Getting sued to death is a particularly messy way to bring down a company.
Smith & Wesson's CEO, Ed Schultz, last week decided he preferred other forms of torture, even slow death. The firearms manufacturer broke the industry's solid ranks, practically lying down, rolling over and wagging its tail for the anti-gun lobby. For this self-wounding act, the White House agreed to help Smith & Wesson unload itself of a mounting pile of lawsuits in which it could end up with more lawyers than gunsmiths on its payroll.
Among other things, Smith & Wesson agreed to provide trigger locks on its products, to require its dealers to secure their inventory from theft and to within three years make high-tech guns that can be fired only by their owners.
The risks to Smith & Wesson are immense. It faces the wrath of dealers who may see it as a traitor to the industry and to the gun lobby. And it risks the likelihood of consumer resistance in a gun-owning community that doesn't like to be told what it can buy and what it can't.
If other manufacturers capitulate, who among the majority of Americans favoring stricter gun control will argue with the result? Not many, I suspect. Still, this is not a very pretty solution to the gun question. Who can, for instance, but worry that the mere threat of litigation and its all-consuming costs -- no matter the ultimate outcome -- is a brutal, not to say thuggish way to settle one of the nation's great social issues?
It suggests that the mere threat of being dragged through the court system has functioned more to intimidate than to arrive at an equitable result. Constitutionally fastidious scholars will worry about this. It could give ''tort reform'' a better name than it deserves.
But to put this trend in a better light, just ask which came first, an overly intimidating court system or a dysfunctional Congress that has become subservient to the National Rifle Association? If stricter gun control arrives at our doorstep through litigation and not legislation, won't it have come by the same worn path as most of the great reforms of the last century?
The one man-one vote rule, the right of criminal defendants to be represented by a lawyer, the right of blacks to attend integrated schools are hardly regarded as revolutionary today. But they were by the Congress and legislatures that refused to enact them until told to do so by the courts. Won't true gun control be as easy to swallow as the once-novel notions that motor vehicles should be registered to their owners, that people should actually know how to drive before getting behind a wheel, that car owners be required to have liability insurance, that inebriates should be kept off the road?
If the United States' gun owners can be convinced that true gun control means firearms will still be as ubiquitous as cars and as easy for responsible people to get and use, then I suspect that all but the most hysterical of them will accept gun law reform, however sullenly. Most of the ones I know are perfectly normal people.
Fear prompted this crack in the gun wall
The following editorial appeared in Tuesday's Los Angeles Times:
Two things are clear in Smith & Wesson's agreement last Friday to a wide array of handgun restrictions. The action by one of the nation's oldest and largest handgun makers should be broadly applauded and quickly emulated. But, make no mistake, it was bottom-line fears stemming from pending lawsuits -- not a change of heart -- that led the company to take this step. Lawsuits that pose the threat of millions of dollars in liability have a way of getting businesses to act responsibly, something the current well-bought Congress apparently can't do.
In coming months, Smith & Wesson will begin to adopt dozens of changes in the way it manufactures, markets and sells handguns, all aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of children and criminals. Many of these reforms are identical to those President Clinton tried and failed to get Congress to mandate.
For instance, Smith & Wesson pledged to put trigger locks on all its handguns, make gun grips too large and triggers too powerful for young children to handle, and to stop doing business with gun show dealers who do not conduct criminal background checks. The company also pledged to imprint a hidden second serial number on its guns to deter theft. Most of these steps can help suppress gun violence, but some are more symbol than substance. For instance, Smith & Wesson has no authority to require its dealers to conduct background checks at gun shows. Yet the company's decision to crack the industry's stone wall of opposition to any new safety measures is clearly a major development, and Smith & Wesson management deserves credit.
But note that the agreement will excuse the company from litigation that ultimately could have led to its bankruptcy. Lawsuits filed against a number of gun makers by the federal government and more than a dozen cities, including Los Angeles, seek to hold firearms companies responsible for the carnage their weapons cause.
The plaintiffs' legal claims were initially dismissed as so fantastic that no jury would ever buy them. Yet each school shooting, each workplace massacre and each hostage drama -- along with recent outrageous claims by the National Rifle Association that Clinton is somehow responsible for continuing gun violence -- made that prediction much shakier. Smith & Wesson, with an estimated 19 percent market share of the 2.5million handguns sold nationally each year, wisely decided not to roll the dice at trial or with a costly monetary settlement. Other gun makers immediately -- and predictably -- denounced the company's decision.
The mounting litigation has made the industry the newest champions of tort reform for all the wrong reasons, seeking harsh legislative limits on the right to sue. In this respect, the gun manufacturers join such corporate rogues as tobacco companies, asbestos manufacturers and some pharmaceutical companies, each, in its time, declaring itself blameless for the harm its products caused. Skyrocketing legal bills, multimillion-dollar jury verdicts and the bankruptcies of venerable companies have rendered those declarations as hollow as they were expensive. The firearms industry would be wise to take note.
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