Colt's Chief Stands Up For Federal Gun Control
By Henry Goldman
Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer*
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
WEST HARTFORD, Conn. -- Ronald L. Stewart is unique among the nation's
gun manufacturers. He favors a form of national gun control.
Stewart, the chief executive officer of Colt's Manufacturing Co.,
advocates a comprehensive federal firearms law, including the creation
of a federal gun permit. And he wants gun owners to be licensed,
tested and subjected to mandatory safety training.
These views have made him a pariah in the gun community.
On gun-friendly web sites, there have been calls for a boycott of
Colt's handguns and rifles. "The actions of Colt's officials are
detrimental to American-style freedoms and liberties!" wrote one
recent contributor to the GunsSaveLives Internet Discussion List.
In an interview at the headquarters of the 162-year-old company,
Stewart said his views were based on the assumption that increased
government regulation was inevitable. "I'm just searching for a
middle-of-the-road position, and that's why I've taken such a beating
from others in the industry," he said. "They want me to just go along
with something that the public increasingly sees as an extreme view."
For gun manufacturers and distributors, he said, federal
regulation would be far easier to live with than separate laws for
each state. And licensing and testing of gun users, he said, is no
more onerous, and no less reasonable, than licensing and testing of
those who drive automobiles.
"I'm trying to address the question of how do you operate the gun
safely so that you don't injure somebody," he said. "It doesn't make
sense to stake out a position that is perceived by the public to be
"I'm not a gun nut," Stewart said. "I'm not even a member of the
More often than not, Stewart said, he supports the National Rifle
Association's positions on issues. But the NRA, according to chief
executive officer Wayne LaPierre, has "never been in favor of a
federal permit and never will be."
Some of Stewart's critics say his gun-control proposals are
motivated more to promote Colt than to enhance public safety.
"I think there are many who feel, rightly or wrongly, he has
staked out these positions to curry favor with police departments and
with those in the federal government, who would [be able to] influence
the success of their product," said Dave Tinker, publisher of
Firearms Business, a trade publication. Stewart denies such
accusations, which were also made by the Coalition of New Jersey
Sportsmen in a flyer distributed widely at the NRA convention in
Philadelphia last month.
But there is no question that Stewart has developed a business
strategy intended more for insulating Colt from government regulations
than fighting them.
In a highly fragmented and competitive market that has been
stagnant for five years, he hopes to capture an increased share of the
law-enforcement market -- and ultimately the home-user market --
through so-called smart-gun technology while expanding military sales
While Stewart sees himself as eminently reasonable, others in the
gun industry depict him as a heretic.
"He's definitely espousing views about our industry that are out
of step with opinions held by manufacturers and gun owners, and it is
a matter of great concern to us," said Georgia Nichols, vice president
and general counsel of Connecticut-based O.F. Mossberg & Sons, which
makes shotguns and other firearms.
In May, Stewart resigned from the board of the American Shooting
Sports Council, an Atlanta-based trade group, after the council
attacked the Clinton administration's ban on imported assault weapons.
What upset Stewart was that the council, in launching its attack,
said that one reason to permit such imports was that they are no
different from domestic products such as the AR-15, a semiautomatic
rifle Colt makes.
Stewart's declaration of independence from the rest of the
industry came in December when he wrote a guest editorial in American
Firearms Industry magazine. While he attacked the antigun lobby, he
also endorsed federal regulation.
Strangely enough, his alienation from the rest of the industry had
its first public manifestation two months earlier, when he appeared to
be taking an anti-safety stance.
There was a ceremony at the White House at which 10 gun executives
told President Clinton they would voluntarily ship child-safe locks
with their products. Since then, 16 more gun-makers have signed on.
But Stewart was not at the White House and has not signed on.
"Why is it that everyone else feels that it's a good idea and he
doesn't?" asked Richard Feldman, director of the American Shooting
Sports Council, which organized the event. "We've given people what
they need to help prevent someone, particularly a child, from
negligently using the gun."
Stewart, who called the White House announcement "a dog-and-pony
show," said such locks are unreliable and give a false sense of
security when used on a loaded gun. He said he expects lawsuits when
locked guns accidentally fire.
The real way to prevent accidents, Stewart said, is the "smart
gun," designed to prevent a gun from being fired by anyone but the
Stewart claims his company is ahead in developing such a gun,
using a microchip worn on the shooter that will transmit a signal to a
receiving chip inside the gun.
One prototype has been tested with mixed results; a second will be
available by the end of August, Stewart said. If all goes well, the
company will be ready to make the guns available to police departments
for testing within two years, he said.
Colt sees a big market in law enforcement; 16 percent of all
shootings of police officers occur when their guns are grabbed out of
their hands or holsters by criminals. Currently, Colt has almost no
share of the police market.
"It's a technology that you can't ignore, and it has the potential
not just to save a lot of police lives, but to safeguard weapons
purchased for home use, keep them out of the hands of thieves or kids,
people who shouldn't have them," said Paul Bolton, who heads the
International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Gun sales to police departments, usually at cost, do not create
profits, but the prestige of being chosen as a law-enforcement weapon
creates profitable sales in the commercial market, Stewart said.
Why are others in the industry so distrustful of Stewart and so
quick to question his motives?
One reason is that Stewart, 56, is an outsider, according to
Tinker, the publisher of Firearms Business. Stewart became Colt's
president in 1996, after 22 years at Chrysler and a working lifetime
in the automobile industry. He was brought in after the company had
been in bankruptcy and had been purchased by a limited partnership
headed by Donald Zilkha, a New York financier.
Since then, Stewart said, a series of management reforms and cost
controls have produced a profit of about $10 million on about $100
million in sales.
The key to sustained profitability, Stewart said, "will be whether
we can insulate ourselves from the turmoil that will exist in the
commercial gun market in the years to come."
He said the fact that he's an outsider had helped him see
gun-control issues more clearly than his competitors do.
"I'm not dealing with the emotions of it," he said. "I can sit
back and see where it's going. The gun industry is where the
automobile industry was in the 1960s -- the same clamor for safety
regulations. Seat belts. Air bags. We are going to go through a
period of reform and legislation. All I'm trying to do is survive and
prosper in whatever direction this thing takes."
* This article appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on July 13, 1998
and was forwarded to TLE from the
GunsSaveLives Internet Discussion List
by Bob Phipps firstname.lastname@example.org.