US holds fire on Smith & Wesson after safety pledge

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The Independent US

The US Administration agreed yesterday to drop plans to sue the gunmaker Smith & Wesson, after the company undertook to develop and market new safety technology to keep guns out of unauthorised hands. The company, a Massachusetts-based subsidiary of the British conglomerate Tomkins, also agreed to a code of conduct for sales and distribution.

Smith & Wesson was one of eight big gunmakers being sued by a group of city and state authorities in the United States and the first to reach such an agreement. President Bill Clinton had threatened that his Administration would co-ordinate a national lawsuit against gunmakers to defray the costs of gun violence if manufacturers refused to negotiate on better gun safety.

Hailing the agreement yesterday as a "major victory for America's families", Mr Clinton praised the company for its "courage and vision" in being the "first to break with the National Rifle Association", and said that he hoped it would encourage others to do likewise.

The chief executive of Smith & Wesson, Ed Shultz, said that the decision would "provide for the future viability of the company... by putting our emphasis on technology". A statement issued by the company said that it would ensure "the viability of Smith & Wesson as an ongoing business entity in the face of the crippling cost of litigation".

Tomkins, which is known to be considering the sale of some of its more peripheral operations, had expressed concern about the pending legal action in its 1999 annual report, and registered a "trading shortfall" over the year. But it noted that the only lawsuit to be concluded so far had gone in its favour.

Among the pledges given by the company is a guarantee to provide external locking devices within 60 days on all handguns it sells and to incorporate internal locking devices on all its guns within 24 months. A second "hidden" serial number is to be inscribed on the gun to make it more difficult for criminals to erase the gun's identification, and design changes are promised to ensure that the gun cannot readily be operated by a child under the age of six.

Under the code of conduct, Smith & Wesson will sell its guns only to authorised dealers and distributors who also agree to certain safety conditions.

Among the provisions are that a supply contract would lapse if guns sold by a particular dealer turned up in "a disproportionate number" of crimes. A recent study showed that a large number of guns used in crimes were obtained from just a small percentage of dealers. A special commission will be formed to monitor Smith & Wesson's compliance.