updated 7/26/2005 4:49:48 PM ET 2005-07-26T20:49:48

The Senate on Tuesday put off until fall completing a $491 billion defense bill to act this week on the National Rifle Association's top priority: shielding gun manufacturers and dealers from liability suits stemming from gun crimes.

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On a 66-32 test vote, the Senate indicated there's plenty of support for Republican leaders' determination to pass the gun bill before lawmakers leave at the end of this week for a monthlong vacation.

"The only reason it is coming to the floor in a time of war to interrupt the debate on the Defense Authorization bill is that members are feeling pressure form the gun lobby," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.

Congress was on the way to passing the bill last year when the NRA abruptly asked its chief sponsor, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, to withdraw it after gun opponents succeeded in amending it to extend an expiring ban on assault weapons. A pickup of four GOP Senate seats in last November's election emboldened gun rights supporters to try again, confident they can block reimposing restrictions on assault-type weapons.

The bill would prohibit lawsuits against the firearms industry for damages resulting from the unlawful use of a firearm or ammunition. Craig, a member of the NRA's board of directors, said such lawsuits are "predatory and aimed at bankrupting the firearms industry." Such lawsuits unfairly blame dealers and manufacturers for the crimes of gun users, he said.

Gun makers would still be subject to product liability
Gun makers and dealers still would be subject to product liability, negligence or breach of contract suits under the bill, Craig said.

Gun opponents say the bill effectively exempts from liability gunmakers and that dealers allow the weapons to get into the hands of people the law says shouldn't have them. If the bill had been law when six victims of Washington, D.C., snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo sued the gun dealer from which they obtained their rifle, the dealer would not have agreed to pay the families and victims $2.5 million, say opponents of the bill.

The Republican-controlled House passed a similar bill in 2004 but has taken no action on the issue this year.

Democrats and Republicans alike court the powerful NRA at election time, and the bill has garnered bipartisan support. But the gun industry still gave 88 percent of its campaign contributions, or $1.2 million to Republicans in the 2004 election cycle. Gun control advocates, meanwhile, gave 98 percent of their contributions, or $93,700, to Democrats that cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

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