Much ado about nothing

Inside the sweetheart deal the White House made for Smith & Wesson.

Published March 22, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

The Clinton White House hasn't had much to party over recently, so you could feel the jubilation emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. last weekend when Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and leaders of the National Rifle Association started calling one another names. As President Clinton took off for South Asia still gloating over Friday's Smith & Wesson handgun settlement, one of the immovable iron triangles of American politics -- the old bargain among the NRA, the firearms industry and the Republican Party -- seemed ready to collapse on itself.

Politically, the attraction of the settlement, brokered by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo between Smith & Wesson and several of the cities and states suing the firearms industry, is amply clear. The settlement gives the White House a victory at a moment when Democratic victories are scarce. It draws a hard line between Vice President Al Gore and a GOP presidential candidate who as governor of Texas banned cities from filing liability suits, and it not incidentally raises the political stock of Cuomo, a vice-presidential prospect. Though it was far from a perfect deal, attorneys representing the cities and Handgun Control Inc. (which also signed off on the settlement) must have felt that with a 50 percent chance of a Bush administration in 10 months, and trial outcomes still uncertain at best, this represented the best chance for a short-term victory.

Yet amid the weekend's wild theatrics, little attention was paid to the fine print of the deal. One of those familiar with the details is Elisa Barnes, a New York attorney who won the first -- and so far only -- successful negligence suit against gun manufacturers, in a federal court in Brooklyn last year. She warns that it is nowhere near the "breakthrough in public safety" described by the White House.

"This was a terrible settlement," Barnes says. "It does absolutely nothing. It requires Smith & Wesson to either do what they have already done for years or what they are already required to do by law."

Barnes' blunt criticism puts her in the strange company of the NRA's Wayne LaPierre, who also argues that there is "nothing new" in the Smith & Wesson deal. And it puts her at odds not only with the Clinton administration but with Handgun Control Inc., which represents many of the cities suing the firearms industry. Handgun Control's Denis Henigan calls the deal "an agreement that will save lives."

But Barnes is echoing comments made privately or in more politically cautious tones by many other handgun-control advocates. "I would urge the public to be cautious in viewing today's agreement as a cure-all for this country's need for greater gun control," said Kweisi Mfume of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which refused to sign off on the deal.

Mfume says the White House settlement "lacks teeth with regard to multiple gun sales, which is attributed as a leading source of firearms in the underground market." Josh Horowitz, executive director of the National Center to End Handgun Violence, says the deal "contains too many loopholes," with "no incentives for Smith & Wesson to behave differently."

Looked at closely, this does appear to be a settlement in which symbolism far outweighs substance. It's true that Smith & Wesson broke with firearms-industry tradition by negotiating a separate peace with the Clinton adminstration, infuriating other manufacturers, yet in the end, the company gave up virtually nothing.

Take the settlement's No. 1 headline item: child safety locks. As Bob Delfay of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun industry trade group, points out, about 95 percent of all firearms -- including those of Beretta, Colt, Glock and Sturm, Ruger -- are already shipped with locks. The settlement calls for newly manufactured firearms to be harder for children under 6 to operate, but such design modifications have long been in the works, according to industry insiders. The National Center to End Handgun Violence notes that the agreement doesn't even require Smith & Wesson to build into its guns a so-called magazine disconnect, which prevents a child from accidentally firing a weapon whose magazine has been removed but that still has a round in the chamber. This feature is an option on all Smith & Wesson handguns.

Similarly, Smith & Wesson has agreed to release its guns to purchasers only if they have completed a background check -- a check already required by law. Smith & Wesson dealers, the settlement states, will not sell any assault weapons, but again, such weapons are already banned by federal law.

Most critical, the Smith & Wesson settlement does virtually nothing to interfere with the gun maker's distribution of weapons. It was the issue of distribution and marketing that led to last year's unprecedented verdict in Brooklyn -- specifically, the oversupply of guns to Southern states with lax gun regulations, where they could easily be purchased in bulk to supply the criminal market in Northern cities. A similar charge -- oversupply to loosely monitored suburbs -- lies behind Chicago's suit against the gun industry.

The White House settlement will do nothing to interfere with that marketing pattern. Instead, Smith & Wesson dealers have agreed to what is being called a "modified one-gun-a-month" system. Purchasers of multiple guns can take only one weapon home with them immediately, but the rest of the wheelbarrow, no matter how many guns it contains, can be trundled out the store 14 days later. Under the agreement, multiple-gun sales have to be reported to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, but that reporting requirement, too, has been written into law since the 1970s.

Equally important is what is not in the agreement. "Smith & Wesson has to do nothing new to supervise distributors," says attorney Barnes. There is mention of a generalized "code of conduct" for dealers, but few specifics. Most dangerous, Smith & Wesson can still distribute its guns through kitchen-table, back-of-the-truck dealers -- rather than storefront retailers -- who hold half of all federal firearms-sales licenses but who are almost impossible for the government to effectively monitor. "This is a deal, like the master settlement in the tobacco suits, which protects corporate executives rather than the public," says one furious gun-control lobbyist.

At the same time, the deal represents a research-and-development bonanza for Smith & Wesson. The Wall Street Journal reported that in return for signing the settlement, the company will get $3 million in federal assistance to develop so-called smart guns that can distinguish authorized users.

Given the clear benefits to Smith & Wesson, the only wonder is that the gun industry is so wedded to its no-deal orthodoxy that word of the deal still managed to produce a panic.

Wednesday, Glock and Browning announced they were taking a pass on the deal. Glock executives balked at the provision calling for an oversight
commission, made up of local, state and federal officials, who would supervise the gun manufacturer.

"The commission is an absurd concept," Paul Jannuzzo, vice president and general counsel of Glock in Smyrna, Ga., a unit of Glock GmbH of Austria, told the Associated Press. "It's overly broad. It's more powerful than
any regulatory agency."

Earlier this week, normally voluble executives at respected gun companies like Colt and Sturm, Ruger were trapped in hurried conference calls and rushing to industry strategy meetings. But the gun lobby's disarray is more a product of its own long-simmering implosion than of this settlement, White House gloating notwithstanding. The gun industry's infighting began in earnest last year, after the relatively moderate president of the American Shooting Sports Council caused an uproar by holding informal talks with some of the cities contemplating lawsuits. And the NRA barely survived its last convention.

Handgun Control's Henigan insists that the settlement, with all its weaknesses, is "a floor, not a ceiling," and represented an attainable victory. But like the NAACP, some of the cities suing the firearms industry want nothing of it. Chicago has reportedly already rejected the settlement out of hand. So has Cleveland, where just last week a federal judge ruled that the city's negligence suit can move to trial. At least half a dozen of the cities suing the firearms industry are likely to reject the White House deal outright, despite the considerable leverage HUD holds over municipal governments.

In the end, the Smith & Wesson settlement may represent not a victory but an immense lost opportunity. After decades of gun-control efforts that blamed gun consumers, last year's Brooklyn lawsuit represented the leading edge of a new effort to hold corporations accountable for the design and distribution of weapons. Cuomo's gun deal looks suspiciously like political intrusion rather than politics of substance. And while the Democrats may capitalize on the settlement in the fall elections, in the longer run this settlement leaves in its wake a gun-control movement nearly as fractured and chaotic as the gun lobby itself.

By Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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