A handful of gun manufacturers have recently held secret talks with New York's attorney general to discuss concessions they could make to avoid being named in a lawsuit the state is considering against the industry.
Colt's Manufacturing Co. and at least two other gunmakers have met separately with New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, exploring what steps the companies could take to reduce the likelihood that their products would be used in crimes, according to industry sources. The talks offer another clear signal that at least some gun manufacturers may be ready to consider a compromise in the escalating legal war over firearms.
Nearly two dozen cities and counties have sued gun manufacturers and distributors, claiming that their products are unsafe and their marketing practices irresponsibly enable firearms to fall into the hands of criminals.
New York would be the first state to take on the industry, and its entry would immediately raise the stakes of the litigation, making the legal war against guns more closely comparable to the state lawsuits filed against the tobacco industry. Those suits ultimately led to numerous concessions last year from tobacco companies and a $206 billion settlement with more than three dozen states.
Spitzer's office would not discuss the talks, which were first reported in yesterday's New York Times, but spokesman Marc Violette said that "as part of an ongoing effort to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, we have sought a dialogue with responsible elements in the industry."
Spitzer has often expressed his concern over the easy access to guns, and his office has been actively involved in exploring a state lawsuit against their makers. Some industry officials said Spitzer is seeking to reach a settlement with one or more companies to increase the legal pressure on other manufacturers to make concessions.
Among the subjects discussed in meetings with Spitzer were the possibility of contributions from gun manufacturers to a fund for crime victims, and a proposal for gunmakers to turn over to the federal government bullets that have been test-fired from their weapons to help create a database of markings that guns leave on shell casings. Such a database could improve the ability of police to identify guns used to commit crimes.
It was unclear what measures to better control the distribution of firearms were discussed.
An industry source said Spitzer has held separate meetings with representatives of Smith & Wesson and Sturm, Ruger and Co. But reflecting their sensitivity to suggestions that they are negotiating, the companies distanced themselves from the talks.
Ken Jorgensen, a spokesman for Smith & Wesson, said he was unaware of any discussions. "No one here knows anything about this," he said.
And Sturm, Ruger spokesman Stephen Sanetti said reports of his company's involvement in negotiations were "absolutely untrue."
Richard Esposito, a Colt's spokesman, said a company representative did meet with Spitzer last week, and that Spitzer raised the subject of a settlement. But, Esposito said, the company official told Spitzer that negotiations with an individual company were "not appropriate" and that the attorney general should meet instead with the industry's trade group, the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Colt's subsequently helped arrange such a meeting, he said.
Esposito added that Spitzer was scheduled to meet last night with Donald Silkha, who holds 85 percent of Colt's stock, but not to negotiate an individual settlement for the company.
This is not the first time that elements in the industry have looked for common ground with gun control advocates.
After secret meetings with the White House earlier this year, two gun industry groups agreed to support several gun control proposals offered by President Clinton. And Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell has met with Smith & Wesson and other members of the industry in an effort to find solutions to gun violence that could head off a possible lawsuit by the city.