- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2000

Staring down the barrel of federal litigation last week, one of the nation's biggest gun makers cut a deal. Smith & Wesson agreed that from now on it would sell guns with trigger locks, develop so-called "smart gun" technology and much more in exchange for the dropping of the federal lawsuit against it. Administration officials were jubilant.

"[W]e can do much more through cooperation than through confrontation," said White House domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed. "Responsible, reasonable people can get together and make progress." Tim Russert of NBC's "Meet the Press" and reporters for The Washington Post likewise highlighted the "voluntary" nature of the agreement.

In fact, there was nothing voluntary about the pact at all. The court fight which the administration threatens to wage against the companies and their employees promises to be an expensive one, in some cases prohibitively so. Bragged famed trial lawyer John Coale, who is part of related lawsuits against the industry, "The legal fees alone are enough to bankrupt the industry." This sounds less like cooperation than an offer the company couldn't afford to refuse.

The constitutionally ordained setting in which reasonable, responsible persons come together to negotiate public policy like this is not Mr. Coale's office but Congress. And as a matter of fact, Congress is well along in the debate over firearms safety measures. The problem is that whereas the White House is insisting on a three-day background check for gun-show sales a period which happens to be longer than many of the shows last themselves and the House of Representatives wants a 24-hour limit. Lawmakers, including Democrats by the way, rightly point out that the 72-hour wait is the first step toward putting the shows out of business.

There the issue remained until Mr. Clinton and the trial lawyers went around Congress and began threatening the companies with a financial kneecapping. Mr. Reed said Smith & Wesson's announcement shows that public safety doesn't have to be held hostage to "legislative stalemate." But the precedent of using the bottomless resources of the federal treasury to strongarm an otherwise legal industry first tobacco, now firearms to abide by policies to which lawmakers have not agreed may some day make people yearn for the good old days of stalemate.

Worse, all the hype about the announcement may erroneously assure the public that it provides some important new safety provisions. It emphatically does not. Requiring the sale of gun locks with firearms something that some manufacturers already provide would not have saved the life of the young Michigan girl killed recently. She died at the hands of a classmate who brought a gun to school that he found in the drug-infested house that passed for his home. Government safety regulations aren't usually the top concern of crack addicts and dealers. And since they tend to have other sources for firearms than the local retailer, they aren't going to have to worry about new technology that limits who can use any one gun.

Some of the provisions to which Smith & Wesson agreed are potentially worse than pointless. One would keep the company from selling weapons to dealers who fail to ensure that their customers have completed a gun-safety course, for example. Safety training is obviously desirable. But this newspaper recently related the story of an 83-year-old San Francisco man who shot and killed an armed intruder late one night. Wonder if he hadn't been able to complete the course in time to defend himself? Is he considered expendable in the quest for gun control?

The security of others is not Mr. Clinton's primary concern; his own comes with the job. But it's something that more reasonable, responsible persons should consider before they target firms that make such security possible.

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