Blood Money

He Made the Gun That Slaughtered Parkland’s Kids

CEO James Debney makes $5 million a year for manufacturing the type of gun that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

It’s the gun companies, stupid.

Yes, the FBI failed to act on a tip from somebody close to Nikolas Cruz that he had a firearm and was liable to “explode” and go into a school “just shooting the place up.”

Yes, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office received two tips—one from a neighbor’s son, another from an unnamed caller—that Cruz had firearms and talked of committing a school shooting.

Yes, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office also reports it received a request from Cruz’s aunt to secure his firearms, but dropped the matter after a family friend offered to take possession of the weapons.

Yes, the Broward County deputy assigned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School failed to take appropriate action when the shooting erupted.

Yes, other deputies may have similarly failed after they arrived.

But none of that would have any immediate significance if Cruz had not obtained the assault rifle with which he murdered 17 students and staff with over 100 bullets in four minutes.

And the National Rifle Association’s efforts to thwart restrictions on the sale of assault weapons would not matter if there were no assault weapons in the first place.

The NRA has not manufactured a single assault rifle, though one of the organization’s primary functions is to take heat away from those who do, while simultaneously making it appear as if the issue is freedom, not just money.

The Tobacco Institute was never able to make the public forget that the cigarette companies are the actual death merchants.

The NRA does so continually. It manages to draw virtually all the heat in the aftermath of mass shootings, most particularly after the one this month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High survivors can tell you right away that Wayne LaPierre is the NRA’s vocal executive director and CEO.

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And the survivors got to do verbal battle with NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch at CNN’s town hall meeting.

All the scorn and invective prompted by LaPierre and Loesch only means that they are doing their job and that the NRA is earning the millions in contributions it receives from the gun companies.

Proof that the NRA earns its big bucks from the gun industry comes if you ask survivors about James Debney.

Huh?

Who?

A quick Google search shows that P. James Debney is the CEO and president of American Outdoor Brands, which until last year was named Smith & Wesson.

By whatever name, the company Debney heads manufactured the AR-15 assault rifle that Cruz used to kill 14 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students and three staff members.

LaPierre and Loesch are just mouthpieces and the NRA is just an industry shill.

Debney and American Outdoor Brands actually made and marketed the monstrously lethal murder weapon.

And Debney continues to do so even though he has a daughter of an age where she could have been among the dead, were she attending Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.

Back in 2000, Smith & Wesson briefly became a good name among gun control advocates—and therefore an anathema in the gun industry—when it became the sole company to enter into an agreement proposed by the Clinton administration to reduce gun violence.

“CLINTON ADMINISTRATION REACHES HISTORIC AGREEMENT WITH SMITH AND WESSON,” a March 17, 2000, statement by the White House read.

The statement noted, “Today’s agreement represents the first time a major gun manufacturer has committed to fundamentally change the way guns are designed, distributed and marketed.” Smith & Wesson figured on getting some good publicity along with immunity.

In exchange, the company agreed to install safety locking devices in future handguns and devote two percent of its revenues to developing technology that would allow only an authorized person to fire the weapon. The company also agreed not to produce guns that could accept magazines holding more than 10 rounds.

Additionally, Smith & Wesson pledged to cut off dealers who sold a disproportionate number of guns subsequently used in crimes. And to insist upon background checks even at gun shows. And to collect ballistic “fingerprints” from sample shell casings and bullets from each new firearm, the results to be fed into a national database.

Smith & Wesson further agreed not to produce for the civilian market large capacity magazines or semiautomatic assault weapons.

The last one was easy for Smith & Wesson, which at that point only manufactured handguns and produced no assault weapons in the first place.

Besides, the assault weapon ban was still in effect.

Of course, the many companies that had produced and marketed assault rifles for civilians and hoped to do so again were incensed. They denounced Smith & Wesson as a traitor to the industry.

In keeping with its role as an industry shill, the NRA announced a boycott of Smith & Wesson. The NRA declared that Smith & Wesson had committed “an act of craven self-interest” and had become “the first to run up the white flag of surrender… leaving its competitors in the U.S. firearms industry to carry on the fight for the Second Amendment.”

In keeping with their longtime role as chumps of the shill, a significant number of NRA members declined to buy Smith & Wesson products. A good many sold the ones they had.

Hey, it’s all about individual freedom, right?

Sales of Smith & Wesson firearms dropped by some 40 percent. The company seemed to be headed for bankruptcy when a startup safety lock company bought it. The new owner voided the agreement with the Clinton administration.

“It was important that we be an active part of the industry again,” a senior executive of the newly configured Smith & Wesson Holding Company was reported saying.

In September of 2004, the assault ban expired and gun companies began cashing in big time with what were at first euphemistically termed "tactical rifles” and then even more euphemistically called “modern sporting rifles.”

Smith & Wesson was in the midst of getting new leadership, having been further shaken when its chairman, James Minder, proved to have served time in prison for a string of armed robberies while a journalism student at the University of Michigan. The young Minder had started with one of his future company's revolvers but had then opted for a sawed-off shotgun.

In a general shakeup, Smith & Wesson recruited Michael Golden, who was then president of the cabinetry division of Kohler Company. Golden took over Smith & Wesson in December of 2004 having never fired a gun. He reportedly did not know the difference between a revolver and an automatic pistol.

“You’re going to be a bad-ass,” his son reportedly told him upon learning he was going to helm the same gun company that made the revolver carried by Dirty Harry in the movies.

One difference between the gun business and the cabinetry business became apparent when Golden was invited to witness President George Bush sign the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005. The new law made firearms manufacturers immune from being held liable when criminals used their products. That was the same protection Smith & Wesson had briefly received from Clinton in exchange for accepting a host of gun-control measures, these including a ban on assault rifles.

The whole industry now got that benefit without agreeing to so much as a safety lock. And Smith & Wesson saw in assault rifles an opportunity to make up for lost profit and regain some of its former standing in the industry. The company set to designing and producing its first AR-15.

In 2006, Smith & Wesson introduced the M&P15 rifle. The M stood for military and the P for police, but the primary customers were civilians.

“RELIABILITY FOR LIFE & LIBERTY,” trumpeted an introductory advertisement, which showed the rifle with a 30-round magazine.

The ad continued, “MEET THE NEW M&P FROM SMITH & WESSON…. This rifle offers the latest standard of reliability when your job is to serve and protect and your life is on the line.”

The magazine Shooting Industry named Smith & Wesson “Manufacturer of the Year.” Production increased from 4,650 rifles in 2006, to 24,676 in 2007 to 38,372 in 2008 to 110,057 in 2009.

“Tactical rifles were up almost 200 percent versus the same period the year before,” Golden enthused in a 2009 conference call, adding that sales had been “extremely hot.”

But, where the stock had jumped from $10 to over $20 in the first 10 months of 2007, it then declined to $5 despite the rise in profits. The stock hovered around there through September of 2011, when the board of directors decided to replace Golden with Debney, who had been vice president of the firearms division. Debney had previously run a company that produced trash bags and plastic wrap.

Debney kept selling assault rifles as if he were just selling more plastic after a madman with a Smith & Wesson assault rifle murdered 12 people in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater. Debney told investors at a gathering two months later, “What we get excited about is that expanded user base and the level of social acceptance that we see now out there. It is socially acceptable to carry a firearm, more so than before—to carry a firearm for protection, have one at home for protection, go to the range to shoot as a pastime, as a hobby.”

Three months after that, another monster, this one armed with a Bushmaster assault rifle, murdered 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. The possibility that the mass murder of little kids might result in meaningful gun control caused a spike in assault rifle purchases by people who feared the weapons might soon be banned again. Bushmaster and Smith & Wesson and the other companies raked in the profits and just kept on selling assault rifles after a ban failed to materialize.

In 2013, Debney was inducted into the NRA’s Golden Ring of Freedom. An NRA video announcing the honor explains, “The Gold Ring of Freedom is reserved for individuals and corporations who have made gifts of $1 million cash or more. These selfless, passionate and devoted leaders are vital in the effort to protect our freedoms now and in the future.”

The video goes on, “What James Debney has done for Smith & Wesson has been truly incredible… James is changing the firearm market in a very tangible way.”

Debney appears in the video as a “gold jacket recipient” and says, “It certainly has been a fantastic time at Smith & Wesson.”

He says nothing about the profits, but makes sure to mention the Second Amendment.

“We are true believers in that and defenders of that and we are very closely aligned with the NRA,” he says. “The time had come to step up and do the right thing.”

By that, he meant contributing the $1 million plus in cash. The company’s profits came to include the sale of the M&P15 that was used in the 2015 terror attack in San Bernardino. Fifteen were murdered.

In December of 2016, Debney proposed changing the company name to American Outdoor Brands in a move toward diversifying. The board of directors approved. The company had produced 1,851,642 assault rifles along with a considerable number of handguns. The worry was that there would eventually prove to be only so many weapons you can sell even in America.

Meanwhile, the company enjoyed another bump in assault weapon sales when it appeared that Hillary Clinton might become president and seek to institute a new ban.

But the whole industry suffered a “Trump slump” after the unexpected election outcome. Remington, the company that owned Bushmaster, sought bankruptcy protection.

Smith & Wesson did experience a modest bump after a madman used one of its M&P15s to murder 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High on Valentine’s Day.

In the aftermath, the survivors of the shooting have been so passionate and determined and precociously articulate that it seems that something might actually happen this time.

Much of their fury is directed at the NRA, which views being the subject of outrage as just part of its job.

In focusing their anger on the likes of Wayne LaPierre, the survivors are distracted from the likes of James Debney, whose company actually designed, produced and marketed the weapon that killed so many innocents at their school. Debney knew it was a weapon of war. He also knew, or at least should have known, that M&P15 fires bullets of such velocity that when it hits flesh the accompanying shock wave extends the damage considerably outside the path of the bullet, shredding tissue, destroying entire organs, disintegrating blood vessels. He also knew that the M&P15 is a virtual twin to the Bushmaster AR-15 used with horrific effect on little kids at Sandy Hook.

And yet he had kept selling it. 

Debney earns more than $5 million a year in what the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High survivors would no doubt consider blood money. He owns a large tract of land in Massachusetts, not far from the company headquarters in Springfield.

The property includes a riding facility, for Debney’s daughter is said to be something of a prodigy equestrian. Debney’s wife, Karen, is so dedicated that she reportedly drives their daughter seven hours each way on the weekends to work with a top trainer in Maryland.

The daughter—who seems to be an altogether nice kid—won a big championship in October, when she was just 13. Had she been living in Florida rather than Massachusetts and were she a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, she could have been in the freshman building on Valentine’s Day when one of daddy Debney’s modern sporting rifles proved so murderously reliable.

But hey, business is business.

And those were somebody else’s kids.