Smith & Wesson chooses business and profits over lives and gun safety (Guest viewpoint)

Student protesters rally outside Smith & Wesson in Springfield in 2018, calling on the manufacturer to help stop gun violence.

Earlier this month, Smith & Wesson announced plans to move some manufacturing operations to Tennessee, claiming it was “under attack” by gun safety advocates who initiated legislation to ban the manufacture of firearms that are illegal to use in Massachusetts.

A gun manufacturer claiming to be “under attack” would be laughable if lives weren’t at stake. Nearly 40,000 lives are lost to gun violence each year. Over one million Americans have died from unregulated firearms over the past three decades.

Having spent nearly 30 years working to reduce preventable gun violence, I know what it is to be “under attack.” My friends Sandy and Lonnie Phillips lost their daughter, Jessi Ghawi, in the 2012 Aurora mass shooting “attack” carried out with a military-style AR-15 assault rifle manufactured in Massachusetts by Smith & Wesson. They now support other survivors of gun violence through their non-profit, Survivors Empowered, and frequently face hostility.

Other friends, Manny and Patricia Oliver, lost their only son, Joaquin Oliver, in the 2018 Parkland mass shooting “attack” – also with an AR – 15 assault rifle manufactured by Smith and Wesson. They now work to change the culture around guns in America through dozens of ARTivism events sponsored by their nonprofit, Change the Ref. “Attacks” come in the form of hate mail and vandalized art exhibits.

More than 100 individuals were killed or injured in Aurora and Parkland. Those that survive struggle with PTSD, depression and myriad other mental and physical health issues. This exponential damage, heartbreak and loss demonstrate the danger of these “Made in Massachusetts” military-style assault weapons and what it’s like to really be “under attack.”

As a businessperson, gun owner and co-founder of Stop Handgun Violence, I count myself as lucky. I have not lost a family member to gun violence, and I hope my three decades of gun safety advocacy – in the face of vicious anti-Semitic hate mail and death threats – prevent more attacks on people like the Olivers and Phillips.

Smith & Wesson’s announcement last month came with the claim that our legislation is to blame. If passed, the bill would prevent the manufacture of military style assault weapons in Massachusetts, consistent with our long-standing ban on the sale and ownership of these weapons in the Commonwealth. Smith & Wesson claims as much as 60% of their revenue comes from the sale of these assault weapons. When Stop Handgun Violence first worked to pass the 1998 assault weapons ban in Massachusetts, Smith & Wesson did not make these guns at all.

In reality, Smith & Wesson is not moving because of the proposed bill, but because Tennessee offers cheaper labor, less accountability for gun manufacturers, and virtually no gun safety laws or regulations, including no laws preventing individuals with a known history of violence from purchasing firearms.

The breadth of gun violence in this country is largely dependent on location. According to the National Center for Disease Control and Prevention, states whose elected officials work to protect their constituents by passing effective gun safety laws have low gun death rates. States that do not remain at a much higher risk for gun violence and death.

Our hearts break for the nearly 40,000 families a year that lose loved ones to preventable gun violence, including the disproportionate number of people in Tennessee where the gun death rate is five times higher than in Massachusetts. Smith & Wesson’s move will only increase gun violence in Tennessee, where it already costs the state over $9 billion dollars each year in lost wages, medical related expenses, law enforcement costs and lost productivity.

Meanwhile, urban Massachusetts has the lowest gun death rate and the lowest cost of gun violence in the nation. If every state had the same reasonable gun laws as Massachusetts over 27,000 lives could be saved every year.

A billboard we created after the Aurora shooting carried a simple message: “Assault weapons have stopping power, fortunately so does your vote.” Good riddance Smith & Wesson and its executives, and we hope Tennesseans will remember this as they head to the polls next year with a new gun manufacturer of deadly assault weapons in their midst.

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