- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2000

Settlement talks between gun makers and municipalities that are suing them have broken off because the gun makers objected to White House intervention in negotiations that had been scheduled for tomorrow in Las Vegas.

Gun manufacturers are blaming White House meddling for the cancellation of tomorrow's talks, saying President Clinton injected politics into the negotiations.

But administration officials said the gun industry is playing politics and blamed the "hard-line" stance of some gun representatives for the breakdown.

"The White House intervention was largely politically motivated, and we didn't think that would be a constructive addition to our talks at this time," said Robert Delfay, who represents the gun industry. "The industry is not interested in the White House participating in those talks."

Mr. Delfay met in the White House last week with high-level members of the Clinton administration, including Bruce Reed, the president's domestic-policy adviser. Mr. Reed said he got the impression during that meeting that gun makers would find White House involvement constructive.

"We're sorry to see this abrupt about-face," Mr. Reed told The Washington Times yesterday. "It's a shame that a few hard-line members of the industry have put this off."

The cancellation will not necessarily prompt the administration to press forward with a federal lawsuit against gun makers that it threatened last month, he said.

"We still want to give responsible voices in the industry a chance to explore an agreement," Mr. Reed said. "But we've also said from the beginning that if we can't reach a good settlement, we're prepared to go to court."

President Clinton announced last month that he might direct the Department of Housing and Urban Development to file a lawsuit against gun makers, enlisting the nation's 3,190 public-housing authorities as plaintiffs. The suit would be designed to increase pressure for stronger gun controls that are already sought in suits filed by 29 cities and counties.

In addition, the attorneys general of New York and Connecticut have threatened to file their own lawsuits and have been negotiating alongside the municipal plaintiffs with the gun industry.

"I don't think the end of the meeting means an end to potential discussions with more responsible members of the industry," said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, in an interview yesterday. "I certainly have not given up. I have not lost hope."

But a gun-industry representative who requested anonymity said the administration would not be able to "divide and conquer" manufacturers.

"The industry made a decision that it doesn't make any sense to sit down with people who are bringing nothing to the table, other than an attempt to destroy you," the source said. "There was no dissension. There was complete consensus that it made no sense to continue a dialogue with the White House."

He added: "There's no doubt that the White House, various attorneys general, trial lawyers, mayors are going to try to find splits in the industry. But I don't see how even their purposes get served if they cut a deal with one or two manufacturers. They're certainly not going to cut it on anything remotely close to an industrywide basis."

As for the threatened HUD lawsuit, the representative pointed out that many local housing authorities have balked at the notion of becoming plaintiffs against the gun industry.

A Clinton administration official said yesterday the White House was continuing to consult with HUD on the possible lawsuit.

Asked yesterday whether the suit will be filed, White House Deputy Press Secretary Jake Siewert said: "I don't know. But I do know that we were hopeful that we could have a constructive dialogue with the gun manufacturers and the dealers, where we could have obviated the need for perhaps some legislative solutions.

"But we'll press forward on all fronts," he added. "We'll continue to try to work with them where there are areas for cooperation or in whatever manner the president deems fit and appropriate."

Mr. Delfay said the gun manufacturers and cities had set up committees and a structured method of negotiations that White House involvement would disrupt.

"We are most definitely interested in proceeding with the discussions that are currently under way with the mayors and the attorneys general, but the industry is not interested in the White House participating in those talks," he said, adding that HUD Secretary "Andrew Cuomo has said all we want the industry to do is make safer guns. The industry is making safer guns. The issue is when these guns are used criminally."

The goal of the administration's threatened class-action suit would be to force gun makers to produce safer guns and adopt policies to guard against disreputable firearms dealers.

The lawsuit would be modeled on the cities' suits, which accuse gun makers of selling defective products or marketing them in ways that increase the likelihood they will be used to commit crimes.

The suit would parallel the massive federal litigation filed by the Justice Department against the tobacco industry.

But unlike Big Tobacco, which has the resources to fight such litigation, the gun industry has narrow profit margins and might be overwhelmed by the cost of defending itself against various suits.

Some gun makers have already closed up shop or reduced operations, rather than pay the hefty costs of defending themselves.

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