Clayton Nelson very much enjoyed Unintended Consequences, a book by St. Louis stockbroker John Ross. Most of it, anyway.
"It's a hell of a good book," says Nelson, a Gunnison gunmaker. "To a degree. It's very anti-government and pro-gun. The hero ends up killing, by my count, 27 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents, congressmen and law enforcement officers. And some of them die very degrading deaths. I didn't like it after page 600."
And by page 843, Nelson was really annoyed. That's where his literary criticism of Unintended Consequences takes a turn toward legalities. That's where he claims the libel begins.
"It's a fascinating book," says Lawrence Johnson, Nelson's attorney. "I'm reading it now for the second time." Still, he concedes that the book poses some problems for his client. That's why the two men reluctantly filed a lawsuit against Ross this past summer.
Unintended Consequences is a book with a message. It follows a young boy named Henry who grows up loving guns, thanks in part to the generosity of his dad. Early on, for instance, his father presents him with a gift of a twenty-millimeter anti-tank gun. This is to figure prominently later in the story--and also in Clayton Nelson's lawsuit. Henry grows up to be a geologist and weapons dealer.
One fateful night, according to a recent review in Publishers Weekly, Henry "fires on intruders at a friend's Indiana home, mistaking them for terrorists. When the men turn out to be federal agents carrying out a raid on suspected firearms violators, Henry learns that he himself is a target of federal assault. He responds by killing ten agents, butchering them and feeding them to hogs. Henry is soon joined by others, including his A.A. friend Cindy Caswell, formerly the kidnapped sex-slave of a Las Vegas mafioso, who sets about killing congressmen while having sex with them."
The book has a happy ending: After a bloodbath involving thousands, the president of the United States sees the error of restrictive gun policies. He calls for the repeal of anti-gun laws and grants total amnesty to the weapons dealers/rebels.
Unintended Consequences, now in its second printing, sells very well among particular audiences. "I was at the Tulsa gun show last weekend, which is one of the biggest in the country," Johnson says. "And I spoke to one dealer who had sold over 400 copies."
The book was published in February by Accurate Press, a St. Louis house that describes its market niche as "people who take shooting competition and defensive skills seriously." One of those people is the author of Unintended Consequences. According to his biography, John Ross has written articles for Machine Gun News and "fires upwards of 20,000 rounds of ammunition a year." "Actually," Ross clarifies in an interview, "I had to slow down this year because I didn't have time." That's because he was busy running for a congressional seat in Missouri; he came in second out of six candidates in the Democratic primary.
Just before Unintended Consequences hit the stands, Ross sent Nelson a copy as a courtesy. The two men have known each other for some time, both as business partners and as friends.
Within a small fraternity of custom-gun aficionados, of which Ross is one, Clayton Nelson is famous. His specialty is big-bore rifles, which he handcrafts, primarily for collectors, in his Gunnison home. "Most of my guns have never even been fired," he says. "They're more works of art than they are firearms." Outdoor Life, the popular sportsmen's magazine, has written about Nelson several times; in each instance, the magazine refers to him as "ace gunmaker Clayton Nelson."
It was precisely because of his fame that Nelson became alarmed as he neared the conclusion of Unintended Consequences. The bothersome section begins when a helicopter carrying several BATF agents is shot out of the sky by a twenty-millimeter rifle--a very large bore weapon by anybody's measurement. In its attempt to track down the killer, the FBI gathers a list of big-weapon makers, particularly manufacturers of two- and four-bore rifles, whose bullets can weigh up to a pound. The FBI's list includes a Gunnison gunmaker.
"Now, as best I know," Nelson says, "I've built the only two-bore cartridge rifle in the country, and probably in the world."
The FBI agents then telephone the fictional Gunnison gunmaker to question him. "Clayton here," he answers in the book.
"Now, anybody who knows anything about custom guns," Johnson says, "knows that Clayton Nelson lives in Colorado." As if that weren't bad enough, the book goes on to mention a big-bore customer of the Gunnison Clayton who is named Fish and lives in Alaska.
"Well," Johnson points out, "Clayton has a client in Alaska named Fish."
Worst of all, at least from the real Clayton's perspective, is that the fictional Gunnison gunmaker does not feel particularly bad about the helicopter getting shot down. "I, or he, raises all sorts of Cain about how I've had to put up with BATF bastards my whole life," Nelson says. Specifically, on page 843 of Unintended Consequences, the made-up Clayton remarks, "By God, I hope every damned one of them bastards gets killed, and it looks like we're a good ways there."
Complains Johnson, "This fictional Clayton in Gunnison talks as if he's part of a conspiracy." Besides, the lawyer adds, "you just can't go around committing the murder of federal agents. That gets into anarchy and sedition."
"The character I'm supposed to be is definitely not good," sums up the real Clayton. "But this is not where I stand on any of this, by a long stretch. I don't have a big love for the BATF. But I sure as hell don't want them dead, either."
In fact, he continues, "you could probably call me anti-gun, in some respects. I have no use for military weapons and handguns. I just don't relate to those people. I don't like to watch violence on TV or in the movies. I'm pretty much a pacifist, to some degree."
Nelson says that in the beginning, he was willing to consider the identity crisis a misguided attempt by Ross to hand him some free publicity. "I think he thought he was doing me a favor," the gunsmith says. But then the fallout started.
"A lot of people have taken this to be a sort of true thing," he complains. "I went into a gun shop in Glenwood Springs, and a fellow said, 'I heard you're in a lot of trouble with the FBI and BATF.'"
Nelson was particularly troubled by a suspicious coincidence this spring. "About sixteen months ago a fellow bumped into me in his car, and I got a ticket for not having proof of insurance," Nelson recalls. "I paid my fine and forgot about it. But then, two months after the book was published, I was shopping with my wife here in town and I got arrested, handcuffed, and taken to jail on the same charge. I posted bail after two hours, and I told the court that I had paid my fine."
Nelson says he uncovered an explanation for the incident a few days later. "That's when I found out the BATF had been in town four days before," he says. "They said they were in town to help the owner of a hardware store here fill out a firearms license application."
"The point is, we think he's being watched," says Johnson.
But at BATF's Denver office, Clayton Nelson's name does not ring a bell. "Who?" asks a spokesman.
The author of Unintended Consequences also doubts Nelson's story. "I frankly find that ludicrous," says Ross. "I don't believe local police officers would take direction from federal agents."
Nelson's response, however, helps illustrate the point of his book, Ross says. "What does this say about people's relationship to their government?" he asks rhetorically. "This guy thinks he is being harassed by a federal agency because of one sentence on one page of an 860-page book. Either he has paranoid delusions, or we've got some real problems."
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There's a third possibility. Ross points out that his old friend Nelson may have ulterior motives for the libel lawsuit he filed in July, asking $200,000 in damages. "Did he happen to mention that I paid him five years ago for five guns I ordered and he still hasn't delivered?" Ross asks. Nelson's custom big-bore rifles fetch anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 each.
Nonetheless, Ross has tried to make amends. "When I found out Clayton was upset, as a courtesy I changed the section, because I consider him a friend," the author says. In the second printing of Unintended Consequences, the surly, murderous Gunnison gunmaker named Clayton becomes a surly, murderous Vermont gunmaker named Bischoff. Third and fourth printings, which are in the works, will carry the new name.
To diehard gun advocates, who prefer to present a united front, the disagreement between Nelson and Ross is proving uncomfortable. For example, in addition to being Nelson's lawyer, Johnson is legal counsel for the National Rifle Association's Oklahoma chapter. "There is a deeper philosophy to this book," he says. "It contains a message that I and the NRA agree with.
"I read in bed a lot, and the other night I turned to my wife and I told her, 'I just hate to sue this guy, because this is a fabulous book.'