Frist: lawsuits threaten gun supply

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) interrupted debate on the 2006 defense authorization bill to consider legislation to block lawsuits against gun manufacturers, saying that “frivolous” litigation could leave the Defense Department without a U.S. source for sidearms.

Despite Frist’s alarming claims, the military is not currently facing any shortage of small arms, according to Pentagon officials.

American gun manufacturers supply the military with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of small arms, which includes a broad variety of firearms from pistols to machine guns. The weapons are worth even more when ammunition, modifications and special features such as optical sights are included.

The U.S. firearms industry has been facing repeated lawsuits, an attempt to hold manufacturers liable when guns that were sold lawfully are subsequently misused by criminals, explained Lawrence Keane, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Shooting and Sports Association, a nonprofit organization representing the firearms industry.

The Senate is considering a new version of a gun-liability measure that was effectively killed by its own supporters last year. Sponsored by Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), the measure would prohibit civil-liability actions against manufacturers, dealers and importers of firearms and ammunition in any state or federal court.

In April, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruled that any victim of a shooting in the district could sue the industry, which Keane said would make gun manufacturers “absolutely and automatically” liable for a criminal shooting in D.C. Beretta USA, the manufacturer of the M9 pistol, the standard firearm for the armed forces, expressed concern that a single jury ruling in the District could bankrupt the company.

“Every criminal shooting in the district gives rise to a suit against the industry, and these are the types that need to be stopped,” Keane said.

“Without this legislation it is probable the American manufacturers of legal firearms will be faced with a real prospect of going out of business, ending a critical source of supply for our armed forces, our police and our citizens,” Frist said.

Frist’s decision to take up the gun-liability measure comes amid an Army review of more than a half-dozen requests for proposals for new small arms. In fact, the Army has extended the request for six months to allow more companies to compete and included the Marine Corps’s requests, according to an Army spokesperson.

While the Defense Department refused to comment on “speculative legislation,” an Army spokesperson said the Army currently is not experiencing any problems with the supply of its sidearms. The Army is the purchasing agent for most services’ sidearms; some exceptions exist for special-operations forces.

Army leaders are revamping their small-arms inventories to be better suited to the kind of guerrilla wars being fought in Iraq. The spokesperson said the Army has not had problems buying these weapons, although the spokes-person acknowledged that because the Defense Department is the largest gun purchaser, it could serve as a “relevant hypothesis” for Frist’s arguments. 

“These frivolous suits threaten a domestic industry that is critical to our national defense, jeopardize hundreds of thousands of jobs,” Frist said. “Many support this legislation, and I am hopeful that with the cooperation of members we can complete all action on this legislation before the recess.” 

Frist used the gun-liability legislation in part as a strategy to divert attention from amendments related to treatment of detainees and the Pentagon’s base closures and realignments. The Bush administration opposes those amendments.

Keane argued that the liability bill still allows manufacturers to be sued if they violate any laws governing gun sales.

“There is nothing in the legislation that prevents the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau from enforcing the gun-control act because a dealer has violated regulations,” he said.

According to Keane, the gun industry has spent at least $225 million on lawsuits in the past 10 years and small companies such as Charco 2000 have filed for bankruptcy because of lawsuit expenses. Both Beretta and Sigarms, the two top suppliers to the military have been sued numerous times.

“If … [a company] like Beretta, which has been sued, is driven out of business, it will not be able to fulfill [its] contractual obligation,” to the military, Keane said.

He argued that these issues should pose immediate concern to the Defense Department.  The firearms (buying) system hasn’t “collapsed,” said the spokesperson.

Beretta recently received a contract to supply 18,744 M9 semiautomatic pistols to the U.S. Air Force with an option to purchase an additional 5,190 pistols.

The pistol is produced at the Beretta USA headquarters in Accokeek, Md., where it has been made for 20 years. The Air Force plans to buy 34,374 M9s between 2004 and 2007 at a price of $39 million, according to Air Force budget projections.
Meanwhile, the Army is planning to buy $8 million worth of modifications to the M9 and M11, which is produced by Sigarms, between 2006 and 2007.

The Navy is planning to buy 1,069 M11s through 2011 at a total cost of $722,000 and to spend $5.6 million on modifications to the M9 pistols, which are supposed to be completed this year.

According to Hoovers, a business-information service, Beretta’s revenue is estimated at $72.7 million annually.

Another major gun manufacturer, Smith & Wesson, which provides fire-arms to law-enforcement officers, told the Securities and Exchange Commission that it is expecting its sales to reach $124 million this year, 5 percent higher than last year.