WASHINGTON -- President Clinton announced a landmark agreement with the nation's largest gun manufacturer yesterday that could fundamentally change the way guns are designed, manufactured, marketed and sold throughout the country.
Under the agreement, the federal government will lift a threatened lawsuit against firearms giant Smith & Wesson, and at least 24 state and local governments will drop their class-action lawsuits against the company. In exchange, the company will incorporate sophisticated new safety devices in Smith & Wesson guns, require mandatory background checks at gun shows and implement stringent limits in the marketing and sales of handguns.
At an Oval Office ceremony, the president hailed the "courage and vision" of Smith & Wesson, and called the settlement "a major victory for America's families."
"The effort to reduce gun violence, to protect our children, keep guns out of the hands of criminals and children is not about politics," Clinton said. "It is about saving lives. This agreement shows we can get so much done when we find the courage to find common ground."
The agreement's impact might well go beyond the sale of Smith & Wesson weapons, as the company has agreed that any gun store or gun show that sells its products will have to abide by the sales and marketing standards set out in the accord.
Several state attorneys general and big city mayors immediately announced that law enforcement agencies under their control would boycott gun makers that do not sign on, effectively sending all their business to Smith & Wesson or other arms manufacturers that honor the accord.
The gun industry's trade group, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, reacted angrily, charging that Smith & Wesson "has violated a trust with their consumers and with the entire domestic firearms industry."
"It was a real cut-and-run," said Doug Painter, the group's executive director, who said the industry had been negotiating with the White House en masse when Smith & Wesson bolted without warning.
The National Rifle Association, which bills itself as the voice of gun owners, declined to comment immediately, referring calls to firearms manufacturers.
The agreement could also reverberate on Capitol Hill, since Smith & Wesson has agreed to incorporate changes and require purchasers to submit to criminal background checks that many lawmakers have said are unfeasible.
"This is lesson to Congress," said Bruce Reed, the president's domestic policy adviser. "The gun issue does not have to divide America. Responsible, reasonable people can get together and make progress."
Under the agreement, Smith & Wesson will not only attach child-safe trigger locks on all its guns within 60 days but install internal trigger locking devices on its guns within two years. External locking devices can be removed, but an internal "ignition switch" would be a permanent safety feature and far more effective in keeping unauthorized users, especially children, from firing the weapon.
The company will also include technology designed so a small child would not have the muscle power to squeeze the trigger of a Smith & Wesson gun.
The company will devote 2 percent of its firearms revenues to so-called "smart-gun" technology, and within three years, all Smith & Wesson guns are to include technology to ensure that only an authorized user can fire the weapon. Smart gun legislation championed by Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening has languished in the state legislature over assertions from the gun industry that such technology might not be feasible.
Glendening said yesterday the settlement validates his contention that the technology to make guns safer is, or will soon be, available. He called on lawmakers to bring his measure to a vote and not let it die in committee.
Directly addressing legislation stalled in Congress, Smith & Wesson has agreed that no gun show can sell its product unless a criminal background check is performed on all gun purchasers, and no gun can change hands until that background check is completed -- no matter how long that takes.
Congress is locked in a debate on that issue, with most Republicans insisting that gun show background checks be limited to 24 hours and most Democrats backing the current 72-hour time limit that applies to background checks conducted by registered gun dealers. Smith & Wesson has shredded even that time limit.
"The gun show loophole will be closed, essentially," said Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder.
And the company went beyond even the legislation pending in Congress. To limit unlawful gun trafficking, the firm agreed that gun buyers can take home only one at a time. Customers will have to wait two weeks to pick up additional guns.
Smith & Wesson, along with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, will establish a "gun DNA" system, similar to the one proposed Wednesday by New York Gov. George Pataki.