Last month, when the Clinton administration announced its agreement to resolve government-sponsored litigation against Smith & Wesson, other gun makers were supposed to start lining up to get in on the deal. So far, that hasn't happened.
Instead, Smith & Wesson seems to be having second thoughts. A "clarification" the company recently posted on its Web site effectively nullifies some of the settlement agreement's key points.
The company had said that its dealers would "make no gun show sales unless all sales at the gun show are completed only after a background check." Now it says this provision "does not apply to private sales," which are the only sales for which background checks are not already required by federal law.
The company also says that various requirements the agreement imposes on distributors apply only to Smith & Wesson guns. The most significant of these rules would allow customers buying multiple handguns to take home only one on the day of the sale, requiring them to return two weeks later for the rest. Under Smith & Wesson's "clarification," customers could immediately take possession of as many handguns as they wanted, as long as the guns were made by other companies.
If Smith & Wesson's interpretation of the agreement prevails, the Clinton administration will not have much to show for its arm-twisting. Almost everything else in the deal is either a pre-existing Smith & Wesson practice, a previously planned change, or a provision that does not take effect unless other manufacturers sign on.
Anti-gun activists see Smith & Wesson's "clarification" as an act of defiance. The Violence Policy Center's Kristen Rand told The New York Times, "They are basically thumbing their noses at the administration, saying, 'This is how we interpret it, and if you don't like it, you can sue us.' "
Smith & Wesson's sudden display of gumption may be partly due to its disappointment at the protection provided by the deal. So far only the federal government (which has yet to file a suit), a couple of states, and about half of the 30 or so cities and counties that are suing gun manufacturers have agreed to leave Smith & Wesson alone.
Meanwhile, the company's capitulation has aroused intense anger from distributors and retail customers as well as manufacturers. The National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the industry's trade group, both condemned the deal, while Second Amendment supporters called for a boycott of Smith & Wesson products.
"If we all stopped buying new S&W firearms, knives, hats, and accessories for the rest of 2000 and '01," Hamline University law professor Joseph Olson wrote in a late March e-mail appeal, "there would be no S&W to keep the 'deal' with the Clinton administration."
Many retailers and at least one major wholesaler have said they would rather give up the Smith & Wesson line than comply with the conditions in the settlement agreement. In addition to the expense and hassle, these distributors presumably want to avoid offending their customers.
"Basically, we are very disappointed in what [Smith & Wesson] did," a spokesman for RSR Group, the company's biggest customer, told The Wall Street Journal. "They have agreed to something we can't adhere to."
To anyone concerned about the threat to our civil liberties posed by legislation disguised as litigation, the shunning of Smith & Wesson was a refreshing show of courage and good sense. But to New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, both of whom had a hand in the Smith & Wesson deal, it was a conspiracy in restraint of trade.
After it became clear that Smith & Wesson would pay a price in the marketplace for its attempt to placate the gun controllers, Spitzer and Blumenthal, joined by four other attorneys general, announced an antitrust investigation. In their view, apparently, the law requires people to do business with Smith & Wesson, even if they've decided it's not in their best interests.
Plainly, the politicians are annoyed that, instead of gaining the advantage they promised, Smith & Wesson is suffering for giving in to the government's extortion. Now their embarrassment has been compounded by the company's efforts to rewrite parts of the settlement agreement .
Perhaps it is dawning on Smith & Wesson's executives that it can be dangerous to show weakness in the face of statist demands. Too bad they didn't pay closer attention to the fate of the tobacco companies, whose efforts at appeasement have only whetted their opponents' appetites.