Bruce L. Jennings, one of the key players in the business of selling inexpensive handguns known as "Saturday night specials," said in a rare interview here that a wave of lawsuits, tougher laws and a growing anti-gun climate in the United States are conspiring to drive many gun companies into bankruptcy.
Both combative and self-deprecating during an interview lasting several hours, the 51-year-old Jennings said he has been worn down by the legal assault on the gun industry. He said he believes that people who've been convicted of violent crimes should not be able to own guns, though he defends his personal right to own a gun-distribution business in spite of a prior conviction of misdemeanor domestic assault.
Jennings owns B.L. Jennings Inc.--"all of it"-- and is listed on corporate documents as its sole officer. But Jennings said that he considers himself retired from the gun business, and that his company is run by others.
"The news media tried to ruin me. I've been out of the business for years," he said. "I gave up. I'm not in the gun industry. I'm in the pro-gun industry."
Jennings was the subject of a recent Washington Post article that revealed that, under a 1996 amendment to the 1968 Gun Control Act, he is prohibited from holding a federal firearms license because of a 1985 conviction for domestic abuse. He pleaded guilty to assaulting his then-wife, Janice Jennings, and breaking her jaw, spent 90 days in jail, paid a fine and was on probation for two years.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said last week that it notified Jennings that his license would be revoked. Jennings has requested a hearing before ATF. B.L. Jennings cannot operate without that license.
"I'm not in violation of any law," Jennings said. "I don't possess guns, don't transport guns . . . don't handle guns, use guns, sell guns or direct guns. . . . I am not running the company. . . . I am not in the business."
"ATF has a thick file on me," he said. "They know I'm not handling and possessing firearms. . . . The issue is: Am I prohibited [from getting a license]? I'm not. I even have a letter from them that says I'm not."
Jennings declined to show a reporter the letter.
An ATF spokesman declined to comment on the issue, noting there is an active investigation of the case and a hearing has been requested. He added that, under the law, if a person has "the power to direct" a gun company, he does have to be licensed.
"It's been 18 years since my little problem," Jennings said of his own record. "My position is I was never convicted," he said, but then declined to discuss it further. Jennings's conviction is a matter of public record and, according to San Bernardino County, Calif., police officials, has not been expunged.
The Jennings family and some of their friends became wealthy by starting a number of gun companies in Southern California that produced cheap, concealable handguns known as Saturday night specials. The companies were dubbed the "Ring of Fire" companies by Garen J. Wintemute, a physician and professor at the University of California at Davis, who has studied the firms. In a 1994 study, he found that the "Ring of Fire" guns were traced to crimes in cities, including Washington, more than three times as often as other major brands of handguns. Jennings's original handgun-manufacturing company is now owned by his ex-wife as part of their divorce settlement.
Two of the "Ring of Fire" companies have filed for bankruptcy in the past several years under the weight of both product-liability lawsuits and suits filed by cities across the country that attempt to hold them responsible for the cost of gun violence.
Jennings, whose business is in Carson City, Nev., was here attending a bankruptcy hearing for Davis Industries Inc. Jimmy Davis, owner of that handgun manufacturer in Chino, Calif., is the former husband of Gail Davis, Jennings's sister.
"I think a lot of companies will end up filing bankruptcy," Jennings said.
The California companies are also under siege from the state legislature, which is considering a bill that would make it illegal to make and sell guns in the state that do not pass certain safety tests. Gun experts contend that many of these inexpensive handguns could not pass those tests.
Jennings contends that many of the California gunmakers--virtually all of whom are either relations or friends of his--would be willing to give up the fight for an industry buyout. "If somebody got together and bought all the inventory of these companies instead of spending $50 million suing them, they'd go away quietly," he said, although he admitted he didn't know how much that would cost.
"I'm not against handgun solutions," Jennings added. "But the way they [gun-control advocates] do them is wrong. . . . The anti-gunners are absolutely writing laws that criminalize law-abiding citizens, and they do it in the name of children. . . . All those inner-city gang bangers running around doing bad things . . . they're not the children Mr. Clinton is talking about."
Noting a recent study by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) that showed 1 percent of gun dealers sold nearly half of the guns traced to crimes, Jennings said those dealers should be the targets of law enforcement.
"Why don't they go in there and get a videotape and throw the [SOBs] in jail?" Jennings said, his face red with anger. "I wish they would do that . . . instead of going after somebody like me who didn't do anything."