The NRA vs Smith & Wesson

From Evan Osnos’ post-Orlando article in the New Yorker on the business of guns, I found this very telling. It’s about the negotiation between the Clinton Administration and Smith & Wesson to make smart guns – whatever that really means – standard. I’m not sure what the 1999 technology was, but today, as I unlock my phone with my fingerprint in a few seconds, I can’t help but think it would be easy to add a similar level of security to the modern firearm. If, that is, the NRA were actually interested in gun safety. Here’s the story:

This time, a gunmaker thought he had a solution—one that would not only sell more guns but lower the toll of gun violence. Ed Shultz, who was then the C.E.O. of Smith & Wesson, had grown up attending a one-room schoolhouse, the son of an Iowa hog farmer. Though he called himself a “rabid gun owner,” he was also a pragmatist: easygoing with the press, and experienced. He had manufactured lawnmowers, furniture, bicycles, and other goods. In the hope of ending the lawsuits, he secretly agreed to negotiate with the Clinton Administration. To avoid detection, the talks were held in airport hotels and obscure federal offices. After six weeks, the negotiators were near a deal, and Shultz was sitting across from the Administration’s point man, Andrew Cuomo, who was Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Cuomo, now the governor of New York, told me recently, “I was a gun owner at the time, and I have kids in the house.” He said to Shultz, “If you tell me you could sell a gun that my child couldn’t operate, even if it was sitting on the counter, loaded, that is appealing to me.” In the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth, Smith & Wesson manufactured more than half a million handguns with a two-part safety that the company boasted was “perfectly harmless in the hands of a child,” but it abandoned them during the Second World War, when it focussed on producing military guns. Shultz was open to building a new, high-tech version—a “smart gun” that could be fired only by its owner. “He says, ‘I’m not interested in any political statement. I’m interested in a business-survival strategy,’ ” Cuomo recalled.

On March 17, 2000, Clinton and Cuomo announced the deal: among other things, Smith & Wesson agreed to develop a smart gun and take steps to prevent dealers from selling to criminals. Cuomo declared, “We are finally on the road to a safer, more peaceful America.” But on the day the deal went public the N.R.A. denounced Smith & Wesson as “the first gun maker to run up the white flag of surrender.” It released Shultz’s phone number, and encouraged members to complain. He received many threats. One caller said, “I’m a dead-on shot, Mr. Shultz.” Another executive took to wearing a bulletproof vest, according to “Outgunned,” a history of gun-control politics, by Peter Harry Brown and Daniel G. Abel. Online, a boycott took hold, and sales of Smith & Wesson guns fell so sharply that two factories temporarily shut down. In ten months, the stock lost ninety-five per cent of its value, and the company was sold the next year for a fraction of its former worth.

Shultz left the company, and he all but stopped talking to the press. When I happened on a phone number for him, he called me back only to ask how I’d found it. “I need to know where the hole is, so I can plug it,” he said, and declined to talk about the gun business.

When my kids go over to a new house to play, I’ve learned to ask – do you have any firearms in the house? I’m not worried about mass shooting or deliberate violence, but about unsecured firearms. Here’s a piece from the New York Times on toddlers shooting themselves or others.

Incremental progress on lowering gun violence should be possible, both technologically and politically.

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