Circumventing the logjam in Congress, gun-control forces are increasingly using state regulation and lawsuits to win concessions from US gunmakers - and they're achieving a measurable degree of success.
Their most recent victory comes in Massachusetts, where the state attorney general says handguns will now be regulated under consumer-protection laws. It is the first state in the nation to apply such regulations to the gun industry.
The Massachusetts statute - fought for three years by gunmakers - effectively bans cheap "Saturday night specials" and requires handguns sold in the state to include childproof locks, tamper-proof serial numbers, and safety warnings.
The new gun-safety regulations not only affect Massachusetts gun dealers, but also any gun manufacturers who want to do business in the state. The rules rely on the state attorney general's powers to regulate faulty consumer products.
The move comes at a time when US gunmakers find themselves under siege - like the tobacco industry before them - from government lawsuits and increasingly negative public opinion. As in the case of Big Tobacco, attacks on the gun industry are succeeding, at least to some degree, with a "divide and conquer" strategy.
Responsive or capitulating?
Most significantly, America's largest handgun manufacturer - Massachusetts-based Smith & Wesson - agreed last month to install locking devices and other safeguards on all new handguns and pistols within two years.
The agreement, struck with the Clinton administration, has allowed the gunmaker to win new business from local governments. Since the March 17 announcement, 65 cities and counties have pledged to make Smith & Wesson their preferred source for police handguns. Thirty-seven of those local jurisdictions joined the list Friday, including Oakland, Calif.; Kansas City, Mo.; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Richmond, Va.
But Smith & Wesson's concessions are seen by most of the gun industry as a serious capitulation to gun-control forces. And so far, none has joined the bandwagon.
Yesterday, Sturm, Ruger & Co. the nation's top firearms manufacturer, was the latest to say it won't follow Smith & Wesson's lead by including new safety features on its guns.
"Please be assured that we are not negotiating with mayors or those who seek to eradicate our rights," said Stephen Sanetti, Sturm, Ruger's vice president and general counsel.
Smith & Wesson broke industry ranks and changed its policy in exchange for a promise that it would be dropped from a lawsuit being put together by the White House and the Department of Housing and Urban Development on behalf of local public-housing authorities.
Several cities and states also agreed to drop Smith & Wesson from threatened lawsuits over gun violence. Many of the suits seek to recover Medicaid and other governmental healthcare expenditures attributed to gunshot injuries, including wounded police officers.
"We cannot speak for other manufacturers, but we remain confident that these lawsuits are completely unsupportable, both legally and factually," said Mr. Sanetti. "We will continue to fight them in every practical way."
Nancy Hwa, a spokeswoman for the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence in Washington, called the Smith & Wesson agreement "significant because it places pressure on all the gun manufacturers."
Instead, Glock Inc., Beretta U.S.A. Corp., Browning, Taurus Firearms Inc., and now Sturm, Ruger harshly criticized Smith & Wesson's move.
In fact, attorneys general in Connecticut, New York, and Maryland last week launched an antitrust investigation to determine if the gun industry is retaliating against Smith & Wesson for agreeing to the settlement.
Guns at home
Trigger locks and other safety devices have risen to the top of the gun-control agenda in light of research into Americans' gun practices. One in 3 homes with children have at least one firearm, and 43 percent of them keep a gun without a trigger lock in an unlocked place.
Guns are kept loaded and unlocked in 9 percent of homes with children, researchers at Rand Corp. and the University of California, Los Angeles, reported last week.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society