22. Smart Guns

March 17, 2000

The Oval Office — Washington, D.C.

The president was on a conference call with the attorneys general from New York and Connecticut, along with some the mayors who were suing the gun companies, when he made an announcement: his administration would soon be taking a totally new approach to stopping gun violence. It would require everyone to work together, and so Clinton was now brokering a peace treaty: if the gun makers agreed to make safer guns, then the mayors would agree to drop their liability lawsuits.

It was an unusual arrangement, and it was designed to attract more mayors and more gun manufacturers to sign on as it went — thus defusing the war, city by city. The first pairing to sign would be gun manufacturer Smith and Wesson, and the City of Boston; the treaty would become known as the Boston Agreement.

To get on board, the gun manufacturers would have to meet specific requirements: within two years of signing, each of the company’s “safer” gun designs would have to incorporate locking devices, and two percent of all revenue from firearms would have to be dedicated to development of “authorized user technology” that would detect the owner’s hand before firing — the long-sought “smart gun.” A technological solution to the school shooting problem.

The new guns would also have to “not be able to accept ammunition magazines with a capacity of over 10 rounds.” (The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban had halted production of such magazines, but the market was still flush with product made before the ban, and these “grandfathered-in” accessories remained legal to sell.)

There would be changes to sales and distribution, too: Smith and Wesson agreed to sell only to authorized dealers and distributors, and those dealers, in turn, would be required to agree to a “code of conduct.” There would be background checks for every sale, and gun stores would be required to implement a theft-prevention plan. And they could not carry “large capacity ammunition magazines or semiautomatic assault weapons,” which were considered “attractive to criminals.”

The president hinted that there would be a cherry on top for the early adopters: “Smith & Wesson stuck their neck out here. I think that all of us, including the Federal Government, in our procurement policies, if we really are serious about making America safer, ought to send a clear signal that we appreciate what they did. I think that that will accelerate the day in which the other manufacturers will follow suit.”

* * *

The Boston Agreement was a disaster. The industry, rather than following Smith & Wesson’s example, immediately turned against them. The NRA said that the company signing its name to Clinton’s peace accord was “running up the white flag of surrender.” The Connecticut gun maker’s revenues plummeted, and workers were laid off. Faced with financial ruin, Smith & Wesson abandoned the agreement. Overnight, all talk of “smart guns” ended.

The NSSF, meanwhile, had criticized the Boston Agreement as ineffective; even if the cities who signed the agreement had backed off their suits, “hundreds more could come down the road,” Bob Delfay told the New York Times. “That’s why the industry is interested in a unified, national solution.”

May 14, 2000

National Mall — Washington, DC

On Mother’s Day that year, a crowd of women and supporters rallied outside the Capitol Building, as part of the “Million Mom March” on Washington — a “grassroots effort to focus the nation’s attention on the terrible costs of gun violence.” Marching with them, with his mother, was a grieving father from the village of Dunblane, who had helped carry the Snowdrop Appeal to victory in the United Kingdom three years before. “Should we in Britain concern ourselves with the situation in the USA?” he later questioned when writing about the event. “We certainly should, for not only is slaughter offensive wherever it occurs in the world, but there are knock-on effects on other countries. The gun culture is infectious and pernicious. It spreads, if left unchallenged.”

At the other end of Jefferson Street, at a smaller counter-protest arranged by the “Second Amendment Sisters,” was Suzanna Gratia. “If guns are the problem, as the women across the Mall assert,” her voice came over a bullhorn, “why haven’t we seen any of these terrible mass shootings at NRA conventions, or skeet and trap shoots, or the dreaded gun show… If guns are the problem, someone explain this to me!”

The evening before, President Clinton had hosted a Town Hall meeting at the White House. A panel of mothers from the march, as well as Suzanna, were invited to ask him questions. During the interview, Clinton acknowledged his recent policy setbacks; he said he was still reeling from the “gut shot” that he had sustained along with Smith & Wesson, and from the failure of the Gun Show Loophole Amendment. He attributed the setbacks to “the intense lobbying effort against [gun laws] and the longstanding ability of the NRA to influence congressmen.”

Pushing back against Clinton’s agenda, Suzanna told the president her story of that helpless day at Luby’s when she lost her parents, and of the gun laws she had helped pass in Texas since then. The president conceded that she had a point: “On this particular incidence, if there had been someone in that restaurant who knew how to use a gun and was lawfully carrying it — for example, an off-duty police officer, or in a State with a concealed weapon law, someone who was properly trained and had it — maybe they could have stopped this horrible incident.” But the accidental-death statistics in America, he argued, showed that many gun owners were not as responsible. More guns actually meant more loss of life, no matter who possessed them. “So it’s a question of what makes you safest overall.”

August 3, 2000

First Union Center — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

A burst of confetti and a column of red, white and blue balloons fell from the arena’s rafters, as George W. Bush, the governor of Texas, accepted his party’s nomination for president. “I know the presidency is an office that turns pride into prayer,” he proclaimed, standing at the top of a long, spiral staircase. “But I am eager to start on the work ahead, and I believe America is ready for a new beginning.” His father had been dethroned by Clinton, and in facing Clinton’s heir apparent in the upcoming general election, it was an opportunity to set things right, and take the country in a different direction — away from any new gun legislation, to be sure.

Governor Bush had embraced life as a rural Texan; when it came to gun control, his campaign’s priority was to promise free “trigger locks” to every family that owned a firearm. “It seems like to me one of the things we ought to do is be common-sensical about how we deal with gun safety,” Bush told NBC-TV’s Today Show. “I think this makes sense.” He actually got the idea from the NSSF; they had launched the program shortly after Columbine, and called it “Project HomeSafe.” As part of his presidential campaign, Governor Bush provided the NSSF with a million-dollar grant to launch the program in Texas, making just one change: Project HomeSafe was renamed “Project ChildSafe.”

Later that evening, TV coverage of the convention went to a commercial break, and one of the ads seen was produced by the National Shooting Sports Foundation. It showed a politician in a suit, tearing apart a large American flag with a knife, as if dissecting it, while a voice nearly indistinguishable from that of actor Martin Sheen (it was actually his brother, Joe Estevez) warned of “big-city mayors whose greedy lawyers are using your tax dollars to sue us for criminals they won’t prosecute.” It was a voter-mobilization effort, turning the mayors’ failed efforts back against Gore and his party, and implying that they were plotting to rip up the constitution if the voters allowed them to stay in the Oval Office for another four years.

October 3, 2000

Traders Sporting Goods — San Leandro, California

The bell rung over the door, and Tony called out after his latest satisfied customer: “George W all the way!”

The proprietor of the notorious “Traders” had not shied away from controversy in the years since the Stockton shooting. The huge “National Rifle Association” placard he kept in the front window at Traders still summed up his political views, and he was still raging against California’s assault weapons ban, telling the Oakland Tribune that year that it was “hurting law-abiding citizens… with all the hoops you have to jump through to get a legal firearm.”

At times, he could almost feel the ATF sniffing around his store again, gearing up for the next audit. “Bush would be our choice in this election,” he repeated. “He’s for enforcing the existing laws, and we do have more laws than we really need presently.”

* * *

There was no clear victor on election night 2000. The vote was so close, it came down to a few counties in Florida; Gore sued when he lost the first manual recount, which touched off a legal struggle that went on for weeks. A constitutional crisis loomed.

November 15, 2000

Oxford University — United Kingdom

Meanwhile, the gun lobbies had worked hard to put Bush in office, and suddenly, their investment was looking uncertain.“I think Mr. Gore is filing these lawsuits and it is inappropriate,” NRA president Charlton Heston told the Oxford Union debate society. “Whichever man is installed in the Oval Office will have his tenure in question. He will not have an easy time.”

Having made the trip to speak to a UK audience, Heston took the opportunity to comment on the gun laws that their government had passed after the Dunblane Primary School attack. He said the handgun ban was an example of politicians having too much power over the citizenry — the same kind of tyranny that had caused the founders of the United States to rebel against the crown in the first place. “If Tony Blair can have his bodyguards and the police are all allowed to defend themselves, then so should the people,” he said. Banning guns was “cultural cowardice and a subtle form of surrender to the criminals.”

From Dunblane, one of the mothers who founded the Snowdrop Appeal responded to Heston’s comments. She noted that the movement she helped start at the coffee shop in Dunblane had not, so far, led to the spread of government tyranny throughout the UK, and in fact her grassroots advocacy group had immediately disbanded after achieving their stated goals. She then shared an observation, in light of veteran actor Heston’s classical training: “All I can say is that if he has spent all those years studying Shakespeare, he still doesn’t understand what the playwright is saying about the frailty of human nature.”

December 12, 2000

United States Supreme Court — Washington, D.C.

36 days passed after the election, before the United States Supreme Court stepped in, and ordered the recounts to stop. The next day, Al Gore called George W. Bush, and conceded the contest.

The NSSF could not have been more proud. “While we certainly aren’t suggesting that the Heritage Fund alone is responsible for the election of George W. Bush,” the foundation wrote, the fund did provide “some $3 million of an overall $6 million industry investment in radio and television advertising, and a voter registration and mobilization campaign in key battleground states.”

President Clinton, in a post-election interview, could only agree on the impact that guns had on the race’s outcome: “I don’t think there’s any doubt that in at least five States I can think of, the NRA had a decisive influence because they disagreed with our attempts to close the gun show loophole and have child trigger locks, safety locks, and ban large-scale ammunition clips.” He believed that the gun vote was a “key factor” in losing the White House.

“You’ve got to give it to them; they’ve done a good job,” the president said of the gun lobbyists, on his way out the door. The aftermath of Columbine had been his last chance to pass more gun laws. And he had failed.