The surprising March 17 announcement that Smith & Wesson agreed to modify its products and marketing system to avoid a threatened federal lawsuit and existing suits filed by many cities and counties has thrown the rest of the gun industry, the firearms community and even the media into a state of confusion.
The announcement was made at a special Washington press conference hosted by the Secretaries of the Treasury and Housing and Urban Affairs (HUD), with some states attorneys general and mayors in attendance.
The agreement has the potential to completely change the kinds of handguns sold, the way they are sold, and the relationship of the industry to government regulators, to its dealers and customers. (See the complete summary of the agreement text as published by HUD on Page 10 of this issue. A careful examination of the agreement reveals much more than mere gun locks, as has been widely reported as the core of the deal.)
The agreement immediately won glowing praise from anti-gunners in the government, the media and the anti-gun organizations; cautious compliments from some politicians and anger among firearms dealers and gunowners.
To some, the fact that S&W, the largest US manufacturer of handguns, agreed to government demands came as no surprise. Smiths parent company, Tompkins plc in England, had been trying to sell its American gun subsidiary for many months, but got few offers because of the municipal lawsuits and other legal actions pending against S&W as well as the rest of the firearms industry. The agreement brokered by the Clinton Administration, which had also threatened to file suit through some 3,000 client public housing authorities, provided a way for Tompkins to sell an unencumbered entity.
Tompkins decision also gave Clinton and his allies an opportunity to claim a major victory at a time when the chances of HUD, or the cities, of winning their much-ballyhooed lawsuits against gun companies were mired in uncertainty. And the White House, with the politically ambitious HUD secretary, Andrew Cuomo, as point man, has milked the agreement for all its worth.
Reaction among S&Ws competitors, distributors, dealers and customers ranges from disappointment to outright anger in the days immediately following the agreement. Fueling the anger were hopeful but incorrect media reports that companies such as Glock and Taurus were following Smiths lead.
Dealers were reportedly returning inventories of S&W firearms to distributors. Others were deluging their distributors with angry e-mails and faxes regarding the agreement.
Some local organizations, and even Gun Owners of America, called for boycotts of Smith & Wesson, but most expressed dismay.
As a counterpoint to boycott threats, HUD and several big city mayors have taken steps to give special preference to Smith & Wesson when they buy guns for their police departments. Showing that HUD can offer carrots as well as wield a legal stick, Cuomo said his agencys new policy will give preference to "any gunmakers that adopt a new code of responsible conduct."
Cuomo said Smith & Wesson "deserves our support and our business for acting responsibly," in agreeing to the settlement with the government. The mayors of Atlanta, Detroit and Miami-Dade County, among others, have signed onto the new HUD policy, and are urging their colleagues to do the same.
The combined firearms purchases for federal, state and local law enforcement total some 30% of the total US gun market. The other 70% is a largely a market of individual American consumers.
"This is a futile act of craven self-interest," the NRAs chief lobbyist, James Jay Baker, said in a statement. "In their rush to liquidate an inconvenient asset, executives at Tomkins plc are jeopardizing an entire US industry and undermining a constitutionally determined right."
Baker said the agreement also included many provisions affecting the gunmaker and consumers, but that criminals were completely left out of the equation.
Baker said Smith & Wesson had made pledges in the agreement concerning the behavior of licensed gun dealers, but that it could not enforce those promises.
"I urge every gunmaker in this country to consider the fact that the Clinton-Gore Administration is no more willing now to enforce the nations tough federal gun laws than before this agreement," Baker said, echoing a theme hammered on recently by NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre.
LaPierre intensified his attack on the White House enforcement policy in appearances on TV political talk shows, turning in one of his most effective performances on NBCs "Meet the Press" on March 19. LaPierre has not backed down in his battle with the White House despite moves by a few gun rights supporters, including some Republican politicos, to put some air between themselves and the NRA.
The agreement between Smith & Wesson and the Clinton Administration allowed the company to capture the spotlight for safety initiatives that many other handgun makers volunteered years ago, according to the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute (SAAMI). The trade group also said it jeopardized a comprehensive series of new industry safety and crime prevention initiatives.
According to SAAMI, more than 20 other major handgun and long-gun manufacturers already include free locking devices with their firearms, and most have been doing so for several years.
"There are many unfortunate aspects of the Smith & Wesson deal with the Clinton-Gore administration," commented Bob Delfay, president and CEO of the industry group. "One of the most unfortunate and most unfair is the White House inference that Smith & Wesson is the only handgun manufacturer that cares about safety."
Some major gun companiesincluding Browning, Glock and Taurushave said that they will not sign onto any agreement reached between Smith & Wesson and federal and city governments.
Glock refused to sign on because the company wanted the right to make its business decisions without any interference from the government, said Paul Jannuzzo, Glock vice president and general counsel.
"We will not subject ourselves to the monitoring of this commission," he said, referring to a commission of government representatives and Smith & Wesson officials that will monitor compliance of that companys agreement.
Rich Bauter, vice president of firearms marketing for Browning, also said the company would not agree to an accord.
"I would think that everybody in the country should be absolutely outraged, at not only Smith & Wessons steps, but also the US governments steps that have intruded into the legislative process," Bauter said.
Bob Morrison, executive vice president and CEO of Taurus International, also declined to sign onto the deal with HUD and the cities, reminding the industry and the public that his company had offered to share a patented internal gun safety device with S&W in a March 1999 letter. Morrison said:
"Taurus sells only to federally licensed distributors, who sell only to federally licensed dealers, who sell firearms only after completion of a background check with includes approval by the FBI. Taurus believes that when properly administered by government regulators, this stringent system of licensing and pre-purchase scrutiny is more than sufficient to prevent sales of firearms to criminals or children."
Return to Archive Index