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Senate braces for fight over gun lawsuits

The nation's gun lobby is close to realizing a long-sought goal of protecting firearms manufacturers and dealers from being held legally responsible for violent crimes committed with their handguns and automatic weapons.
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The nation's gun lobby is close to realizing a long-sought goal of protecting firearms manufacturers and dealers from being held legally responsible for violent crimes committed with their handguns and automatic weapons.

Supporters believe they have the votes in the Senate to pass as early as today a bill making it virtually impossible for victims of gun violence to file civil suits against the industry -- a testimony to the political clout of gun manufacturers, which have become increasingly vulnerable to civil lawsuits in the District and several states. Twelve Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), are joining with the Republicans to support the legislation.

Congress has fought bitterly over the issue for the past four years, with the House eager to grant liability protection to the industry but with the Senate highly resistant. A similar bill failed in the Senate last year after opponents loaded it up with amendments that were anathema to the NRA and other gun enthusiasts.

Broad liability shield nears passage
But this year, the Senate appears on the verge of approving a bill that is far broader than most of the 33 immunity-related state laws on the books and that would even halt pending cases, including those brought under the District's Assault Weapon Manufacturing Strict Liability Act, a 1991 law designed to hold manufacturers accountable for selling military-style guns.

The District of Columbia Court of Appeals in April upheld the act as constitutional, allowing victims of crimes involving semiautomatic weapons to bring claims under it.

If the Senate approves the measure, the House is likely to approve a companion measure -- probably after the August recess -- and to send it on to President Bush for his signature, according to gun lobbyists and some lawmakers.

Vincent Morris, a spokesman for D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, said: "It's disappointing but not surprising that this Congress wants to accommodate gun makers at the expense of victims."

D.C. case in the crosshairs
The firearms industry is particularly nervous about the D.C. law because plaintiffs are not required to show fault or prove that a gun used in the commission of a crime was defective. Lawrence G. Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents the gun industry, said every injury involving a semiautomatic weapon within the District's borders "could potentially give rise to a lawsuit."

"We feel very vulnerable," Keane said.

Keane's group recently retained Theodore B. Olson, a former solicitor general for President Bush, to file a Supreme Court petition challenging the D.C. law.

But critics say the Senate bill goes overboard in its attempt to block frivolous suits. "It completely eliminates the right to sue in the vast majority of cases," said Dennis Henigan, legal director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which has participated in most legal actions against the gun industry. "It goes right to the heart of our civil liability system."

Henigan said his group will challenge the constitutionality of the federal liability exemption, should it be signed into law.

National security becomes a talking point
Democratic opponents characterize the bill as a flagrant political favor to the gun lobby and ridicule Republicans for playing the national security card.

Supporters of the bill contend that the lawsuits could bankrupt firearm manufacturers such as Beretta USA Corp., which provides the standard side arm to the U.S. armed forces, potentially compromising the safety of American troops.

"The Department of Defense faces the very real prospect of outsourcing side arms for our soldiers to foreign manufacturers," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

Opponents note that Beretta USA is a subsidiary of the Italian company Fabbrica D'Armi Pietro Beretta S.P.A., the world's oldest gunsmith.

"This bill has one motivation -- payback by the Bush administration and the Republican leadership of the Congress to the powerful special interests of the National Rifle Association," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said yesterday. "The unholy alliance and control of the legislative process against the safety of our citizens is immoral, and it's a disgrace."

Democrats also criticized Frist for pulling a defense authorization bill from the floor this week to ensure that the gun bill would be considered before the summer recess, which is scheduled to begin this weekend.

Key Democrat supports measure
But Democratic opponents are in an awkward spot because Reid, their leader, is supporting the bill. Even as Reid lambasted Frist for shelving the defense bill, he and 11 other Democrats voted with the Republicans on Tuesday to shift action to the gun bill.

Reid said he views the bill as a way of protecting the right of law-abiding citizens to bear arms. "The rights of responsible gun owners should not be compromised by individuals who use firearms to commit violent crimes," Reid said.

Democratic supporters also appear ready to help block amendments that would weaken the legislation -- the strategy that killed last year's Senate bill. The 12 Democrats helped block an amendment yesterday that would have carved out an exception for lawsuits involving gross negligence.

Keane, the industry representative, attributed Reid's solidarity in part to the gun lobby's success in defeating former Senate minority leader Thomas A. Daschle in last year's elections. Although he publicly expressed support for last year's bill, the South Dakota Democrat was blamed for helping to sink it, by allowing the killer-amendment strategy to proceed. Keane's group helped to organize grass-roots efforts against Daschle, and pro-gun activists also ran ads against the veteran lawmaker.

"We believe it cost him his Senate seat," Keane said. He added that at least four new pro-gun senators were elected in 2004.

Gun industry on the brink?
Acknowledging that none of the gun lawsuits has resulted in jury awards so far, Keane noted that some pending cases are seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages -- an insurmountable sum for most gun manufacturers, who collectively barely rank in the top 1,000 U.S. companies. "These companies are so small they couldn't even post the bond to appeal a verdict like that," Keane said.

The Brady Center has brought about 50 of the 57 gun-related lawsuits known to have been filed nationwide, including two filed yesterday. A federal liability exemption, Henigan said, would remove the best deterrent against irresponsible acts by dealers and manufacturers -- the threat of a huge judgment.