Gunmakers not about to run up white flag

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Lawsuits may have forced Big Tobacco to buckle - first one company and then, like dominoes, the rest. But the same see-you-in-court tactic does not seem to be working, at least so far, with the nation's gun manufacturers.

True, Smith & Wesson, America's largest gunmaker, agreed nine months ago to make significant changes in the way it makes and markets its products. And the company settled a major lawsuit this week with Boston, one of dozens of cities across the US that have gone to court to try to force gunmakers to help pay for the costs of gun-related violence.

But smaller gunmakers, heeding the advice of the National Rifle Association (NRA), have remained strong in their resolve to fight such lawsuits.

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"Other gun manufacturers are still doing things by the old rules, winning lawsuit after lawsuit," says Robert Pugsley, professor of criminal law at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles. "The NRA has played a very major role," he adds, taking "a hard line in front of what is likely to be intense pressure."

More than a dozen lawsuits are currently working their way through the courts. Six have already been dismissed, and several others have been blocked by state legislatures.

Smith & Wesson remains the only firm that has opted to settle a lawsuit.

The Springfield, Mass., company has promised to tighten distribution standards and spend 2 percent of its annual firearms sales to develop safer guns. In exchange, Boston has become the first city to drop its lawsuit against Smith & Wesson. Thirty other gunmakers are still named in Boston's $100 million suit.

"We've already heard from dealers stocking Smith & Wesson guns who see it as a positive move, and who are looking for us all to move forward," says Ken Jorgensen, a company spokesman.

Gun-control advocates praise Smith & Wesson leading the way for other manufacturers.

"This is precedent-setting. The largest handgun maker in America has said: 'We can make a safer product and we will take some responsibility for what happens to our guns after we make them,' " says John Rosenthal, founder of Stop Handgun Violence, a national group based in Boston.

Industry pariah

But smaller manufacturers don't appear willing to follow that lead. And the NRA has taken an active role in ensuring similar deals aren't cut, experts say.

"Smith & Wesson has been treated as something of a pariah by other gun manufacturers, because it has shown a willingness to make deals," says Robert Spitzer, a gun-control expert at the State University of New York in Cortland.

While he admits it's tough to maintain a strict line when a company as large as Smith & Wesson breaks ranks, he doesn't underestimate the power of the NRA.

Indeed, the NRA's call for a boycott of Smith & Wesson seems to have hurt: Sales have slumped, employees have been laid off, and its parent company announced plans to sell Smith & Wesson.

The gunmaker itself is moving to diversify (firearms now make up 40 percent of its sales), and hopes to settle other city lawsuits quickly. While each city must negotiate its own deal with Smith & Wesson, the firm hopes this week's agreement with Boston will be used as a template.

Promise to protect children

Under the deal, requirements for new gun designs include: the addition of external safety locks and, within two years, an internal locking device; the development of technology limiting use to authorized people; a way to prevent children under 5 from being able to pull the trigger; and the addition of hard-to-erase serial numbers.

On distribution, the company has pledged to sell only to dealers who track their inventory, train their employees on Smith & Wesson guns, lock them up while they are in the store, and do complete background checks at gun shows.

The terms drew immediate criticism from gun supporters. "I don't see anything in this agreement that reduces illegal gun sales," says Lawrence Keane, vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the largest trade association for gunmakers and a close ally of the NRA. (The NRA declined to comment on the deal, saying that it represents gun owners, not manufacturers.)

"The concern I have with this agreement is that it rewards frivolous litigation on the part of politicians," says Mr. Keane. He also contends that it interferes with federal regulations to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and young people.

Many of the conditions of the settlement are things that Smith & Wesson already agreed to back in March with Andrew Cuomo, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.

That much-touted deal was less a legal settlement than a framework to start talks with cities. "The celebration over the first agreement was premature," says Joshua Horwitz, a lawyer with the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence in Washington.

The new accord with Boston will be presented to a judge in the next two weeks for approval.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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