Q&A: U.S. Rep. Steve D. Russell
U.S. Rep. Steve D. Russell brings a unique perspective on firearms to the House of Representatives. He’s a career soldier, collector of military firearms and is the only one on Capitol Hill who is an active firearms manufacturer.
Rep. Russell’s admiration for firearms is deeply-rooted in his calling to serve in the U.S. Army as an infantry soldier. He served tours in Kosovo, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq, where he commanded a task force that captured former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. He chronicled the mission in his memoir, “We Got Him.” Following his military career, he formed successive veteran’s advocacy groups and ran for and won an open seat in Oklahoma’s state Senate in 2008. It was there, Russell, turned a career of carrying a rifle, into a new calling of ensuring the right to bear arms was respected.
Victories at the state level included hunting with suppressors, open carry legislation, and clearing up language on “shall issue” questions with respect to mental health. But it wasn’t until 2010 when Russell went from firearms enthusiast to manufacturer. He couldn’t bring home rifles he saw during his combat tours in Iraq. So he made one.
“With that in mind, I found an existing rifle and altered its appearance, made it look like an Iraqi rifle,” Rep. Russell explained. “Some of my veteran buddies asked, ‘Where’d you get that?’ I said, “Aw, I just made these changes to this rifle. So they said, ‘If I got one, would you do that to mine?’ I said sure. After a half a dozen of those, I thought there might be something to this.”
That was the birth of Two Rivers Arms, a company that’s still producing firearms and even caught the eye of legendary actor and director Clint Eastwood as he was filming “American Sniper,” the biopic on former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle.
“Our biggest claim to fame is our rifles were featured in Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper.” We made the Tabuk sniper rifles for the film; one for the actor, one for the body double and we made four of the Iraqi AK’s that the insurgents used as extras in the film. So that was pretty cool. We’ve kind of carved out our little niche in the market.”
Rep. Russell’s call to service wasn’t over, though. In 2014, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) ran for his current Senate seat and left open a seat for Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District. He won a six-way primary, run-off, and five-way general election. In 2016, he was re-elected.
Rep. Russell’s affinity for firearms predates his Congressional and military service, though. He admits a fascination with military small arms, a collection that he began when he was old enough to purchase his own and continues today. In fact, it’s a passion he’s passed along to his children, even to a recent outing with his daughter who was researching her preferred handgun as she pursues a career in federal law enforcement.
“I went out a few weeks ago with my youngest daughter. She is about to graduate with a criminal justice bachelor of arts, and a bachelor of science in forensics. She hopes to join the FBI. She wanted a SIG 220-series for her birthday. I told her she wanted something cheaper for her 21st birthday. She assured me she needed a good, reliable handgun. So, I went and found her one. So she shoots that and I stay with my Beretta. She does pretty good, but she needs to practice some more before she can outshoot me. It’s always a lot of fun.”
Rep. Russell keeps a tight lid on the number of firearms in his collection, but admits his likely doesn’t look like others. His gun safe features firearms that are also used by the military. He’s not sure that he’s got any fine grade firearms designed strictly for sporting purposes.
“I only own one shotgun. It’s a Mossberg 590A1 trench gun that mounts an M-9 bayonet. It’s terrible for birds. It’s great for clearing rooms. I have it as a home defense gun. I’ve shot clays. It’s different. I’m used to sights. I can do it. But I’m not an expert at it. I love target shooting. I’m pretty good with a handgun. I’m good with a rifle. I can do the 2-and-1 drills standing or I can do different firearms changes, shoot different things, pistol, rifle, whatever – I enjoy target shooting more than anything.”
Rep. Russell’s focus these days, though, is more than just knocking down targets. He’s busy in Congress driving legislation to protect firearms dealers from a rash of brazen break-ins. NSSF works with ATF officials to match rewards to catch these criminals, but Rep. Russell wants to make sure those who are caught must spend time behind bars. It’s H.R. 3790, the Federal Firearms Licensee Protection Act. Rep. that would impose a minimum sentence for a successful conviction of not less than three years for burglary and five years for robbery of a firearms retailer, ranges that rent firearms, shooting clubs and licensed collectors.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has reported a 48 percent increase in the number of burglaries and a 175 percent in the number of robberies over the past five years. In 2016, about 7,758 firearms were stolen from Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs) in burglaries and robberies.
“There’s kind of a gap in the law where they’re treating robberies of these businesses kind of like any other robbery. And yet, they’re stealing firearms. In many cases, they even cross state lines. So this is a serious offense. This bill would remedy that with stiffer penalties. I’m not always one that believes that legislatively we should take away the parameters of our judges on sentencing. I think that’s why we have a judiciary branch, quite frankly. But in this case, I don’t think that somebody that does a smash-and-grab, driving a pick-up through a gun shop and then just grabbing as many firearms as they can ought to be treated the same as holding up a convenience store. It’s not the same. I’ve got a bill that will fix that.”
Rep. Russell’s unique perspective on firearms has made him an asset to his Congressional colleagues too. When calls for gun legislation arises, he’s able to parse through the rhetoric and show fellow Congressmen and women that in many instances, laws exist but aren’t being implemented. He explained how terror watch lists and prohibited persons lists work, restrictions on internet sales and how a dealers at gun shows follow the letter of the law.
“Another one that people really… “You shouldn’t be able to go into a gun show and buy it from a dealer – a gun – without any paperwork.” News flash, you can’t. You can’t. If I were to trade firearms at a gun show as an FFL holder and did not process the 4473, and did not do a NICS check, I could lose my license and be liable to severe penalty for breaking the law.”
Rep. Russell reminds Congressmen and senators that the laws to keep firearms from criminals exist, but need to be enforced. He explained that by going legislation to restrict implements and devices, the solution is lost. He uses the integrated fight on terror as an example. The “see-something, say-something” campaign allows citizens to be engaged in reporting suspicious behavior. Rep. Russell said public engagement and awareness are crucial to identifying criminals. That’s the work, he added, that
licensed dealers perform daily. They are at the point of sale, living in the same communities where they do business and want all their neighbors to practice safe and responsible firearms practices.
“I think people often look at the firearms industry as the bad guys. They’re not. They’re very cooperative with law enforcement. I have a very close friend of mine who not only cooperated with the FBI, but helped bust up a major ring, simply because he had suspicion of a guy who was making multiple purchases out of his shop. The first day was fine. The second day. But then he wanted multiple of the same type. It just didn’t add up to it. Kind of on a gut, he thought he’d call the local ATF field rep. They cooperated with him, busted a major, major crime ring.”
“Everything I produce has to have severe restrictions to be transferred,” Rep. Russell said. “Our laws are adequate. Where we’re missing the boat is we’re not identifying the threats.”