The Clinton administration's threat to bring a class-action lawsuit against gun makers might be largely bluster. But even if it is, Tuesday's announcement, along with suits already filed by 29 cities and counties, reflects the real frustration of public officials and ordinary Americans over gun violence--the unending school shootings, workplace massacres and domestic quarrels that turn lethal. Gun makers, then, would be wise to enact on their own the modest, obvious steps that public officials seek, actions intended to reduce accidental shootings and illegal sales.
Tuesday's announcement, from the White House and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said that the federal government is joining settlement talks between gun makers and local officials aimed at limiting the flow of handguns to children and criminals. HUD said that if those talks stall it will file the first federal lawsuit against gun makers, on behalf of the 3 million residents of federally subsidized public housing projects, where shootings are all too common.
The pending suits call on gun makers to adopt a variety of safeguards, including tighter controls on distribution to reduce sales to criminals and juveniles, inclusion of child safety locks on all new handguns, more research on "smart" technology to prevent guns from being fired by unauthorized people, and an end to advertising that promotes or suggests criminal use by, for instance, emphasizing the concealability of guns or their resistance to fingerprints. These changes will not end gun violence, but they will help. The need for new approaches is sharply bolstered by a new UCLA study showing that homicides committed by those under 21 are far more likely to involve a gun.
Long, expensive litigation is in no one's interest. Even the tobacco industry, far wealthier as a group than the firearm makers, has made concessions rather than continue to fight snowballing lawsuits.
Gun makers can agree now to modest, responsible steps that will cut the flow of guns to juveniles and criminals. Or they can continue to write very large checks to their attorneys.