Back in 1982, a young lobbyist for the gun industry got the California Legislature to pass the first law in the nation granting gun makers immunity from lawsuits.
Partly on the basis of this achievement, the lobbyist, Robert A. Ricker, eventually rose to be the executive director of the American Shooting Sports Council, then the main gun industry trade association.
On Wednesday the House of Representatives is scheduled to take up a bill to grant sweeping federal immunity against lawsuits to gun manufacturers and dealers, the only industry that would have such protection.
But Mr. Ricker, who lives in a Washington suburb, will not be there. Instead he will be testifying in a federal courtroom in Brooklyn as the main witness for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in a suit against the gun industry. It contends that handgun violence disproportionately harms poor, urban blacks and that gun companies have contributed to this by the way they distribute their products.
Mr. Ricker is also likely to be a central witness in a series of lawsuits by cities against the gun industry.
His testimony could be powerful. He has said in an affidavit that gun makers have long known that some of their dealers corruptly sold guns to criminals and juveniles but pressured one another into remaining silent for fear of legal liability.
The story of how the soft-spoken Mr. Ricker, 52, a native of a small Indiana town, went from being a gun industry insider to its first major whistle-blower is not the usual stuff of a best seller of threats or private detectives following him.
Instead, both he and his wife, Eileen, a teacher who was a Republican legislative aide, say his decision to testify against the gun industry was more a result of a gradual realization that much-needed changes were being held back by the dominance of the National Rifle Association.
"It wasn't as if I had a sudden awakening," Mr. Ricker said in an interview near the Capitol, where he works as a consultant and lobbyist for some gun companies.
The critical events happened in 1999 when, as executive director of the shooting sports council, he was negotiating with the Clinton administration to make changes in the gun laws. Mr. Ricker was prepared to accept findings by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that less than 1 percent of dealers accounted for more than half of all guns used in crimes. And some manufacturers, at his prodding, were ready to monitor their dealers to weed out these corrupt few, he said.
But under pressure from the rifle association, which regards any gun-control measures as likely to lead to the confiscation of all Americans' guns, Mr. Ricker's organization was disbanded and he lost his job.
"You have a situation where you have a bunch of right-wing wackos at the N.R.A. who are controlling everything," Mr. Ricker said.
"A lot of people in the industry were prepared to make changes, to even negotiate a settlement with the cities over the lawsuits," Mr. Ricker said. "But we have Charlton Heston and Wayne LaPierre dictating to us on guns," he said, referring to the two top officers of the rifle association. "People in the industry are scared to death of them, because the N.R.A. leadership can start a postcard writing campaign by its members and pretty soon the gun companies are afraid of losing sales."
Then in 2001, Mr. Ricker went to hear arguments before the California Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the immunity law he had been instrumental in passing two decades earlier. The lawyer arguing against the law was Dennis A. Henigan, director of the legal action project for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
"Afterward Bob came over and said we should sit down and talk," Mr. Henigan said. "I was very surprised. But I had dealt with him before and he was always moderate and nonideological, and we suddenly found we had a lot in common."
Mr. Ricker's criticism of the rifle association is paradoxical, because he began his career in the gun industry in 1981 as a lawyer for it.
His first task, he recalled, was to work on preparing what was called the Gun Owners' Protection Act, which undermined the powers of the federal firearms bureau. Today the rifle association has made an effort to minimize whatever Mr. Ricker did.
"He was employed as a staff attorney for the N.R.A. for two years, over 20 years ago," said Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the association. "It was a nonmanagement position. In his brief stint with the N.R.A. he did not have any accomplishments of note."
Last week at a Congressional hearing, Mr. Ricker said hello to several association lobbyists, but they did not look at him. "It was as if I had been sprayed with something and made invisible," he said.
One former gun industry friend said Mr. Ricker's problem was that "he was not a true believer" in the gun rights cause. Mr. Ricker does not entirely dispute that. He did not grow up owning a gun. When he was in high school, he worked for a farmer who shot rabbits to cook for lunch, so Mr. Ricker was familiar with guns.
But during summer vacation in college, he worked for the water department in Gary, Ind., shortly after the race riots there. "I was out fixing broken pipes in the streets, and I had to watch out for gun violence," he said. "So I saw both sides."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company