Commentary: The Gun Deal Is Half Cocked

The Clinton Administration's sweeping Mar. 17 deal with gunmaker Smith & Wesson is being hailed as a political masterstroke. Paralyzed by the power of the gun lobby, Congress has been unable to pass gun control measures. But the White House seemed to have found a clever way around the impasse, hammering out a bold set of regulations that Smith & Wesson has agreed to abide by. If the deal sticks and other manufacturers sign on, these regulations would suddenly achieve much of what gun control advocates want, from placing stiff restrictions on gun shows to requiring all newly designed guns to include "smart" locks within three years.

But you don't have to be a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Assn. to wonder whether this is the best way to regulate business--even an industry as unpopular as guns. The deal was worked out in negotiations that were both secret and conducted under what Harvard Law School Professor W. Kip Viscusi calls "a form of financial blackmail." The threat was that Smith & Wesson could be bankrupted by lawsuits if it didn't sign on. The inevitable result: a limited deal that will only go a small way toward reducing the enormous toll of gun violenc---even as it creates a worrisome precedent for other industries.

To be fair, the White House hadn't much choice. Congress seems unable to act on gun control, and the rest of the industry "refused to sit down with us," says Clinton domestic adviser Bruce Reed. "So we reached out to Smith & Wesson." Moreover, the deal does show some progress. For the first time, a major gunmaker will force distributors and dealers to abide by a sweeping code of conduct.

TRACERS. The deal would make it difficult to buy weapons at a gun show without a background check, for instance, or purchase more than one handgun without a waiting period. It would also would require manufacturers to enter the digital image of casings fired from all the guns they produce, thus making it easier to trace crime guns. And dealers would have to ensure that customers had passed a safety course.

But if these measures are to have any bite, they must become industry-wide standards--and that is unlikely to happen unless the political consensus needed to enact them through legislation is developed. So far, even gunmakers amenable to compromise, such as Austria's Glock Inc., are balking.They're especially concerned about how the deal would set up an oversight commission with broad powers. Unless changes are made, "I don't know of another company that [would] sign," warns Paul Jannuzzo, general counsel at Glock, a major player in the U.S. market.

At the same time, the proposal has set off a firestorm among dealers, some of whom are threatening to boycott Smith & Wesson. "A lot are saying, how dare they take away my rights without consulting me," says Andrew Molchan, director of the National Association of Federally Licensed Firearms Dealers. Their opposition could torpedo the agreement, or make it more unlikely that other gunmakers will sign on.

Even if the deal can be implemented industrywide, there are serious questions about whether smart gun technology is the answer to American's gun problems. By adding a high-tech lock to a gun, all you are doing "is trading a very high level of security for a slower access time" to the weapon, argues Smith & Wesson spokesman Ken Jorgensen. "Once it's unlocked, it will operate just like a conventional firearm." The additional level of apparent safety may also persuade non-gun owners to buy one, worries Kristen Rand, senior counsel at the Violence Policy Center. Once those guns are brought home, the result, she predicts, "will be more death and violence," due to suicide and domestic violence.

BAD PRECEDENT. But ultimately, the biggest concern over the deal has little to do with guns and everything to do with how it got done. The pact sets a troubling precedent for imposing backdoor regulations on industries when political agreement can't be reached. "After guns, there will be other targets," predicts Viscusi. He says there's already talk of going after HMOs and makers of lead-based paint with the same tactics: filing huge lawsuits, and then using that financial club to secretly negotiate new rules.

There's a far better way in a democracy like America, and it involves Congress. True, lawmakers haven't shown much stomach for tackling gun control. But in the wake of Columbine and other horrific shootings, support for reasonable gun control--even among gun enthusiasts--is probably stronger now than ever. Building on that groundswell to develop gun control legislation that responsible gun users can support will take hard political work. But the result would be a better set of regulations applicable to all gun companies and their dealers. Only then will we finally make a real dent in gun violence in America.