to use them safely.”

A Watergate felon considers gun control a bigger scandal

With its rousing military music, The G. Gordon Liddy Show: Radio Free D.C., the Voice of Freedom sounds like a call to arms. And that it is: Liddy’s syndicated daily talk show attracts about 80,000 callers a month, many of them adoring fans who want advice on what gun to buy next. Liddy, 63, a former FBI special agent who boasts of his prowess with weapons, dismisses gun control as a bureaucratic nuisance. “What’s the point of it, other than to inconvenience the honest citizen who follows the rules?” he asks. Of course, Liddy won’t be inconvenienced himself. As a convicted felon who spent four years in prison for participating in the Watergate break-in, he cannot legally own a firearm. But he slyly points out that his wife, Frances, 61, keeps her own licensed arsenal in their Fort Washington, Md., home. “She owns 27, and the children keep some of their weapons in our vault too. There are at least 40 in there.”

Liddy’s radio program, which began in 1992, is carried by 160 stations nationwide. His message to the masses: Gun control is futile. “I can assure you that the guys I met in the nine prisons I served my sentence in did not get their guns at the gun store.”

To one grief-stricken woman, guns are the best defense

It is hardly surprising that Suzanna Gratia is passionately involved in the debate over gun control. Two years ago her parents were among 23 people murdered when George Hennard Jr. crashed his pickup truck into a Luby’s restaurant in Killeen, Texas, and opened fire. As Suzanna looked on in horror, her father, At, 72, was shot down as he tried to jump Hennard. Her mother, Ursula, 67, was executed as she cradled her dying husband’s head.

But the lesson Suzanna drew from this tragedy was not that guns were too easy to come by. She instead became convinced that if everyone in Luby’s had been packing a weapon that day, the massacre never would have happened. “It’s hard to describe how incredibly frustrating it was to sit there while this guy walked around shooting people, and there was nothing you could do about it” says Gratia, 34, a chiropractor in Copperas Cove, Texas. “I don’t like being a sitting duck.”

Since the shootings, Gratia has appeared before Congress and on talk shows to make her case for relaxing gun laws and allowing “anyone who can vote” to carry a concealed weapon. “She’s been incredibly effective,” says Texas stale representative Ron Wilson. Mention the Brady Bill and Gratia says sarcastically, “I feel much safer now that there is a five-day waiting period.” She then points out that both guns Hennard used in the attack were purchased legally. Still, people like Sarah Brady dismiss Gratia’s philosophy as dangerously simplistic. “If guns made you safer, we’d be the safest nation on earth,” says Brady. “Instead, we’re the most violent.”

Ironically, Gratia says she used to carry a handgun in her purse in violation of state law, but stopped shortly before the Luby’s massacre out of concern that she might lose her license to practice. These days, she defiantly admits, she never goes anywhere without her .38-caliber revolver. “Now I realize,” she says, “that breaking the law doesn’t mailer as much as my life or the lives of my loved ones.”

A famed wheeler-dealer finds new life on the gun-show circuit

The first commercial dealers’ gun show in Texas—there are now more than 50,000 a year nationwide—took place in San Antonio in 1968. It was staged by promoter Mike Morris, 56, who now organizes 44 shows a year in the state and has found his star attraction to be his very own father-in-law, Billie Sol Estes, 68. “People will drive for miles just to see him,” says Morris. Explains Estes: “I’m just a little bit of history.” In fact, he is something of a rogue folk hero in the Lone Star State. A former crony of Lyndon Johnson’s, he spent 11 years in prison for fraud.

“Gun shows are legal, wholesome places—they’re love meets,” says the born-again Estes, a recovering alcoholic who hawks $30 copies of his biography, King of Texas Wheeler-Dealers, to gun-fair shoppers. “People learn proper safety procedures here. There are educational programs.” But according to Dewey Stokes, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, gun shows can also attract an unsavory element. “The overwhelming majority of transactions at these shows are not recorded,” he says, “so that criminals, gang members and cults often obtain weapons there.” (Over a two-year period, Branch Davidian leader David Koresh purchased about 225 guns and 100,000 rounds of ammunition from a dealer he met at a gun show.) “I tend to judge the quality of a gun show by how far I get into it before I see the first picture of Adolf Hitler,” says Jack Killorin, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Estes opposes stricter gun laws and feels gun ownership is the best defense against criminals. “We need to give people the right to shoot people who need shooting,” he says. “Turn the good people loose and we’ll end crime.”

A ‘madman’ rocker would rather give up his guitar than his gun

Ted Nugent would like to clear up a common misconception: he is an enthusiastic supporter of gun control. “To me, gun control is the ability to put two bullets through the same hole,” he says. Nugent, 45, a heavy-metal veteran whose Tarzan-like stage antics and raunchy riffs earned him the moniker Motor City Madman, is the most prominent law-and-order type in rock—and a life member of the NRA. While other musicians sing to save the rain forest, Nugent fights to defend hunters from the people he calls Animal Nazis. “I respect all animals, and part of that respect means I will kill and eat them,” he says.

Nugent—who blames “idiots like Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather” for whipping up antigun hysteria—taught his two sons, Toby, 17, and Rocco, 3, to shoot on their Michigan ranch when they were just toddlers. “I put a .22-caliber gun in their hands and let them fire. It was really quite cute,” he recalls. As for whether his stance has hurt his career, Nugent acknowledges “getting letters saying, If you kill Bambi, I’ll never buy another album.’ ” However, he feels the net effect has been positive: “Real American rock fans appreciate a guy who stands up for what he believes in.”

In Nugent’s view, the answer to crime is a well-armed citizenry. “Only a coward supports gun control,” he says. “You know how to slop carjacking? Shoot the carjacker. If someone is going to kill me for my Buick, I’m gonna shoot until I’m out of ammo—and then I’ll call 911.”

The Senate’s Texas sharpshooter takes aim at gun regulation

The gun lobby has few friends more powerful than Sen. Phil Gramm. The Texas Republican has opposed every restriction on gun ownership that has come to the Senate floor during his two terms, including a ban on assault weapons and a proposal to raise the yearly licensing fee on gun dealers from $10 to $750. Gramm helped lead the unsuccessful fight against the Brady Bill, and in 1987 even refused to support a ban on the sale of plastic firearms that some fear are capable of getting past metal detectors. “The Senate doesn’t lack people who are opposed to gun control, but few are as willing to fight it as Gramm,” says Jeff Muchnick of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Clearly the senator has reaped the rewards of his position: Since 1983, according to the Coalition, the NRA has given Gramm $349,042, for both his campaign fund and independent expenditures. In 1992 he participated in the organization’s Charlton Heston Celebrity Shoot near San Clemente with fellow progun personalities Luke Perry, Chuck Norris and Robert Conrad.

“What the proponents of gun control want is gun confiscation,” says Gramm, 51. “But we would disarm law-abiding citizens and leave criminals armed. The real problem is that we have crime without punishment in America.” He points out that Washington banned handguns in 1977 but still has the highest murder rate of any city in the country. Opponents reply that Gramm ignores the fact that nine out of 10 guns used in the district originate in states with few gun restrictions—like Ohio, Florida and his own state of Texas. “The situation in Washington is a classic example of why we need national gun-control laws,” says Richard Aborn, president of Handgun Control, Inc.

One family has helped make Saturday night very special

One thing George Jennings understands is his market. The reclusive Southern California businessman has grown rich selling low-priced pistols, known as Saturday night specials, largely “because the criminal element wants a gun that is small and easily concealable,” says Richard Aborn. “Jennings fills that demand abundantly.”

George’s son Bruce, son-in-law Jim Davis and George’s grandchildren control three companies—Phoenix Arms, Davis Industries and Bryco Arms—that churn out about 400,000 handguns a year, generating $20 million in sales. Most are small-caliber pistols. The most popular Jennings gun, the Raven MP-25, costs just $13 to make, and 2 million copies have been sold, at a wholesale price of $29.75. According to an investigative piece in the Wall Street Journal, many of the guns shipped from the companies’ five factories in Southern California ended up on the street because dealers buy them in bulk from legitimate gun stores, then resell them off the books.

George Jennings, who sold his interest in the family business two years ago, rarely ventures from his palatial Rancho Mirage estate these days, and he doesn’t speak to the press. But son Bruce denies that his wares lend to wind up in the hands of criminals. “Our customers are just regular, everyday people who don’t have the finances to buy higher-priced guns,” he has claimed. “You shouldn’t be denied a gun just because you can’t afford to pay $500.” That view isn’t universally shared. “It’s just equal opportunity to be violent,” says Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, president of the Los Angeles Police Commission. “There’s no other purpose for a cheap, crummy handgun than to rob somebody or threaten violence.”

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