GREEN BAY, WIS. — 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."