The first domino

Smith & Wesson: Maintaining its business was more important than a protracted legal battle.

March 22, 2000

AMERICANS may get safer guns after all. Smith & Wesson's agreement last week to settle lawsuits with the federal government and 28 local governments not only protects the company -- it has also changed the debate over gun safety.

The agreement -- which contains many of the reforms President Clinton has asked Congress to approve -- sidesteps the congressional logjam. Smith & Wesson agreed to restrictions such as background checks at gun shows and designing guns so children can't fire them.

Business considerations were the force behind Smith & Wesson's decision. Faced with the possibility of paying off millions in lawsuit settlements or unfavorable judgments, the nation's largest gun maker -- which sells about 19 percent of the 2.5 million sold annually -- decided to act responsibly. It broke ranks with its fellow manufacturers and the National Rifle Association, which predictably called the agreement a "sell-out."

The agreement calls for Smith & Wesson to sell external gun locks with its firearms soon, and -- in the longer term -- to develop smart guns. Smith & Wesson also agreed to sell only to gun show dealers who perform background checks. All these measures are designed to keep the company's guns out of the hands of children and criminals.

Smith & Wesson's concessions are also causing other manufacturers to reconsider their positions. Glock GMBH, an Austrian company that supplies semi-automatic pistols to many police departments, admits it is mulling its options. If federal and local law enforcement agencies give preference to gun makers who sign agreements similar to Smith & Wesson's, other gun makers will have to go along.

And that's the point here. As public anger grows after each school shooting, hostage situation or workplace slaughter, the gun makers will come to believe that they have no choice but to institute better controls and safeties.

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