Gun lobby, GOP have lawsuits in their crosshairs

Republican gains in the Senate likely give gun makers a better shot at moving a bill that shields them from lawsuits, both opponents and supporters of the measure say.

Senate Republicans last spring voted down their own bill protecting gun makers from lawsuits brought against them if their products are used in a crime, after pro-gun-control amendments were attached to the measure during floor debate.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) led the fight to add the assault-weapons ban — since expired — to the liability measure. Her amendment passed 52-47.
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Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho)

Not willing to accept that restriction as trade off to protect gun makers against certain lawsuits, the National Rifle Association (NRA) urged allies on the Senate to vote down the entire bill. The Senate did so overwhelmingly, 90-8.

But five of the senators who voted with Feinstein will not be back in the 109th Congress: Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who was defeated in his reelection bid; John Edwards of North Carolina, who ran for vice president on the Democratic presidential ticket; and John Breaux of Louisiana, Bob Graham of Florida and Ernest “Fritz” Hollings of South Carolina, none of whom sought reelection.

Conservative Republicans, all of whom were endorsed by the NRA, will replace all five Democrats. That likely gives gun advocates a straight shot to pass the bill, advocates and opponents of the bill said.

President Bush is a big backer of the legislation, saying in a statement that it would “help curb frivolous litigation against a lawful American industry.”

“The possibility of imposing liability on an entire industry for harm that is solely caused by others is an abuse of the legal system,” the president said.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican and NRA board member, would prevent lawsuits against gun makers if their guns are used to commit a crime.

Dan Whiting, a spokesman for Craig, said the measure “remains a priority.” He said Craig likely would reintroduce the bill next year.

“We shouldn’t hold manufacturers liable for someone else’s actions with their products,” he said.

The liability protection passed the House by a 2-1 ratio. Passage in the Senate looked likely as well until the pro-gun-control amendments were attached. The bill had 55 co-sponsors, including 10 Democrats.

The NRA’s chief lobbyist, Chris Cox, said his group plans to lobby for speedy passage of the bill “because reform is critical.” He said the gun industry is on the brink of “financial ruin” because of the lawsuits, which he said plantiffs file not in hope of winning but to burden gun makers with big-buck legal fees. Cox said he believed the bill would pass next year.

“We had Senator Daschle working against us,” he said. “We no longer have that problem. … Hopefully, Congress will deal with the issue expeditiously.”

Daschle was one of the 10 Democrats who signed on as co-sponsors to Craig’s bill.

Gun-rights proponents blame him nevertheless for the fact that the assault-weapons-ban extension was attached to the bill.

Gun-control advocates acknowledge they may face a tougher time trying to derail the liability measure next year.

“It is something we are very concerned about,” said Eric Howard, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. According to the campaign’s website, lawsuits against gun makers have been filed in 17 states and the District of Columbia.

Howard said the lawsuits are only brought against gun makers who knowingly sell guns through illegal gun markets. For instance, D.C.-area snipers John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo were both prohibited from buying guns, but they got a semiautomatic rifle nevertheless from Bull’s Eye Shooter in Washington. That store lost at least 238 guns over a three-year period, according to the campaign.

Craig’s bill allows suits to be brought against gun makers that “willfully” violate federal and state gun laws, but opponents said the measure effectively provides gun makers immunity from prosecution.

Just 1 percent of the gun dealers in the country account for the sale of 60 percent of guns that are used to commit crimes, Howard said. Gun makers are told by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which dealers are bad actors, he said. Some sell to those dealers anyway.

“The only thing to get these guys to act responsibly is to take them to court,” Howard said. “The dollar is the only ting these guys appreciate.”