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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Enter the big guns

The feds threaten gunmakers with a huge lawsuit, and most can't afford not to talk settlement

By Viveca Novak

Time magazine

December 13, 1999
Web posted at: 2:38 p.m. EST (1938 GMT)

Eight months after Columbine--and only one day after the small Oklahoma town of Fort Gibson became the latest stage for an apple-cheeked boy to open fire on his schoolmates--the gun industry faced its biggest threat, the one that could finally force major changes in the way firearms are made and marketed.

On Tuesday, the Clinton Administration said it was preparing to file a class action on behalf of the nation's 3,191 public-housing authorities. Twenty-nine cities and counties have already filed suits against the manufacturers since October of last year, seeking to recover the public costs of gun violence, force the design of safer firearms, and restrict the flow of guns to illegitimate buyers. As the suits have made their way through the courts, the industry and plaintiffs have held sporadic settlement talks, to little effect. But that could change dramatically with the arrival of the feds, who will throw their weight behind the plaintiffs' demands. The plaintiffs want gunmakers to distribute only to dealers who won't sell at gun shows, to require that dealers sell only one gun a month per buyer, to cut off those who sell a disproportionate number of guns linked to crimes, and to make the industry develop "smart" guns that only their owners can use.

The feds and the plaintiffs say they're not after big money, not yet anyway. And that's one reason the gunmakers might yield: if there's no a settlement, the feds will be asking for compensation. The public-housing authorities spend about $1 billion a year trying to keep their 3.3 million residents safe from gun violence, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The department hasn't decided how much to ask for in damages, but the number would be hefty--and added to what the 29 cities and counties are seeking in their lawsuits, the gunmakers face potential exposure running into the billions. Their pockets are not really as deep as those of the tobacco industry, which has faced a similar siege, and many of their insurers have said they won't pay to defend the lawsuits.

The attack on the gunmakers, is patterned closely on the tobacco campaign and even involves some of the same lawyers. But the federal role is different this time. When the government finally sued the tobacco companies last September, it was more than a year after the states had concluded a far-reaching settlement with the industry. This time the feds are jumping in when they can make a difference, even after a year when Congress did nothing to further gun control. Some manufacturers, like Glock, said last week they would consider meeting with the Clinton Administration, while others--notably Sturm, Ruger & Co., the largest gunmaker--indicated they plan to fight it out.

In any case, the lawsuits have caused a rift between some gunmakers and the National Rifle Association, which cares more about the principles involved than the economics. Gunmakers point out that they are the ones being sued, not the N.R.A. Says Robert Delfay, head of the manufacturers' trade group: "If the day comes when we have to do something the N.R.A. doesn't approve of, we'll tell them and so be it."

--By Viveca Novak/Washington

What Governments Want Gunmakers to Do

--BUILD SAFETY LOCKS into guns as a component, not an optional extra

--DEVELOP "SMART" GUNS that only owners can fire

--CUT OFF GUN SHOWS by refusing to deal with distributors who sell at the shows

--WRITE NEW CONTRACTS with dealers that require them to sell only one gun a month per buyer

--REFUSE TO SUPPLY dealers who sell a disproportionate number of guns that authorities have linked to crimes

--CHANGE ADVERTISING so that it appeals less to criminals


Cover Date: December 20, 1999

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