With all due respect to Lesley Stahl and the staff that produced the 60 Minutes segment on smart guns, the show basically mangled the history of smart gun technology beyond repair. And what I am referring to is her discussion about the NRA boycott of Smith & Wesson back in 1999 which brought smart-gun innovation efforts to a grinding halt. According to Stahl, the government made a deal with S&W that would have required the company to invest profits from the sale of regular guns into the development of smart guns, leading to a boycott of the gun maker which then meant that “no big U.S. gun maker ever went near a smart gun.”
Stahl’s storyline is not only important for understanding why smart-gun technologies never got off the ground, but also for explaining why the NRA and other gun organizations view smart guns as just another arrow in the gun-grabber’s quiver that is always aimed at the legal ownership of guns. Stahl herself posted a headline on the show from the NRA-ILA website which says, “smart guns could open the door to a ban on all other guns.” And when you stop and think about it, the ‘slippery-slope’ mantra of how any gun regulation will eventually lead to confiscation is what the gun violence argument is really all about.
There’s only one little problem. If you want to use the Smith & Wesson boycott to explain the origins of the gun lobby’s mistrust of smart guns, you’d better get your facts straight. Because to begin with, the boycott wasn’t led by the NRA at all, and the reasons for the boycott had nothing to do with the part of the Clinton – S&W agreement that would have mandated investment in smart guns. Here’s what really happened.
During the Clinton Administration, the gun industry faced a series of torts brought by city governments and the NAACP who claimed that the industry was not effectively policing the sale of its products, hence there were too many deaths and injuries from guns. In the midst of the legal battle, Clinton offered the gun makers relief by asking them to agree to new sales and distribution practices in return for which the government would immunize them against tort suits. A committee representing the gun industry began negotiating with the Clinton bunch, then S&W jumped ship, walked away from the negotiations and announced they were ready to cut their own deal. The boycott was initiated by S&W’s largest distributor, a company called RSR, and while the NRA came around and supported the boycott, they never really led the fight.
I not only recall the boycott, but I also have taken the trouble to read the agreement which S&W actually signed. What’s interesting about the agreement is that some of its provisions (gun locks, loaded chamber indicators) were adopted by the gun industry without real pushback of any kind. But the heart of the agreement was the requirement that gun makers would also be responsible for the behavior of all dealers selling their guns. And let’s understand that being a gun dealer for Smith & Wesson isn’t like being a car dealer for General Motors or Ford. Want to be a Smith & Wesson dealer? Buy a dealer’s license from the ATF and get some wholesaler to ship you a Smith & Wesson gun. Back in the early 90s, S&W conducted a survey of who was selling their products, and they found that 90% of their dealers transferred less than 50 every year. The reason that one of the company’s distributors led the boycott was because this wholesaler knew that the terms of this agreement – at the point of sale – could never be met.
I’m not so sure that the gun industry was wrong in viewing this agreement as a back-door effort to get rid of guns. Which means that the slippery-slope argument against gun control may contain a grain of truth. And remember, we’re dealing with an industry in which a little bit of truth goes a long, long way.