Online gun dealer Eric Thompson can’t recall exactly what he was doing when he learned that one of his customers had just killed five students in a college geology class.
He knows what flashed through his mind, though:
Ten months earlier, another customer had killed 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech.
The coincidence stuns Thompson. He calls it upsetting. Beyond that, though, he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to feel. Remorse? Regret? He has none.
He had no reason not to sell a pistol to Seung-hui Cho, who walked from classroom to classroom at Virginia Tech last April, methodically firing 174 rounds. Nor did he have cause to question the sale of magazines and a holster to Steven Kazmierczak, who last month opened fire at Northern Illinois University.
Thompson donated to funds for the victims on both campuses. And he continued to sell guns.
His websites log thousands of hits a day; hundreds of buyers call his toll-free line. Thompson looks over his employees’ shoulders as they process the transactions. He doesn’t probe. It’s not his business what a man in Kittery, Maine, wants with two high-capacity handgun magazines. Why a buyer in Hot Springs, S.D., is inquiring about Black Widow revolvers. Or why an anonymous e-mailer wants to know how best to fit a silencer on a pistol.
“I’m a businessman,” he says. “It’s a product. They have a right to have what they want to have.”
Thompson is also a father; he and his wife have three young children. He says he feels a responsibility to do what he can to keep students safe. He’s built an online forum, GunDebate.com, to solicit and sift through ideas. In truth, though, he already has a solution in mind, and he intends to push it as hard as he can.
It’s this: Put more guns in schools.
Thompson, 35, fell into the gun business by chance.
An entrepreneur by nature, he ran a restaurant for a while, then founded a cleaning business. A conversation with a customer got him thinking about guns. Just before Christmas in 1999, he launched topglock.com in his spare bedroom, stashing inventory in his garage.
“I saw it as a business opportunity,” he says. “If I saw a better opportunity in shoes at that time, I would have sold shoes.”
His showroom, on an industrial strip near the famed Green Bay Packers stadium, bristles with hunting rifles and mounted antlers.
But the attached corporate headquarters feel more New Age than Rambo. The walls are painted sun yellow and sky blue. There are silk flowers in the spotless bathroom. Thompson, who has shoulder-length blond hair and a mellow manner, set up a cozy “serenity room” so his 17 employees could relax to the soothing sounds of a desktop waterfall and chirping birds. “So we can keep sane,” Thompson says.
Thompson’s firm, TGSCOM, runs more than 100 websites, each designed to appeal to a different segment of the gun market (and each calibrated to pop up high on Google searches). All told, he peddles 8,700 types of firearms, priced as low as $70 for a surplus rifle and as high as $8,800 for a shoulder-fired, semiautomatic, long-range rifle that takes jumbo .50-caliber bullets.
The thousands of gun accessories he sells -- grips, ammunition, barrels, holsters -- can be mailed to a buyer’s home. Guns must be shipped to one of the nation’s 70,000 federally licensed firearms dealers, who do background checks before releasing the package to the buyer.
Gun control advocates condemn online transactions as open to fraud, because convicted criminals can browse online, then pay someone with a clean record to place the order and pick up the firearm.
Thompson gets several calls a week from federal agents who want to know where he shipped this assault rifle or that shotgun. “They never tell us why they’re calling,” Thompson says. But he knows: The weapon was likely stolen or used in a crime.
He shrugs off such unfortunate transactions as part of doing business.
“I’m sure Wal-Mart has sold more weapons to killers than I have,” he says. Liberal calls for more restrictions on gun sales only strengthen his resolve to stay in business: “As far as letting people’s comments push me out, I feel that is like letting the bully win.”
Although he didn’t enter the business for political reasons, Thompson has become passionate about gun rights; his website offers a discounted membership rate in the National Rifle Assn. He’s taken up sport shooting as a hobby. And he expresses deep respect for the gun enthusiasts -- cops, hunters, sportsmen, collectors -- who shop at his sites.
Few try to scam him with credit card fraud. Many who call his toll-free line end up chatting with his employees as though they were old hunting buddies. They’re good folks, Thompson says, “one of the pleasures of being in this industry.”
One of those customers, Nicholas Koch, strolls into the showroom on a cold afternoon looking to add to his collection of Glocks. A former Marine, he has six or seven handguns at home -- he’s lost count -- and two rifles. He settles quickly on a sleek 9 mm.
“I like firearms in general,” says Koch, 24. “And these look sexy, for a pistol.”
He fills out the required form, checking “no” to such questions as: “Are you a fugitive from justice?” and “Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana . . . or any other controlled substance?”
A clerk calls Koch’s name and Social Security number into a federal hotline and gets the all-clear. “Can I get frequent Glock miles?” Koch jokes. “You guys should make punch cards. Every time you buy a gun, you punch out G-L-O-C-K, and when you’re done, you get a free T-shirt.”
Koch, who’s studying for a college degree in geology, resents the critics who fault Thompson for the crimes his customers commit. “It’s like Chevy getting blamed for people driving drunk,” he says.
Thompson appreciates the support. In recent weeks, he’s received hundreds of nasty e-mails:
“You make me sick.”
“You’ve got blood on your hands.”
“I sincerely hope you go to hell for what you’ve allowed happen!”
“HOPEFULLY YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW WILL MEET THE SAME FATE AS THE WONDERFUL YOUNG KIDS AT THOSE 2 COLLEGES.”
In Thompson’s experience, then, it’s the anti-gun crowd that spouts violence. After Virginia Tech, vandals splattered his store with eggs. Some of the e-mails threaten his children.
Gun owners, by contrast, seem rational and responsible -- and that’s why he wants to see more of them in classrooms.
“I’m not going to say that we don’t have a problem with violent crime in America,” he says. “But there’s a logical answer.”
Thompson starts with the uncontested fact that campus shootings are often over before law enforcement can respond. At Virginia Tech, Cho barricaded the classroom building and shot himself in the head as police broke through. At Northern Illinois, Kazmierczak killed five students in less than two minutes; he committed suicide before police arrived.
But what if someone else in those classrooms -- a student, a teacher -- had been carrying a gun? Isn’t it at least possible some lives could have been saved? Isn’t it worth giving our children that chance?
“Otherwise, it’s ‘Welcome to your killing spree,’ ” Thompson says. “Because there’s nothing to stop these shooters.”
He argues too that allowing guns on campus could deter future shootings.
That perspective has caught on widely since the carnage at Virginia Tech. Most states long ago declared schools gun-free zones; only Utah allows concealed weapons at all public colleges.
Today, at least 14 states are considering allowing guns on campus -- among them Arizona, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. A national advocacy group, Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, has signed up 7,000 members in two weeks, bringing its roster to 19,000.
The trend alarms gun control activists.
Even trained police officers hit their target only 20% of the time, says Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. So how could a student, caught up in a terrifying attack, be expected to shoot straight?
“If a bad guy comes in, everyone always wishes there were the John Wayne hero in the classroom to respond,” he says. “But that’s really hard to pull off.”
There have been few weapons offenses at colleges in Utah. But Helmke worries about all that could go wrong: guns stolen from backpacks, passed around at parties, pulled out when a romance sours.
He also asks whether we can trust states to make sure that permit-holders are skilled shooters with solid safety training. In Florida, a Sun-Sentinel investigation found that more than 1,400 felons, including killers and child molesters, had been granted concealed-carry permits.
“The bottom-line problem is: We make it too easy in this country for dangerous people to buy guns,” Helmke says.
Thompson dismisses that argument as willful blindness.
The bad guys will always have guns, he says. It’s time to make sure the good guys have them too -- and have them handy, even in algebra.
“No one wants to admit we have a problem. It’s like how you don’t want to see the starving kids in Ethiopia,” he says. “But we know it’s going to happen again. It’s time to hit it head on.”
He mentions the shooting last year at a Colorado Springs, Colo., mega-church. A troubled young man with a heavy-duty arsenal killed two girls in the parking lot. As he tried to storm the church, a member of the congregation who had volunteered for security duty pulled out a pistol and shot him. The man then killed himself.
Thompson loves that story. The next time he’s in the news, he hopes the headline will read: Internet gun dealer linked to pistol that stopped mass killer in his tracks.
Classic rock plays softly in Thompson’s call center as Alex Wallin sells guns.
He chats with a customer about night sights. He tells another caller the going price for an AK-47 assault rifle: $479.53. On another call, he gets into a long discussion about the merits of the latest model Glock. “It’s a short frame,” Wallin explains. “It’ll fit in your hand a little better.”
His tone is light and friendly. But when he takes a break, Wallin admits the school shootings have rattled him.
These days, when he takes an order, he listens hard.
“Sometimes you get calls that make you get kind of leery,” he says. “You feel like, ‘I don’t know if they should have a gun or not.’ ” Wallin says that he’s canceled a few transactions because of this unease -- the customer doesn’t speak English, or something else doesn’t seem right.
Thompson cuts him off with a rebuke. “We don’t screen customers,” he says.
The screen over Wallin’s desk lights up again. Three more calls have just come in. He sits back down, briskly picks up the phone.
“This is Alex,” he says. “How can I help you?”