By MARK KUKIS
WASHINGTON, March 17 (UPI) -- Federal officials and local authorities closed a deal with Smith & Wesson that will let the largest U.S. gun manufacturer avoid mounting lawsuits in exchange for adopting safety measures aimed at curbing gun violence in an unprecedented agreement likely to have a major impact on the firearms industry and the ongoing gun control debate.
The deal calls for Smith & Wesson to install mandatory gun locks and other child safety devices on all guns, introduce so-called "smart-gun" technology in all newly designed handguns, ban gun sales without buyer background checks and limit multiple handgun sales, among other steps.
In return, local governments agreed to drop over 30 pending lawsuits against Smith & Wesson aimed at holding the gun-maker liable for shooting deaths and injuries. In addition, the Clinton administration backed off threats to join local governments in a class action suit.
The lawsuits, brought by the states of Connecticut and New York and local authorities in major cities like Los Angeles, New Orleans, Detroit, New Jersey and Atlanta, among others, would have taken Smith & Wesson to court in an effort to force the gun maker to implement safety practices like the ones outlined in the deal.
At Clinton's behest last year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development threatened to join local and state authorities in a class action suit if Smith & Wesson refused to implement voluntary safety measures. Since then, legal negotiators from Smith & Wesson, HUD, the Department of Treasury, gun control advocacy organizations and the White House have been working on a deal to avoid the costly court battles. The negotiating lawyers finalized the agreement Thursday night.
Announcing the deal Friday, HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo called the agreement the most important HUD action during his seven-year tenure as secretary.
"This is a historic agreement that will save lives," Cuomo said. "Smith & Wesson has acted responsibly and in the best interests of the American people by agreeing to adopt common-sense measures to reduce gun violence."
The agreement was similar to action by state attorneys general against cigarette makers in the late 1990s. Dozens of lawsuits by states forced tobacco companies to pay millions in damages to governments caring for sick smokers. The action brought one of America's most politically powerful industries to its knees after decades similar efforts failed on Capitol Hill, where corporations under fire pay millions of dollars in lobbying fees to block new laws that could hurt bottom lines.
Lawyers involved the negotiations said the litigation efforts against the tobacco industry paved the way for the Smith & Wesson deal and predicted further such agreements involving other leaders in the firearms industry.
"This is an idea I think will spread across the country," said New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a key player in the negotiations.
Cuomo and lawyers involved in the talks said gun makers who wanted to sign on to the agreement must at least pledge to adopt the same safety practices as Smith & Wesson and likely take on more comprehensive measures.
The agreement's signatories include Cuomo, Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, Spitzer and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal on behalf of their states, in addition to mayors from a number of major cites. Smith & Wesson president and CEO L. E. Shultz signed for the gun company and also participated in a Washington news conference with federal officials announcing the deal.
Analysts called Friday's deal a watershed in the ongoing gun control debate, which is increasingly a political topic as shooting deaths dominate the headlines.
Smith & Wesson's move signals a break with the leadership of gun rights lobbies and could lead to other gun makers offering safety concessions to avoid lawsuits.
The National Rifle Association, embroiled in a harsh public exchange in recent weeks with the White House, offered no initial reaction to the deal. A spokesperson for the organization said NRA officials wanted to review the 21-page agreement and would probably have a statement next week.
A key safety step undertaken by Smith & Wesson involves firearms sales at gun shows, where buyers can currently bypass background checks mandatory in gun shops under the Brady law. The so-called gun show loophole is the major sticking point in legislation stalled on Capitol Hill, where bills passed by the House and Senate await action by joint committee, chaired by Sen. Orin Hatch, R-Utah, who has refused to open hearings under heavy pressure from the NRA.
Under the deal, Smith & Wesson will not offer its weapons for sale at gun shows unless dealers do a background check on buyers, a proposition the NRA has vehemently opposed.
At the White House, President Clinton welcomed the deal.
"This agreement is a major victory for America's families," said Clinton. "I would hope the other manufacturers would follow suit."
The agreement is likely to give him new political leverage in his effort to spur gun-control legislation.
A commission made up of two representatives from local governments, one from states, one from Smith & Wesson and one selected by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms will oversee the agreement.