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Bush Administration Backs Away
From Deal With Smith & Wesson



WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration has backed away from the government's landmark deal in which Smith & Wesson Corp. last year agreed to step up gun-safety efforts in exchange for relief from costly lawsuits.

According to company executives and officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency assigned to oversee the deal, there has been no contact between the parties on whether its provisions are being followed, and the company remains a defendant in many cases.

One HUD official said the Bush administration sees the Smith & Wesson agreement only as a memorandum of understanding, which therefore isn't legally binding for either side. "HUD is not enforcing it. In fact, HUD is not doing anything with it," this official said.

HUD was named the lead department in the accord because it was seen as the federal agency most directly affected by gun violence, through its 3,200 local housing authorities.

The company entered the agreement hoping to escape the 32 lawsuits that at the time had been filed against it and other gun makers by cities and counties seeking damages stemming from gun violence. The deal entailed an implicit understanding that the federal government wouldn't join any pending suits or file its own.

The Clinton administration saw the pact as a backdoor way to establish gun-safety rules it couldn't get through Congress. The deal called on Smith & Wesson to provide locking devices and develop childproof and technologically advanced guns that couldn't be fired by anyone not authorized to use them. In addition, the company was supposed to change its marketing tactics to more closely monitor dealers who sell its products.

"If nobody is enforcing the agreement, that mutes the impact of the contract immeasurably," said Georgetown University law professor Paul Rothstein.

Even if someone were to oppose HUD's interpretation that the pact isn't legally binding, the argument would have to be made in court "and it's unclear how a court would hold on this," Mr. Rothstein said.

Gun-control activists such as the Violence Policy Center and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence aren't surprised the Bush administration has backed away from the accord.

"The change is palpable," said Kristen Rand, the legislative director for the Violence Policy Center. Proactive steps to prevent gun incidents have "fallen off the radar screen," she said.

The agreement has been costly for Smith & Wesson. Led by gun-rights groups angry with the company's apparent capitulation to a government attempt at gun control, buyers stopped purchasing its products almost immediately following the March 2000 deal. The company was forced to double the length of its normal summer employee furloughs last year, and then lay off 15% of its workers after profits fell.

Although the federal government isn't enforcing the pact, a Smith & Wesson official said the company is continuing to fulfill most of its conditions. One of those involves developing technology known as biometrics, which uses the bone structure in the hands of authorized users to unlock safety mechanisms, so guns may be used only by authorized individuals.

But the company, now owned by Saf-T-Hammer Corp., isn't stepping up oversight of dealers selling its products, an integral element of the agreement. "I'm not sure that was ever realistic, telling dealers, 'If you want to sell our products, you've got to do this and this.' We're not the only game in town,'' one company executive said.

Write to Gary Fields at [email protected]


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