Photograph by Tom Nutter
John Sigler, shown here at the National
Firearms Museum with a display of competition
pistols and marksmanship medals, is a
competitive rifle and pistol shooter.
Two days before he became president of the National Rifle Association last April, John Sigler punched the air with a balled fist and warned his audience, “The gun-bashing, NRA-hating, freedom-fearing manipulators of the world are out there plotting and planning and amassing cash, biding their time, awaiting the perfect combination of conditions that could be unleashed, that could become the tsunami-Katrina-blitzkrieg final battle to wipe firearm freedom from the face of the earth forever.”
Sigler, a retired Dover police captain, wouldn’t have to wait long to hear from many of those Americans who condemn NRA positions on gun control. As he sat on the dais in St. Louis during that NRA convention, someone alerted him to what was unfolding on the nation’s TV screens: a mentally deranged Virginia Tech student had used two handguns that morning to murder 31 students and professors before killing himself.
Sigler knew exactly what lay ahead: Anti-gun activists across America would raise impassioned new cries for tighter gun laws. Within days NRA leaders were proactively negotiating with Democrats over a bill that would improve the National Instant Check System for firearm transactions. That NICS rule, which had earlier replaced the 1993 Brady Act’s five-day waiting period for potential gun buyers, now more efficiently flags mentally ill individuals—such as the Virginia Tech killer—who seek to purchase firearms.
For once, the NRA found itself positioned on the same side of an issue with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. These two national organizations have battled for years over federal and local gun-control laws.
And now Delaware finds itself at the center of debate about how to resolve what many Americans see as an epidemic of gun violence. Three of the most prominent figures in gun politics live here.
Sigler, a Milford native who now works as an attorney for a Dover healthcare firm, is the 59th president of the NRA, which promotes the legal use of firearms and champions Americans’ Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms. Founded in 1871, the NRA boasts 4 million members, and its recent IRS filings show annual revenues approaching $200 million. The NRA annually shows up near the top of Fortune magazine’s list of Washington’s most powerful lobbying groups.
Sarah Brady, a Dewey Beach resident for nine years, heads the NRA’s chief national adversary, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. She came naturally to her role as a leading advocate for tougher gun-control laws after her husband, White House Press Secretary Jim Brady, received a severe head wound in gunfire that John Hinckley Jr. directed at President Reagan in 1981.
U.S. Congressman Mike Castle of Wilmington has long been a foe of NRA stances. The NRA has accorded Castle a grade of F for his legislative efforts in regard to firearms, most recently for his introducing the Gun Show Loophole Closing Act of 2007.
Now they all wait anxiously for the U.S. Supreme Court to take, within the next few weeks, what may prove to be one of the most important rulings in history: its first attempt to interpret the Second Amendment
Late one October afternoon, Sigler stands before an audience of 90 students and professors at Widener University School of Law, prepared to outline the NRA’s key positions regarding gun laws.
He declares that gun bans are never good laws, that they violate law-abiding citizens’ Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, and that violent criminals aren’t going to obey gun bans.
Even the 1994 federal law banning assault weapons such as AK-47s had a “spectacular non-effect on crime,” Sigler argues, which is why lawmakers allowed the ban to lapse in 2004. Sigler insists that judges need to enforce existing laws, hand out stiffer sentences to those who commit crimes with guns, and allow no early paroles.
One student asks why the NRA takes such extreme positions in “a society awash with guns.” Sigler, the student charges, is “not adequately describing the world.”
Another student, David Anthony, asks Sigler why the NRA so adamantly opposes laws that would allow good citizens to bear arms to defend themselves, once they’ve gone through a waiting period and background check and registered their gun through a licensed dealer. Why, he asks, would the NRA not support efforts to take assault weapons off the streets? “Isn’t there room for moderation in this debate?” Anthony asks.
“My experience,” Sigler says, “tells me that criminals don’t obey laws. We don’t need more (gun) laws. We need to lock up the criminals.”
Gun politics in America are about to heat up even more, as advocates on all sides of the debate nervously await the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. This case, about the constitutionality of Washington, D.C.’s 30-year ban on owning handguns or keeping assembled rifles and shotguns at home, could produce the most significant judicial decision ever rendered on gun rights in America.
The problem is that the Second Amendment suffers from a syntactical breakdown. Its odd phrasing allows advocates on both sides of the gun debate to claim it defends their arguments. It reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
But what did the Founders mean by “the people?” NRA officials interpret the amendment as meaning that individuals have a right to keep and bear arms, while their adversaries contend that this right is guaranteed only to the militia defending a community.
No such ambiguity haunts Article 1, Section 20, of the Delaware Constitution. That amendment, added in 1987, states clearly, “A person has the right to keep and bear arms for the defense of self, family, home and State, and for hunting and recreational use.” Members of the Delaware State Sportsmen’s Association and the NRA successfully worked the corridors of Legislative Hall to gain support for the amendment.
Delaware’s NRA forces have succeeded especially well in recent years because Governor Ruth Ann Minner, in Sarah Brady’s words, “has cozied up to the NRA.” Minner, a Democrat from Sigler’s hometown of Milford, is the only major Delaware politician who receives an A grade from the NRA for her stands on gun laws. She has signed bills that allow a seven-day handgun deer hunting season, that establish a reciprocity system to recognize Right to Carry gun permits issued in other states, that protect existing shooting ranges from nuisance lawsuits, and that prohibit government agencies from confiscating firearms during a declared emergency.
As Congressman Castle acknowledges, Delaware’s gun laws are “soft.” And Sigler happily agrees.
“Delaware’s gun laws are not very restrictive,” he says, “and you know why? Because I’ve written a lot of them, for certain legislators. I’d say that stretches back close to 20 years.”
Yet Brady Campaign communications director Peter Hamm says, “John needs to be reminded that we kicked the NRA’s ass two years ago on a bill that would’ve loosened Delaware’s law about carrying a concealed weapon.”
In 2006 the NRA pushed to have Delaware changed from a “may-issue” to a “shall-issue” state. At the time, the law said a Superior Court judge “may,” at his or her discretion, issue a permit to carry a concealed weapon to an applicant who met certain requirements, but pro-gun advocates wanted the law to say a judge “shall” issue the license in such a case, without the applicant having to prove a need for the permit.
That January, 1,000 Delawareans rallied in Dover to support the bill. Speakers there included then-NRA president Sandy Froman, Sigler and other NRA officials. After Republican Representative Deborah Hudson introduced the bill, various media claimed that a majority of state legislators supported the measure.
Sarah Brady recalls the bill’s initial hearing. “It was an absolute sham,” Brady says. “Hudson had not studied the bill at all. She was pro-NRA, and it was their bill. She couldn’t answer questions put to her, and did a poor job.” In a press release, Jim Brady reminded Delawareans of the agony that a concealed handgun had caused in his life and declared, “Putting a concealed handgun inside the jacket of anyone, is reckless public policy.”
The bill soon drew opposition from the state’s association of police chiefs, and legislators began tacking on what one called “killer amendments.” They were. Delaware’s pro-NRA forces suffered a rare legislative defeat.
Four times a month John Sigler takes off from his job in
On the north tower’s sixth floor, Sigler sits in his large corner office, chatting with Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action. Like the NRA’s most recent hero, actor and three-term NRA president Charlton Heston, Sigler is tall and slim—6-foot-3 and 200 pounds. He spends much of his life in smartly tailored suits, and, with his thin-frame glasses and neatly combed dark-blond hair, looks more like the lawyer he is than the cop he was for 20 years.
Sigler has enough stories to fill a reporter’s notebook. He recounts the joys of hunting rabbits and waterfowl while growing up in Milford, with nurturing, college-educated parents. He regrets (only slightly) that he wasted three years at Appalachian State in North Carolina while devoting most of his time to partying or hunting deer in nearby mountains. He recalls how he disappointed his parents by leaving college to become a torpedoman’s mate on submarines in the late 1960s. He describes his duty on the nuclear-powered U.S.S. Bancroft, which carried Polaris missiles on missions over the Arctic Circle at a time when America was engaged in Cold War maneuvers against Russia. He laughs as he reports, “We were cold warriors, to be sure.”
His stories are colorfully detailed, told with a gentle, self-deprecating humor, and certainly not lacking in drama. Not long after he joined the Dover Police, Sigler and his partner attempted to stop a stolen vehicle, but when the car bolted off Dover’s Loockerman Street, Sigler and his partner pursued, traveling down U.S. 13 at more than 100 mph. During the 10-mile chase, the suspect tried to ram the patrol vehicle with his car, and Sigler—the passenger officer—fired his service revolver at the fleeing car in an attempt to prevent further damage. The chase ended near Little Heaven when the driver crashed the car and fled on foot. The driver was later charged with attempted murder (by vehicle).
Sigler eventually returned to school, attending night classes to finish his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Wilmington College. Then he took courses at Dover Air Force Base through Central Michigan University, finishing a master of arts in business with a specialty in personnel management. He immediately started four years of night and weekend classes at what was then the Delaware Law School of Widener University, and he’s quick to state, “That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
He passed the Delaware bar exam in 1987, then began practicing law in his spare time while working four more years as a policeman, rising to the rank of captain before he retired.
On a rainy October day, Sigler sits in Dover’s Legislative Hall. Andrew Arulanandam has driven up from Fairfax for the occasion.
Page one of that day’s Delaware State News reports the death of Delaware State University freshman Shalita Middleton, who had been shot on campus by another freshman a month earlier. That shooting had occurred three weeks after DSU students had started the semester with a remembrance service dedicated to three other
Asked what American lawmakers might do to help stop the violence, Sigler repeats a familiar refrain. “Well, we don’t need new laws from them.” He derides politicians who’ve written gun-control legislation, calling them “unscrupulous, intellectually dishonest.” These lawmakers, he says, “play the gun card. They play upon the fears of the uninformed, exploiting social crises for political gain. They are insensitive, freedom-hating charlatans.”
Again he attacks judges who are reluctant to “put criminals away for long periods of time.” And he suggests that governors and mayors who moan that money isn’t available to build more prisons “need to do a cost-benefit analysis and figure out what they can do.”
Noting that Delaware has just bought several golf courses, he asks, “Do we need golf courses paid for with taxpayers’ money, or do we need to be thinking of these kids at Delaware State who got shot? I think what we really need to do as a society is to look at ourselves.” He calls for a “national dialogue,” that would include teachers as well as school administrators, parents, law enforcement officials, judges and politicians.
Sarah Brady would happily participate in that dialogue, but doubts that the NRA would make any concessions or change one line of its gun philosophy.
The odds against the Brady Campaign are steep. Hamm says those who oppose NRA positions “are simply outgunned at the state level,” thus seldom succeed. And the campaign’s annual budget—reported to be under $10 million—is dwarfed by the NRA’s bountiful war chest.
Though vilified by the most extreme NRA proponents, Brady says she believes most gun owners are reasonable people. She notes that 69 percent of NRA members in a survey supported the Brady Bill when it was being considered in the early 1990s.
But she says she finds it hard to reason with some NRA supporters. “The pro-gun people will occasionally say the craziest things,” she says. “One man argued that assault weapons should not be banned because he loves to go out in his backyard and shoot watermelons. I tried but failed to convince him that he did not need an assault weapon to shoot a watermelon.
“I always tell audiences that I’m not trying to take their guns away, unless they are criminals or mentally ill, but no matter what I say, some of the pro-gun people persist in the belief that I’m determined to take all guns away from all people,” Brady says. “You’d think I was the Carry Nation of Gundom, running down streets confiscating guns.”
Another man challenged her after a speech, saying, “I know a guy who killed his wife with a crock pot. Are you people going to start trying to confiscate Crock Pots?” She answered that she would call for a ban on Crock Pots only when they become a weapon of choice.
Brady says that living in Sussex County keeps her close to the gun issue and to the way conservatives who oppose her views often perceive things.
“To many of the people who live here, the gun seems to represent the last vestige of rights left to them,” Brady says. “Before moving here, I had lived inside the Beltway from second grade on. I’d never run into people like many who live in Sussex County. They’re conservatives. They fear and hate the government, want absolutely no laws, don’t want to pay any taxes, and are pro-NRA. They’re fearful that their guns are going to be taken away. But that’s the way they feel about life itself. They don’t trust the government.”
In speeches, she often expresses appreciation for the support the Brady Campaign receives from law enforcement groups. Noting that such groups had originally supported the NRA, she says, “They began breaking with the NRA when it began doing kooky things like not supporting the ban of armor-piercing bullets that can penetrate the body armor that cops have to wear.”
She stresses that the laws pertaining to sales of weapons need to be tightened so that felons and fugitives and others prohibited from having guns shouldn’t be able to purchase them. She acknowledges the complexity of the problem, but asserts that “we must do all we can to make it harder and harder and harder for criminals and those who are mentally disturbed to obtain guns.”
Castle agrees. In January last year he introduced a house bill titled Gun Show Loophole Closing Act of 2007, which basically would force all sellers at gun shows—and not just the licensed dealers—to do a quick background check on those seeking to purchase firearms. The NRA argues that no loophole exists at gun shows and contends that less than 1 percent of firearms used in crimes were purchased at gun shows. Castle counters that “gun shows are the second leading source of firearms in illegal gun-trafficking investigations.”
The panel investigating the Virginia Tech shootings strongly encouraged Congress to pass Castle’s bill, but the measure died in committee, as had similar bills he had sponsored in previous years. He knows that NRA lobbyists worked to prevent the bill from reaching the House floor. But he hopes that one day, the votes will be there, and his bill will become law.
Is there common ground? Could Sigler, Brady and Castle find something to agree on?
Says Sigler, “I think Sarah and the congressman and I could agree that Delaware is a wonderful place to live.”