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Newsmaker: Bryan Miller / Gun opponent has a personal stake in his mission

Monday, August 18, 2003

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A thug named Bennie Lee Lawson and a 30-shot semiautomatic changed everything for Bryan Miller.


Newsmaker Profile

Name: Bryan Miller

Birthplace: Baltimore

Birthdate: March 11, 1951

Residence: Haddonfield, N.J.

Family: Divorced father of a 17-year-old son, Zak.

In the news: Miller, head of CeaseFire PA, is lobbying against Senate Bill 659, which would make the gun industry immune from lawsuits.

On Nov. 22, 1994, Lawson walked into police headquarters in Washington, D.C., and opened fire with that gun, killing Police Sgt. Henry J. Daly, FBI Agent Martha Dixon of Mt. Lebanon and her partner, Michael J. Miller.

Michael Miller was Bryan's younger brother.

Since that day, he's been on a crusade against gun violence.

A few months after Michael's death, he left his 20-year career in international sales and went to work as a volunteer for a nonprofit anti-gun group called CeaseFire in New Jersey, where he lives. He eventually became head of the organization.

Now he's the director of CeaseFire PA, a 15-month-old coalition of groups based in Philadelphia with about 4,500 members who say they want to "loosen the grip" of the gun lobby on American politics.

Last week Miller was in Pittsburgh to denounce federal legislation backed by U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter that would protect the gun industry from liability in lawsuits.

It was just the latest of his many projects, which include championing a ban on assault weapons, pushing for stricter laws against straw purchasers and pressuring Pennsylvania to enact a law prohibiting people from buying more than one handgun in 30 days.

Miller, 52, a divorcee who lives with his 17-year-old son, blames the gun culture for his brother's death as much as he does Bennie Lawson, a gangster who shot himself during the rampage.

"I wish I didn't become an activist in the way I did. I wish my brother was still alive," he said. "It's outrageous that we allow people in this country to get enough firepower that they can overwhelm a whole room full of trained law enforcement officers. [CeaseFire] believes that [an assault weapon] has no purpose in a civil society. It's a gun made with one purpose, which is to kill as many people as possible."

Miller, a bespectacled, thoughtful sort with graying hair, is perpetually enmeshed in the gun debate and he's passionate about it. But he's also careful with his choice of words.

"I never use the term 'gun control' because people categorize you right away," he said. "We prefer to say gun violence prevention. We have no problem at all with long guns for hunting and sport shooting. That's an old American tradition. That's not the problem. The problem is the violence from handguns and assault guns."

Naturally, many gun enthusiasts don't agree.

"Basically if you look at their arguments, they attack things from an emotional level, not a factual one," said Richard Haid of Mount Washington, treasurer of a pro-gun group called Firearms Owners Against Crime. "The cities in this country that have the strictest gun control also have the highest crime rates."

Haid doesn't know Miller personally, but he said CeaseFire and other groups like it are all the same: They blame guns instead of criminals.

"Guns are inanimate objects," he said. "They do not do things on their own."

No issue in this debate is more heated now than Senate Bill 659, which the gun industry supports and groups like CeaseFire are trying to block.

The bill, co-sponsored by Specter, would protect gunmakers and dealers from being held liable for injuries caused by guns.

"This is not tort reform, this is tort elimination," Miller said at a news conference outside Specter's Pittsburgh office last week. "No other industry has it. The manufacturers of the most lethal products in America certainly should not get it.

"Arlen Specter has received a lot of money over the years from the gun industry. He's clearly responding to that."

Specter denied that he has been influenced by contributions, which he said are a fraction of the amount he raised for his last campaign.

"I think if there's one thing I've established in all my years in public service," he said, "it's that my integrity has never been questioned."

He said the bill protects gun manufacturers from being sued unless the company "does something wrongful." The legislation stems from a case in which the city of Philadelphia sued a gunmaker. The city lost in federal court in a decision that said the manufacturer had no liability. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling.

"So this law just reaffirms or codifies Pennsylvania law," Specter said.

Senate Bill 659 is officially called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, but Miller calls it the "Gun Industry Impunity Act."

The House of Representatives earlier this year overwhelmingly passed its own version, and President Bush has indicated his support. The National Rifle Association says the legislation is necessary to end frivolous lawsuits designed to bankrupt the firearms industry for political ends.

"It is critical that you continue to contact your U.S. senators in support [of the bill] and urge them to preempt predatory, meritless lawsuits designed to wipe out the firearm industry, or impose nationwide gun control 'laws' by local judicial fiat," the NRA says on its Web site.

Haid said the idea of suing gunmakers for gun injuries is ludicrous.

"If I stab you, do you sue Ginzu? When someone runs into you with a car, do you sue Ford?" he said. "What this is, is backdoor gun control."

Opponents have some powerful allies of their own, however, including relatives of those murdered by the Washington-area snipers last October and the police officer who headed the investigation, former Montgomery County, Md., Chief Charles Moose.

"We're asking for a chance to go in front of other Americans and ask, 'Is the behavior of these manufacturers appropriate?'" Moose said at a news conference last month.

Miller met Moose at that event, and he has another connection to the sniper case. His sister, Lisa Delity, a board member of CeaseFire in Maryland, is a teacher at the middle school where a 13-year-old boy shot by the snipers attended classes. He was badly wounded but survived.

Relatives of many of the victims in those shootings have sued Bulls Eye Shooter Supply of Tacoma, Wash., from which the Bushmaster carbine used in the killings was reportedly stolen.

The suit said the shop was run so poorly that many guns, including the Bushmaster, disappeared. The suit also names Bushmaster Firearms Inc. of Maine.

Under the bill, the gun shop and the gunmaker would be immune from that suit or others like it.

Miller said the people should have the right to sue. He said the gun industry is afraid of litigation because the discovery process will show that gunmakers have been negligent in making unsafe guns and allowing illegal trafficking to proliferate.

He said, for example, that manufacturers have resisted making "smart" guns that identify fingerprints and will only fire for the rightful owner. In New Jersey, he said he was successful in pressuring the legislature to create the Childproof Handgun Law, which will eventually require all handguns sold in the state to be smart guns.

He said the cost of adding much simpler safety features is minimal. A big danger with semiautomatics is that people forget the gun can fire even without the clip if there's still a bullet in the chamber. Miller said European semiautomatics come with a device that prevents the gun from firing the chambered round. But only about 15 percent of American guns have the feature, which costs 50 cents to install.

Miller and Nathaniel Glosser, co-president of the State Council of the Million Mom March of Pennsylvania, are also upset that the Senate bill would be retroactive, meaning it would eliminate any pending litigation.

"[Specter] knows full well that no other industry in America enjoys the kind of special privileges he is proposing for the firearms industry, and Arlen Specter knows the right thing to do is protect the public," said Glosser. "Arlen Specter knows better and should be ashamed of himself."

The bill has more than 50 co-sponsors, enough to pass, but those senators who are opposed have threatened a filibuster to keep it from coming to a floor vote. Sixty votes are needed to stop a filibuster.

"It's going to be a very tough battle," said Miller.


Torsten Ove can be reached at tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.

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