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Beretta's economic blackmail [Commentary]

Marylanders who recall the moving vans that absconded with the beloved Colts are all too familiar with economic blackmail from businesses whose owners threaten to leave town unless their legislative demands are met. But Ugo Beretta's tantrum against Maryland's new gun laws ("Maryland disrespects us and gun owners, so we expand in Tennessee," Washington Times, February 4, 2014) stands out for its disregard for public safety and its disingenuousness. He can't really believe what he says.

While Mr. Beretta lives in Italy, where he runs one of the world's major gun manufacturers, most Marylanders favor proactive legislation to prevent another Sandy Hook and reduce the more than 90 gun deaths that occur every day in America. That's why the state banned assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and required first time handgun buyers to undergo training, as well as licensing and fingerprinting. Mr. Beretta says Maryland was simply "disrespecting" and harassing gun owners, and for that reason, he says, the company is sending some jobs to more gun-friendly Tennessee. Ugo's message? Allow AK-47s and untrained gun owners — or else.


Putting aside that most gun owners support sensible gun laws like universal background checks, not even Ugo Beretta could believe that Maryland's laws are about harassment. If he did, his forefathers would have moved a long time ago — out of Italy.

In Italy, where the Berettas have based their operations since the 1500s, gun owners are subject to far more regulation (sorry, "disrespect") than anywhere in America. For example, a person in Italy cannot obtain a gun unless the police have issued him a permit after determining that he would not present a danger and has a reasonable need to own a firearm. The police consider the prospective owner's biographical information, criminal history and the results of a required governmental mental and physical fitness exam (a tad more intrusive than fingerprinting).

Italian law also limits the number of firearms a person can own to three "common firearms" and six hunting and sport shooting guns. Ammunition is also limited. The government maintains a complete registry of guns and gun owners. Any gun transfers and acquisitions must be reported to police within 72 hours. To purchase ammunition, a person must go through the same permitting procedure as buying a gun.

Now consider America. Federal law places no limits on how many guns or ammunition rounds you can buy or possess; gun traffickers sometimes buy 100 or more guns at a time. Semi-automatic AK-47s and .50 caliber sniper rifles are legal. The federal government is prohibited by law from keeping records of gun owners and transfers. While Brady criminal background checks are required when buying guns from federally-licensed dealers, federal law allows purchases from anyone else with no checks whatsoever (Maryland has closed this gaping loophole). The purchase of ammunition requires no background checks. In most states, people can carry hidden handguns virtually anywhere, without any need or, often, proper training.

No other product is wholly exempt from federal product safety regulations. I've represented families whose children were killed because Beretta chose not to include simple safety features that would have prevented their accidental shootings. But the federal government can't force gun companies to make guns safer. And Beretta doesn't care enough to do so.

It's no coincidence that the rate of gun deaths in Mr. Beretta's home country is nearly 10 times less than in the United States. We're not aware of Mr. Beretta claiming that Italy "disrespects" gun owners while his family has been protected by those laws.

It's not surprising that Beretta opposes Maryland's laws and any efforts to reduce gun deaths that could reduce its profits. Beretta, like the rest of the gun industry, is concerned with one thing: selling more guns. It doesn't matter much who gets them, how they're used, or how many people get shot or killed as a result; a sale is a sale.

What should be disturbing is that many lawmakers (thankfully not in Maryland) often defy the will of their citizens and place their safety at risk to appease the corporate gun lobby and its industry benefactors. Our lawmakers' failure to listen to the American people and enact common sense gun laws has made rampant gun violence an almost uniquely American phenomenon. As the Berettas choose not to live here, that's not their problem.

But we shouldn't be looking to them for solutions.

Jonathan Lowy is director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence's Legal Action Project and has litigated numerous cases against Beretta and other gun manufacturers on behalf of individuals and communities harmed by gun violence. Sam Ferenc is the legal and policy assistant of the Legal Action Project. Their emails are jlowy@bradymail.org and sferenc@bradymail.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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