A Former Insider with a Troubled Conscience Turns on the Increasingly Besieged Firearms Industry

By Bai, Matt | Newsweek, January 25, 1999 | Go to article overview
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A Former Insider with a Troubled Conscience Turns on the Increasingly Besieged Firearms Industry


Bai, Matt, Newsweek


Is He the Smoking Gun?

For more than a decade, Robert Hass was a Smith & Wesson trigger man. As the vice president in charge of sales and marketing for the world's largest handgun manufacturer, Hass figured out new and innovative ways to sell the company's weapons. Armed with a Harvard MBA, Hass helped boost Smith & Wesson's market share during the 1980s and launched a successful campaign to sell more guns to women. But in 1989 Smith & Wesson was sold to an English company, Tomkins, which cleaned house and forced Hass into retirement. Sitting around the house, he began to have second thoughts about his old job -- thoughts that weighed on his conscience. Then he read in a trade magazine about a group of New York families -- victims of gun violence -- who were suing dozens of gun makers and distributors, including Smith & Wesson. The families claimed that the industry should share blame for their tragedies because it negligently allowed guns to fall into the hands of criminal gun traffickers -- a charge the gun makers vehemently deny. One day in 1996 Hass called directory assistance and got the number for Elisa Barnes, the lawyer for the families. He told her he might be able to help.

As the landmark trial known as Hamilton v. Accu-Tek got underway in a Brooklyn courtroom this month, no one would say whether the mysterious Robert Hass would actually testify in person. What is clear is that he has ricocheted on the gun industry. In a sworn affidavit and at a contentious deposition, Hass claimed under oath that he and other gun executives didn't lift a finger to stem the underground flow of guns into American cities, even though they could have. That doesn't make for an open-and-shut case. But as several cities, beginning with Chicago and New Orleans, prepare to file similar lawsuits against the gun industry, their lawyers are already seizing on Hass's testimony to bolster their claim that the gun manufacturers are at fault. Having modeled their assault on the massive legal campaign against the tobacco industry, anti-gun activists hope that Hass -- or someone who follows his example -- could turn out to be their Jeffrey Wygand, the Brown and Williamson turncoat who helped singe Big Tobacco. So far, however, the ornery 68-year-old Hass won't talk to other lawyers or the press, and he may not willingly appear in front of the Hamilton jury, either. Lawyers say he is concerned about his privacy and his safety. "I said everything I had to say in the affidavit," Hass told a reporter on the doorstep of his suburban Connecticut home. "I guess I'm not that courageous."

Hass's accusations don't concern what he and other gun executives did, but rather what they didn't do. Smith & Wesson ships thousands of handguns to distributors from its factory in Springfield, Mass. -- a 700,000-square-foot complex thick with the stench of forged metal. These national distributors then supply the guns to retailers, who are supposed to sell them only to legitimate users. What often happens, however, is this: criminal gun traffickers buy caches of guns illegally from shady dealers in states -- largely in the Southeast -- that have more lenient gun laws. The handguns are then shipped to states and cities like New York, Boston and Chicago where it's almost impossible to legally buy a handgun. Lawyers in the Hamilton case -- filed by the relatives of six people killed in separate shootings in New York City and Yonkers -- assert that as many as 90 percent of the handgun crimes in New York City are committed with guns that were smuggled across the border. And those crimes could have been prevented, they say, if the gun makers themselves would stop shipping more guns around the country than could ever be purchased by legitimate users. They want the manufacturers to pay damages.

The gun industry has long maintained that because of its two-tier distribution system -- first to distributors, and then to retailers -- it has no way of knowing where its guns wind up, or who buys them.

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