Can lawsuits really trigger gun control?

City and federal suits face hurdles in forcing safety code on

It all sounds so simple.

If gun manufacturers just add more safety features to firearms, there will be fewer accidental shootings.

If they more closely track buyers, fewer of their guns will show up at crime scenes.

And with different advertising, perhaps criminals couldn't so easily find guns that, for instance, resist fingerprints.

This, at least, is the view of 29 cities and counties that are trying to force a sort of "code of ethics" on gunmakers by filing Big-Tobacco-style lawsuits. Their leverage has just been strengthened by the federal government, which has threatened its own lawsuit on behalf of public-housing projects, which experience 10,000 gun crimes a year.

But the tactic of using lawsuits to force change is, in fact, anything but simple, in part because the proposals are not nearly as straightforward as they appear.

Still, with just $1.5 billion in annual revenues, gunmakers are unlikely to be able to afford a costly counterattack, and in the end, the route through the courthouse could produce substantial change in the production, sale, and marketing of firearms, analysts say.

The cities' demands generally cover three areas: gun safety, distribution, and advertising. But as gun-control analyst Robert Spitzer explains, there's no policy "panacea" to the 30,000 Americans killed by guns every year.

Gun safety

"There is a ton of technology not being taken advantage of," says Joshua Horwitz, executive director of the Educational Fund to End Handgun Violence.

The technology ranges from simple trigger locks, to indicators that show whether a gun is loaded, to magnetic rings or bracelets worn by gun users that allow only those users to operate firearms. And "smart guns" are being developed that can be fired only after they recognize their owner's fingerprints. Activists like Mr. Horwitz want the industry to commit to a year by which these smart guns will become standard.

But the industry sees the safety issue through a different lens. "Locking devices are a non-issue," says Robert Delfay, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Ninety percent of all new guns are shipped with locking devices, says Mr. Delfay. Next year it be nearly 100 percent, he says.

The more bells and whistles you add, the greater the potential for an accident, he argues. What about fingerprint recognition in winter, when a user - such as a police officer - is wearing gloves?

He advocates better gun-use education, on which the industry spends millions of dollars every year. The result, he says, is that firearms accidents at home are at their lowest level since 1902, when record-keeping began.

Gun distribution

Given that 1 percent of the nation's dealers sell guns used in 50 percent of crimes, government plaintiffs ask, why doesn't the industry track sales and cut off the worst offenders? Manufacturers already ask distributors and retailers about price, so they can also ask whether their guns, for instance, are consistently part of a multiple sale - one indication that a gun may be destined for a crime.

The industry responds that it doesn't know who the bad guys are. That information resides with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), which does not share the identities of suspicious dealers and retailers because of privacy and investigative concerns. One ATF official notes that a high percentage of a retailer's guns could be used in crimes simply because the retailer is located in a high-crime neighborhood.

Still, gun-control advocates criticize the industry for doing nothing, and point out that only Smith & Wesson has a code of ethics with its distributors. Even that is derided as "lightweight" because it doesn't cover all of the company's distributors.

On another front, gun-control advocates are pushing a "one gun a month" sales policy. It is meant to crack down on straw purchases, in which people with clean records shop for criminals. Such policies are already in place in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina.

Since 1993, when the law took effect in Virginia, handgun sales have dropped by 23 percent, and murders due to handguns have dropped 43 percent. But it is not clear that the one-gun law is responsible, says Major Lewis Vass, who directs the state's firearms transaction program.

It could have been "several other things," he says, including the abolition of parole or the federal Brady law. What he can say, however, is that the law has ended Virginia's status as the Northeast's No. 1 supplier of guns used in crimes.


Probably the least complicated of the demands is advertising At a press conference last week, President Clinton complained about a company that advertises its guns as "fingerprint resistant." Major gun manufacturers say they could easily promise not to market their products to criminals, and such marketing is rare. This particular case is moot anyway, because the company that ran the fingerprint ad dropped it years ago.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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