When a horrific school shooting traumatized the public in 1999, the largest gunmaker in the United States promised to reform itself.
Smith & Wesson’s chief executive spoke passionately about the company’s responsibility for what children did with its weapons.
Gun control advocates hoped it was the start of something big.
It was. And something brutal, too.
On April 20, 1999, a teacher and a dozen children were massacred in Littleton, Colo., in the deadliest high school shooting the country had yet seen. A furious public turned on the firearms industry, which looked as weak as it had ever been.
The National Rifle Association’s membership already had been in free-fall through much of the 1990s, including an embarrassing defection by former president George H.W. Bush. Now thousands of protesters surrounded the NRA’s convention, a month after the horror at Columbine High School. They outnumbered gun owners more than 2 to 1, the New York Times reported, and the convention broke up early.
Congress was as reluctant as ever to take up gun control, but activists saw their chance to cripple the firearms industry directly.
Dozens of cities, several states and President Bill Clinton’s White House either sued or threatened to sue large firearms manufacturers by the turn of the 21st century — accusing them of negligent business practices, holding them liable for violence done with their products.
And it worked. On March 17, 2000 — just short of a year after the Columbine massacre — the White House announced a settlement agreement with Smith & Wesson, the oldest and largest gunmaker in the United States.
To escape the lawsuits, Smith & Wesson agreed to a long list of voluntary reforms, including child-safe triggers, the development of “smart guns” that could be fired only by the owner, and a ban on sales to gun dealers linked to crimes and those with loose policies regarding background checks.
Although some gun control activists complained the reforms were minor, the mere fact that Smith & Wesson negotiated with the government was a seismic event in the gun industry.
For decades, the NRA and the gun manufacturers that give the group tens of millions of dollars had been in lock-step opposition to reforms. With rare exceptions such as the 1994 assault weapons ban, Congress’s inaction was no coincidence; the gun lobby was among the country’s most powerful.
Now, for the first time, a member of the gun bloc had defected, with signs that more manufacturers could soon follow.
“The agreement marks the first big concession by industry to the mounting public and political pressure for stronger gun controls,” the Times wrote in an editorial. “It also represents a crushing defeat for the National Rifle Association, which has been arguing violently against the very reforms that Smith & Wesson has now agreed to undertake.”
But the gun lobby had not, in fact, been crushed. It was merely cornered.
And Smith & Wesson was about to find out how the NRA fought when its back was to the wall.
A few days after Smith & Wesson announced its agreement with the federal government, Glock Inc. announced it was considering joining the settlement.
As the biggest supplier of guns to U.S. law enforcement agencies, Glock was faced not just with lawsuits, but also a potential boycott by the agencies that were its biggest customers. “The industry split caused by Smith & Wesson’s move threatens to grow even wider if Glock agrees to similar terms,” the Los Angeles Times wrote.
The San Jose Mercury News observed that the gun lobby’s “usually impregnable defenses” were finally splintering.
That same week, the NRA launched its first counterattack. It was simply a statement, titled “The Smith & Wesson Sellout.”
“The settlement doesn’t merely alter the design of S & W handguns — it elevates S & W to the role of self-appointed arbiter of national gun policy,” the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action wrote on March 20, 2000.
The NRA accused the gunmaker of “craven self-interest” — a “British-owned company” that had “run up the white flag of surrender and run behind the Clinton-Gore lines, leaving its competitors in the U.S. firearms industry to carry on the fight for the Second Amendment.”
“The true intent of this agreement is to force down the throats of an entire lawful industry anti-gun polices rejected by the Congress, rejected by legislatures across America, and rejected by the judges,” the NRA wrote.
So it became clear: The gun lobby would turn on one of its own before letting it compromise on reforms.
The NRA did not specifically call for a boycott, but other gun groups quickly organized them. By the end of March, the New York Times wrote, one of the largest gun wholesalers in the country had cut off Smith & Wesson handguns. Retailers had announced their own boycotts, along with countless gun owners.
The company was deluged with angry phone calls and faxes, the Mercury News wrote. Days after the government deal was announced, Smith & Wesson executives were pleading with the company’s remaining distributors not to abandon it, too.
“If the agreement is what I’ve read so far, I can’t imagine Smith & Wesson being in business at this time next year,” an NRA board member told the newspaper — a quote that came very close to prophesy.
Smith & Wesson vs. the gun industry
At the center of the fury was Smith & Wesson’s chief executive, Ed Shultz. A self described “rabid gun owner,” he now found himself working late at the company’s Nashville office, trying to explain himself to angry emailers.
“I always said, ‘All we have to do is train kids and make sure those guns are locked up,’ ” Shultz told Newsweek.
But in 1998, he recalled, two children with a van full of guns shot five people to death at their middle school in Jonesboro, Ark. — a horror eclipsed the next year by the Columbine massacre.
“I changed,” Shultz told Newsweek, as the Smith & Wesson boycotts entered their third month. “I said, ‘Okay, we have to find another solution.’ … You can’t just say, ‘I made it, I shipped it, it’s out of my hands.’ ”
He confessed that the blowback was enormous. “When Shultz and his troops arrive in Charlotte, N.C., for the National Rifle Association’s annual convention,” Newsweek wrote in the spring of 2000, “no one’s quite sure whether they’ll be accosted in the lobby or shunned like a virus.”
The convention that May looked nothing like the dismal showing from the year before. The NRA crowd was energized — defiant in the face of Smith & Wesson’s alleged defection and massive anti-gun protests, including the Million Mom March in Washington that month.
More than 200,000 people had joined the gun group since the settlement was announced, NPR reported. In TV ads, the NRA’s president, Charlton Heston, had been accusing Smith & Wesson’s London-based owner of trying to reinstitute colonial control of the United States, the Mail on Sunday wrote.
The gunmaker’s sales and stocks were plunging, and there was talk that the owner, a huge British conglomerate, was trying to sell Smith & Wesson.
All this was necessary, in the eyes of gun rights advocates who saw themselves in an existential battle.
“Many believe licensing and registration will lead to nothing short of federal confiscation of all their firearms,” an NPR reporter said from the 2000 NRA convention, where boycott signs floated around Smith & Wesson’s booth.
‘My own beliefs’
The federal government tried to protect its only cooperating gunmaker, understanding that unless the rest of the industry joined the settlement deal, Smith & Wesson would either back out of it or go bankrupt.
Clinton’s White House tried the carrot: persuading nearly 200 police agencies to buy guns only from gunmakers that joined the settlement, Newsweek reported.
It tried the stick: threatening a new federal lawsuit against gun manufacturers, which were already battling the cities in court.
But no other manufacturer broke ranks. Glock’s brief consideration of a deal had ended once the NRA spoke out. The company preferred to risk “bleeding to death with legal bills,” an executive told the Mercury News, rather than face what Smith & Wesson was going through.
At one point during the boycotts, the Times wrote, New York, Connecticut and Maryland opened antitrust investigations of the gun industry, suspecting that Smith & Wesson’s competitors were conspiring to organize them. But gunmakers denied any collusion, and the investigation led to no penalties. As the presidential election approached, the industry saw hope that a new administration would back off the pressure.
So in the end, Smith & Wesson fell alone.
In the summer of 2000, the company suspended most of its manufacturing and sent workers home, the AP reported.
In the fall, more than 100 employees were laid off — 15 percent of the workforce.
Shultz stepped down as chief executive and left Smith & Wesson that September.
Even as some accused him of being duped by the government, he was unapologetic about trying to reform the business of guns.
“I had to make those decisions based on the tradition of the company and my own beliefs of what’s right,” Shultz later told the Times. “Would I put locks on our guns if it might save one child? The answer was yes.”
In the spring of 2001, a little more than a year after the deal with the government, the British conglomerate sold Smith & Wesson to an American start-up for $15 million — a fraction of the $100-plus million it had paid for the gunmaker in the 1980s, the Los Angeles Times wrote.
Smith & Wesson’s new owner soon paid a visit to the NRA and made peace. “The turnaround was unbelievably dramatic,” a spokesman for the gunmaker later told the AP. “The problems were associated with our former owners.”
President George W. Bush was in the White House by then, and his administration showed no sign of trying to enforce Smith & Wesson’s old settlement deal.
There would be no federal lawsuit against gunmakers. The city lawsuits were already bogged down in court. And within a few years, Congress would pass shield laws protecting gunmakers from being sued.
From that point on, the country’s oldest gunmaker and its most powerful gun rights group rose together.
Gun sales soared after Sept. 11, 2001, as terrorist attacks became the new public trauma.
Two years later, Smith & Wesson had not yet designed any smart guns — but it had a new .50 caliber Magnum that was selling quite well.
The Clinton-era assault weapons ban expired in 2004, and two years later Smith & Wesson introduced its first tactical rifle — modeled on the AR-15, branded the M&P15. Demand for such weapons spiked as President Barack Obama prepared to take office, the Boston Globe wrote, amid fears of a new Democratic crackdown on guns.
But the crackdown never came. The NRA eventually gave Smith & Wesson’s new chief executive, James Debney, its “Golden Ring of Freedom Award” — noting that the gunmaker had donated well over $1 million to the group.
“We looked back at the support we had given the NRA over time and decided, really quite honestly, that it wasn’t enough,” Debney was quoted as saying in the news release.
So Smith & Wesson became, once again, a revered and profitable U.S. gunmaker.
On Feb. 14, three educators and 14 children were massacred in Parkland, Fla., in the deadliest high school shooting the United States had yet seen.
Police said the shooter used an M&P15 tactical rifle, made by Smith & Wesson.