Liberty Safe, which calls itself “America’s #1 heavy-duty home and gun safe manufacturer,” came under intense criticism from gun owners and conservative commentators this week after it acknowledged that it had voluntarily given the F.B.I. the access code to one of its safes to help in an investigation.
As a backlash mounted in conservative outlets and on social media, the company quickly backtracked, saying it would give law enforcement officials access codes only if it received a subpoena. Until now, it had cooperated when investigators had a search warrant for a customer’s property.
The controversy underscored the distrust of the F.B.I. among many conservatives, who sharply questioned Liberty Safe’s commitment to protect their firearms from federal agents.
Here’s what we know about the search, part of a Jan. 6 case.
Nathan Earl Hughes, 34, of Fayetteville, Ark., was arrested on Aug. 30 on felony and misdemeanor charges that accused him of storming the Capitol during the riot on Jan. 6, 2021.
A statement attributed to Mr. Hughes on the crowdfunding platform GiveSendGo says F.B.I. agents searched his home on Aug. 30. “They called the manufacturer of my Liberty Safe, got the pass code from them, and got into it too,” the statement says.
Mr. Hughes did not respond to messages left at a number listed under his name. His lawyer, William Shipley, said he did not know if Mr. Hughes had refused to give the F.B.I. the code to the safe and did not how Mr. Hughes felt about Liberty Safe’s decision to voluntarily hand over the combination.
He said that his client had already been arrested at a shopping plaza and was not at home when F.B.I. agents executed the search.
“The safe could be a sideshow,” Mr. Shipley said. “I don’t know if there was anything relevant found in the safe.”
A backlash soon followed.
Liberty Safe was flooded with angry comments on social media after the controversy had been stirred up by a conservative comedy duo called the Hodgetwins, who posted about the case on Monday.
Many pointed out that Apple had fought a federal court order to help the F.B.I. unlock an iPhone that was used by one of the attackers in the shooting rampage that killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015.
“Liberty Safe is an enemy to gun owners,” Charlie Kirk, who runs Turning Point USA, a right-wing student group, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “They could have fought the warrant — like Apple did — instead they buckled and bent over. Your guns are not safe with @libertysafeinc Boycott. Ridicule. Ruin their company.”
Others compared the company to Bud Light, which conservatives shunned after Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender influencer, promoted the beer on Instagram. The American Firearms Association circulated an email with a Liberty Safe filled with cases of the beer.
“The Department of Justice, the F.B.I., the A.T.F. — they are weaponized against the American people,” Chris Dorr, an association official, said in a video. “It’s time for companies like Liberty Safe company to stand up and say: ‘Hell no.’”
The F.B.I. declined to comment.
How Liberty Safe responded at first.
In a statement on Tuesday, Liberty Safe, which was founded in 1988 and based in Payson, Utah, said that it had given the F.B.I. the code after the agency contacted it on Aug. 30 in connection with a search warrant for an unspecified property. It said it did not know details of the investigation at the time.
“Our company’s protocol is to provide access codes to law enforcement if a warrant grants them access to a property,” Liberty Safe said. “After receiving the request, we received proof of the valid warrant, and only then did we provide them with an access code.”
The company quickly changed course.
On Wednesday, Liberty Safe released a second statement on the case, saying that customers could now submit requests to have their factory-set access codes expunged from its database, which it had maintained to help customers who forgot their combination or had other issues.
Liberty Safe said it had also “revised our policies around cooperation with law enforcement.”
“Going forward we will require a subpoena that legally compels Liberty Safe to supply access codes but can only do so if these codes still exist in our system,” the company said.
The company did not immediately respond to calls and emails seeking further comment.
Here’s what legal experts say.
Several legal experts said Liberty Safe was under no obligation to hand over the code because the safe was not company property and the company was not the target of the search warrant.
“The warrant doesn’t require that they do anything,” said Tracey Maclin, a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. “All the search warrant does is say that government officials have the authority to go into a home and look for certain things.”
Professor Maclin added, “Some people might say what Liberty Safe did was a civic duty, and it’s fine.”
Without the code, the F.B.I. could still break into the safe, legal specialists said, as long as it had probable cause to believe items covered by the warrant — such as illegal guns or drugs — might be found inside.
“Unlike iPhones, where Apple doesn’t know the code, or social media, where there is a free-speech issue, the F.B.I. doesn’t even need the safe company to do anything if they have a blowtorch,” said Christopher Slobogin, a professor at Vanderbilt Law School.
Subpoenas seeking customer records are fairly routine, experts say. “More and more companies are resisting, at least to make it look like they are protecting their customers’ privacy,” Professor Slobogin said. “It’s partly a commercial decision on their part.”
What happens next?
By demanding a subpoena in future cases, Liberty Safe, which was sold in 2021 to Monomoy Capital Partners, a private investment firm, for about $147 million, was clearly hoping to appease angry customers.
While it remains unclear if the company’s sales will suffer, Donald Kilmer, a lawyer and an author of the book “Firearms Law and the Second Amendment,” said that Liberty Safe had probably “learned a valuable lesson.”
Cooperating with the authorities without a good reason, like a court order, can undermine the brand, he said. “They’re selling people security,” Mr. Kilmer said. “They’re not selling steel boxes.”
Kirsten Noyes contributed research.