WASHINGTON -- Smith & Wesson, America's largest manufacturer of handguns, has issued a "clarification" of its landmark pact with the federal government that would effectively eviscerate many of the gun controls trumpeted by the Clinton administration.
Smith & Wesson's interpretation -- posted quietly on its Web site -- has forced the company back into talks with the administration that could lead to a protracted court battle.
Administration officials dismissed Smith & Wesson's interpretation as more of a public relations gambit than a genuine change of heart but said they would be willing to go to court to force Smith & Wesson into compliance.
"The deal speaks for itself," said Neal Wolin, general counsel of the Treasury Department, referring to the agreement Smith & Wesson reached March 17 with federal, state and local officials as a way to settle lawsuits it had faced related to gun violence. "I think the language of the deal is clear on all these points."
Contrary to the government's interpretation, the gun maker says now, its agreement would compel Smith & Wesson dealers to impose background checks and other gun-sale restrictions only on buyers of Smith & Wesson products. The government maintains that under the agreement, dealers who wish to sell Smith & Wesson's products must impose such restrictions on buyers of all guns.
Moreover, the company says, the criminal background checks Smith & Wesson agreed to for gun show sales would not apply to guns sold by private citizens, only to those sold by licensed dealers. Gun show sales by licensed dealers are already subject to background checks.
"We can't agree to control things that we have no way to control," said Ken Jorgensen, a spokesman for Smith & Wesson.
Smith & Wesson's accord was touted as a breakthrough by federal officials, in large part because it was supposed to have a broad effect on the entire firearms industry. Under the government's interpretation, Smith & Wesson agreed that its products could be sold only by dealers who followed a strict "code of responsibility" for all of its gun sales, not just sales of Smith & Wesson products.
Under that code, all customers would have to pass a criminal background check. Dealers that sell Smith & Wesson guns would have to maintain rigorous records of all gun sales, and all guns would have to be stored and displayed in a secure manner.
Gun shows that sell Smith & Wesson products would have to subject all customers to background checks, no matter how long those checks would take.
By imposing such restrictions, the government hoped to force gun-sale restrictions on every manufacturer. It was assumed that gun shows and gun dealers would rather comply with the regulations than forfeit the ability to sell Smith & Wesson guns.
But Smith & Wesson has thrown that wish on its head.
The deal's negotiators reacted incredulously to the gun maker's interpretation. White House officials acknowledged that t stark differences now exist between the administration's position and that of Smith & Wesson, which was hailed by President Clinton last month as a courageous and visionary company that risked being bankrupted by the rest of its industry.
"I think [Smith & Wesson's] interpretation is utterly divorced from reality and has no legal significance whatsoever," said Dennis Henigan, legal director of the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, who helped negotiate the accord.
Since the accord was signed, Smith & Wesson has come under withering pressure from other gun makers, gun dealers and gun rights activists, who have accused the company of sabotaging the entire industry. Jorgensen said gun makers have told organizers of target-shooting competitions that they would no longer sponsor their competitions if Smith & Wesson remained affiliated with the tournaments.
Some gun dealers have promised to stop selling Smith & Wesson firearms. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said he has evidence that gun makers and dealers have pressured gun magazines to reject Smith & Wesson advertisements. And gun rights activists -- possibly in collusion with other gun makers -- have called for a boycott of the company's products, Blumenthal asserted.
Besides Blumenthal, the attorneys general of Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, California and Florida have launched anti-trust investigations against other gun makers, saying the actions of Smith & Wesson's competitors could amount to illegal collusion.
Henigan, who represents 24 cities and counties that are suing the gun industry, insisted that Smith & Wesson's interpretation of the deal was more a public relations document to calm the gun world than its genuine understanding.
But, he promised, if the company did not abide by the government's interpretation, his clients would try to hold Smith & Wesson in contempt of court. If that did not work, the lawsuits the agreement was supposed to settle could be reinstated.
"The words on the page [of the agreement] directly contradict their interpretation," Henigan said. "If they assert these positions before the courts enforcing the agreement, they would lose."
But Jorgensen insisted that the company's clarification was more than public relations. He said it was an acknowledgement of the agreement's limitations. Jorgensen said Smith & Wesson could not press its argument that its competitors are illegally colluding to hurt its business, and at the same time force other companies to abide by its agreement.
Smith & Wesson's interpretation is shared by the Violence Policy Center, a gun control group that from the start has criticized the deal as toothless.
"On its face, the agreement was ambiguous," said Kristen Rand, the group's director of federal policy. "It was never clear how Smith & Wesson could impose its will on its competitors."