Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Senate takes up bill to protect gun industry


Senate takes up bill to protect gun industry

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate on Tuesday opened debate on a measure to give the U.S. gun industry broad protection from civil lawsuits, a top priority of the gun lobby and an anathema to gun control groups.

The legislation, which would grant gun makers immunity from most civil liability lawsuits, is likely to pass with support from most Senate Republicans and a number of Democrats from rural or southern states. But gun control advocates hope to attach amendments, possibly including a measure that would impose tighter regulation of sales at gun shows.

The Republican-led Senate brought up the gun legislation as the Senate stalled on a war-time defense bill, prompting Democratic complaints about national priorities.

"I support the gun liability legislation," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "But for heaven's sakes, what is more important to this country (than) taking care of our troops, our veterans, their dependents?"

"Should the gun liability legislation trump this? The obvious answer is no, but it did," he added.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, decided to take up guns as Congress moved toward its month-long August recess and an effort to cut off debate on the defense bill came up short of the votes needed to pass.

The White House announced its support of the legislation earlier in the day. The gun industry has sought protection from what it considers frivolous and politically motivated lawsuits.

"The president believes that the manufacturer of a legal product should not be held liable for the criminal misuse of that product by others, and what this bill would do is it would help prevent lawsuit abuse, and help curb the problem of frivolous lawsuits," said press secretary Scott McClellan.

Last year Republicans killed their own bill, meant to shield gunmakers, gun distributors and gun sellers against many liability suits after gun opponents attached amendments to it, including an extension of the 1994 ban on assault rifles.

But the November elections resulted in a bigger Republican majority and the Senate is now more conservative and more in favor of gun rights. Several Democrats, particularly from rural states, back the immunity measure.

Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig, lead backer of the bill, has voiced confidence that the measure will win Senate approval with few, if any, amendments unpalatable to its supporters.

Even if mostly Democratic gun control advocates do attach some amendments, Craig said earlier this month that the strategy would be to strip them out in a conference with the House of Representatives.

The House has not taken up the liability bill yet this year but it has voted for it strongly in the past.

Gun control groups say the bill would wipe out legal rights of victims of gun violence, including police injured in the line of duty or families harmed by attacks like those of the Washington-area sniper in 2002.

But the bill is a top priority for the National Rifle Association, the main U.S. gun rights lobby, which says it is needed to protect firearms manufacturers, distributors and sellers from politically motivated and frivolous lawsuits.