Q: So they pressured Smith & Wesson into accepting gun control in the form of a lawsuit settlement. We should be glad, right?
A: Sure, unless you're in the gun business or think you might need to defend yourself with a gun someday. Or unless you're someone who cares about the Constitution and the abuse of the legal system.
Q: You sound upset.
A: We all should be. Even if you don't care about the freedom and rule-of-law stuff, this deal could actually raise the number of people hurt because of gun malfunctions.
Q: That can't be. Seasoned firearms experts like Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Andrew Cuomo assure us that the next generation of "smart guns" won't let the wrong person fire them, because they'll have little computers inside.
A: Probably technology like that will be worth a look at some point down the road. But very few handgun buyers are willing to be beta volunteers during the debugging period. Think of the many glitches and crashes you get with ordinary software that runs on a dry desktop and gets upgraded every year or two. Think how often your supermarket's checkout scanner fails to read a product code, forcing the cashier to swipe the item three or four times or punch the code in manually. Then think about miniaturizing those technologies into a product expected to last for decades amid dust, humidity, and temperature extremes.
Legitimate users may have more to worry about here than criminals do. If you're planning to use a handgun in a crime, you may be willing to fiddle with the controls until you get past the tiny "try again" error readout. If you're keeping it for emergency defensive use, this kind of General Protection Fault could be fatal.
Q: If that happened to me, do you think some trial lawyer would be willing to help my survivors sue the gun maker?
A: Probably. Ironic, isn't it? We're debating whether an industry should begin marketing a risky new technology before it's clear how and whether it will work. There's a paper trail of doubts from engineers who think the technology won't be reliable and that innocent people will get hurt, and at this point we lack even prototypes, let alone mass testing. Normally the trial lawyers yell for punitive damages if a company rushes that kind of new technology to market. Instead gun makers now face legal assault if they don't.
Q: Maybe we could try out smart gun technology for a while with sportsmen who don't expect to need their guns on an emergency basis.
A: Cuomo & Co. aren't planning to leave you that option. Their S&W deal contemplates withdrawing standard gun designs from the market after enough makers sign on. It's like the way all car buyers were forced to buy airbags, except that by comparison airbags were a proven and innocuous technology. By the way, police forces will be allowed exemptions so they can go on buying the old designs, since they need their guns to work reliably.
Q: Wasn't there anyone at the negotiating table to speak up for civilian consumers?
A: You're kidding, right? Brokering a deal like this through lawsuits lets you exclude whole categories of pesky participants from the settlement room. The S&W deal provides that buyers won't be able to get guns unless they've completed certified safety classes--which is pointless harassment from the standpoint of veterans who don't need a refresher, and downright menacing to women trying to buy their first gun to protect themselves from a stalker or a violent husband.
Q: Who else was kept out of the settlement room?
A: Dealers. The S&W pact commits the company to sell only through dealers who've agreed to a long list of controls on their own activities, including putting their employees through approved training courses, removing from their stock various perfectly lawful weapons that the Clinton administration dislikes, and not selling at gun shows unless everyone else there likewise submits to various controls that go beyond federal law. In addition, because of a clause giving regulators access to any and all dealer documents they deem necessary to determine compliance, many dealership records will wind up in regulators' hands without the need for a warrant.
Q: Wouldn't it be easier for a dealer to drop the S&W line?
A: The Clinton administration was counting on S&W's status as the number one gun maker. Having absorbed that variety of antitrust analysis that describes a manufacturer as "controlling" a certain market share, the president's men thought helpless buyers would have no place to go. They figured they could leverage S&W's market share through what amounts to a tying arrangement: If dealers and gun shows wanted to stock the dominant manufacturer's line, they'd have to agree to stop promoting disfavored, competitive product lines.
Q: Wait a minute. Isn't that kind of like what Microsoft did to Netscape?