Published April 13, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News

Is gun maker's deal with U.S. off target?

Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Smith & Wesson, America's largest manufacturer of handguns, has issued a ``clarification'' of its landmark pact with the federal government that would effectively eviscerate much of the gun controls trumpeted by the Clinton administration.

Smith & Wesson's interpretation -- posted on its Web site -- has forced the company back into talks with the administration that could lead to a protracted court battle.

Administration officials dismissed Smith & Wesson's interpretation as more of a public relations gambit than a genuine change of heart, but said they would be willing to go to court to force Smith & Wesson into compliance.

``The deal speaks for itself,'' said Neal Wolin, general counsel of the Treasury Department, referring to the agreement Smith & Wesson reached March 17 with federal, state and local officials as a way to settle lawsuits it had faced related to gun violence. ``I think the language of the deal is clear on all these points.''

Contrary to the government's interpretation, the gun maker says now, its agreement would compel Smith & Wesson dealers to impose background checks and other gun-sale restrictions only on buyers of Smith & Wesson products. The government maintains that under the agreement, dealers who wish to sell Smith & Wesson's products must impose such restrictions on buyers of all guns.

Moreover, the company says, the criminal background checks Smith & Wesson agreed to for gun show sales would not apply to guns sold by private citizens, only to those sold by licensed dealers. Gun show sales by licensed dealers are already subject to background checks.

``We can't agree to control things that we have no way to control,'' said Ken Jorgensen, a spokesman for Smith & Wesson.

Smith & Wesson's accord was touted as a breakthrough by federal officials, in large part because it was supposed to have a broad effect on the entire firearms industry. Under the government's interpretation, Smith & Wesson agreed that its products could be sold only by dealers who followed a strict ``code of responsibility'' for all of its gun sales, not just sales of Smith & Wesson products.

Under that code, all customers would have to pass a criminal background check. Dealers that sell Smith & Wesson guns would have to maintain rigorous records of all gun sales, and all guns would have to be stored and displayed in a secure manner.

Gun shows that sell Smith & Wesson products would have to subject all customers to background checks, no matter how long those checks take.

Since the accord was signed, Smith & Wesson has come under withering pressure from other gun makers, gun dealers and gun rights activists, who have accused the company of sabotaging the entire industry.