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Gun makers sue over government 'code of conduct'

By Bill McAllister - Denver Post Washington Bureau Chief

April 27 - WASHINGTON - Seven gunmakers that have refused to accept the Clinton administration's efforts to change the way they make handguns sued Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo and a host of state and local officials Wednesday, alleging a conspiracy to impose "a national gun-control scheme."

The companies and their trade group argued that officials have violated their rights to sell legal weapons by demanding that they agree to a "code of conduct" for sale and design of handguns.

The lawsuit effectively ended the administration's much-touted efforts to get the industry to follow the lead of Smith & Wesson, a major handgun maker, by voluntarily accepting changes in the way its handguns are made and marketed.

On March 17, Smith & Wesson agreed to limit sales to one gun a day per customer; to add a second, hidden serial number to its guns; to sell only through dealers that agree to a code of conduct; and to require all purchasers to undergo background checks. In return, local governments agreed to drop liability lawsuits against the company.

The administration has pushed other gunmakers to follow suit and urged local police departments to buy weapons only from gunmakers that do so.

Industry officials did not mince words as they announced the lawsuit. "We are here today to end an illegal attempt by a number of self-appointed and self-important elected government officials to violate the basic rights of a legitimate and a responsible industry and to foist upon our citizens across this country a nationwide gun-control scheme unapproved by the Congress," declared Robert Delfay, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the industry's trade group.

The lawsuit alleges that Cuomo and the other officials lack power under the Constitution to spell out how guns are made or sold. That is a power reserved for Congress under its authority to regulate commerce between the states, the suit says.

Cuomo denounced the lawsuit as "frivolous" and said in a statement that the gunmakers filed it "in a vain attempt to distract from their failure to take responsibility for their share of the tragic problem of gun violence."

"After the Smith & Wesson agreement, there are two types of gun manufacturers: safe and unsafe," Cuomo said. "Working with law enforcement we prefer to do business with the safe manufacturers."

The suit does not seek damages but asks for an order barring Cuomo and others from pressing local governments to buy police handguns only from companies that follow the March 17 agreement. Delfay called that "a politically motivated scheme in which these bureaucrats have sought to bully law-enforcement professionals into buying handguns based not on the quality or safety of the product, but on capitulation by the manufacturer to a regulatory agenda concocted by these officials." At a news conference, not one gunmaker said it could cite a loss in sales from the Clinton administration's efforts, but at least two said the efforts had the potential to hurt revenues.

Asked for a legal precedent for the suit, the group's attorney, George H. Link, a specialist in product liability law from Los Angeles, cited a circuit court ruling that prohibits cities from attempting to restrict trade with Myanmar.

In addition to Cuomo, the lawsuit named as defendants officials in 14 cities - among them Boston; Detroit; San Francisco; Oakland, Calif.; and Atlanta, which have agreed to deal only with gunmakers that make changes in the guns that the administration is seeking. No Colorado city has made such an agreement.

While the gunmakers object to the administration's proposals, Delfay pointed out that "every single" manufacturer already has a locking device, one of the administration's major demands, included in its handguns. "And some have been doing so for well over a decade." Delfay also sought to counter President Clinton's arguments that guns are responsible for much of the country's violence.

"Firearms accidents are at their lowest level since statistics were first compiled in 1903," Delfay said. "This is the result of industry-supported safety efforts, not the result of the punitive purchasing schemes."

Filing the suit were Glock Inc. of Georgia; Beretta USA Corp. of Maryland; Browning Arms Inc. of Utah; SIG Arms Inc. of New Hampshire; Taurus International Manufacturing of Florida; and Sturm, Ruger & Co. and Colt Manufacturing Inc., both based in Connecticut.

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