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Caught in the Crossfire
By Marisa Helms
June 25, 2000
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The city of Saint Cloud is debating whether to join a federally-organized coalition designed to force gun manufacturers to add safety features to their weapons. Earlier this year, the nation's oldest and biggest gunmaker, Smith and Wesson, created a shockwave by announcing it would settle 14 of the lawsuits against the company by agreeing to several restrictions and safety provisions for sale and distribution of Smith and Wesson guns.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development brokered that agreement and has stayed involved by creating the "Communities for Safer Guns Coalition." Now requests have gone out to local governments across the country, including Saint Cloud, asking them to join the coalition.
Stearns County Deputy Sheriff Joe Lichy
Stearns County Deputy Sheriff Joe Lichy says he likes another provision in the Code of Responsible Conduct that requires gunmakers monitor dealers to make sure they're not allowing guns to be used illegally. It's good, he says, but its effect may be minimal.
Photo: Marisa Helms

MORE THAN 400 cities and counties have joined "The Communities for Safer Guns Coalition." That means they agree to buy their law-enforcement weapons only from gunmakers that sign a Code of Responsible Conduct, requiring additional safety measures. Those include hidden serial numbers, gun locks, and the development of "smart-gun" technology that allows only the owner of a gun to use it.

Saint Cloud Police Chief Dennis O'Keefe says he has no trouble with those safety guidelines, but for O'Keefe there's a larger principle at stake.

"The people who rely on safety equipment for their lives should have the best equipment our resources can provide; It should not be based on any lawsuits or any political statements, no matter how compelling they might appear to be," he says.

O'Keefe is against being told which guns to buy. His department buys Glock handguns because he says they're the best weapon for his officers. It's the government interference - the politics - which O'Keefe is against.

He's not alone.

Seven manufacturers and the National Shooting Sports Foundation filed a lawsuit in April, trying to stop HUD's Safer Guns Coalition. The suit alleges that the government - through the coalition effort - is simply shoveling business over to Smith and Wesson as a reward for settling and adopting the code.

"This is not about benefiting any one gun company," says Nestor Davidson, a lawyer for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "This is about recognizing that given a choice between more responsible manufacturers and less responsible manufacturers, it only makes sense to give a preference to or to prefer more responsible manufacturers. It's not about any one company, it's about any gun company that steps forward and does the right thing."

The right thing hasn't yet caught on with others in the gun industry, even though many are facing the very same lawsuits Smith and Wesson settled.

To date, 32 cities have named dozens of gunmakers and dealers in lawsuits alleging gun manufacturers have failed to make firearms as safe as possible.

HUD's Davidson says it's only a matter of time before other manufacturers follow Smith and Wesson's footsteps.

"This is an idea that is really the future for where the gun market is going. Smart consumers will demand smart guns. What we're saying, is that government has a role to play at the outset."

HUD has been a major player in gun safety; first when it helped negotiate the Smith and Wesson settlement earlier this year, and now with the drive to get as many local governments as possible to sign onto the Communities for Safer Guns Coalition.
Davidson says HUD is a natural partner in working with cities to curb gun violence because the agency is involved in community development on all levels.

However, Davidson concedes HUD is also concerned with public safety at its housing facilities. A recent study says public housing residents are twice as likely to be victims of gun violence.

Stearns County Deputy Sheriff Joe Lichy shoots rounds from his new Smith & Wesson 99. He says his agency has had Smith & Wesson guns ever since he started working here 13 years ago. The coalition has his vote.

"I believe it's going to work," he says. "It's just going to have some problems in it. All things when you first enact them have some problems in them and you just have to work those problems out. But it's a good step."

Lichy says he likes another provision in the Code of Responsible Conduct that requires gunmakers monitor dealers to make sure they're not allowing guns to be used illegally. It's good, he says, but its effect may be minimal.

"It's hard to keep the guns out of the hands of the criminals because they don't go to the regular gun dealers to buy them, a lot of them. They buy them on the street or get them from some other source."

Saint Cloud Police Chief O'Keefe is also wary of the influence the Coalition can have in terms of curbing violence on the streets.

"I don't know how that problem's going to be solved, but making my officers switch from Glock to Smith & Wesson is not going to solve that problem," he says. "That Glock we trade in for a Smith & Wesson is going to go someplace, and probably on the private market. I don't think was ever anybody's intent to cut them up and throw them away."

HUD Lawyer Nestor Davidson says signing onto the coalition is not about being forced to buy or replace guns from a particular manufacturer. Instead, law enforcement agencies that sign onto the code would only be directed to buy "responsible" guns when the time comes for them to buy.

"When law enforcement agencies look to buy guns, and they're looking at two comparable weapons, each of which meets the needs of law enforcement, at that point, it only makes sense to prefer or give a preference to a company that is advancing law enforcement goals," says Davidson.

But that logic doesn't hold for Saint Cloud's police chief who says no gun is comparable to the Glocks his officers carry.

Saint Cloud City Council Member John Ellenbecker disagrees. He wants the city to join the Communities for Safer Guns Coalition.

"These are very common-sense kinds of requirements, and as consumers of handguns, cities have a right to implement policies that reward those manufacturers they think are acting responsibly, and refuse to reward those manufacturers that you believe aren't acting responsibly," says Ellenbecker.

Councilmember Ellenbecker and Police Chief O'Keefe are both on a committee set up to study the implications of joining the coalition. They will then make their recommendation to the rest of the city council next month.

Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to stop funding HUD's Communities for Safer Guns Coalition. But gun safety proponents say the vote in the House is just a slap on the wrist from a Republican-controlled Congress. They say the coalition is not dependent on HUD to operate and can continue as a grass-roots organization of cities and counties.