Friday, October 21, 2005

Congress Passes New Legal Shield for Gun Industry

The New York Times

Congress Passes New Legal Shield for Gun Industry

WASHINGTON, Oct. 20 - The Republican-controlled Congress delivered a long-sought victory to the gun industry on Thursday when the House voted to shield firearms manufacturers and dealers from liability lawsuits. The bill now goes to President Bush, who has promised to sign it.

The gun liability bill has for years been the No. 1 legislative priority of the National Rifle Association, which has lobbied lawmakers intensely for it. Its final passage, by a vote of 283 to 144, with considerable Democratic support, reflected the changing politics of gun control, an issue many Democrats began shying away from after Al Gore, who promoted it, was defeated in the 2000 presidential race.

"It's a historic piece of legislation," said Wayne LaPierre, the association's chief executive, who said the bill was the most significant victory for the gun lobby since Congress rewrote the federal gun control law in 1986. "As of Oct. 20, the Second Amendment is probably in the best shape in this country that it's been in decades."

The bill, which is identical to one approved in July by the Senate, is aimed at ending a spate of lawsuits by individuals and municipalities, including New York City, seeking to hold gun manufacturers and dealers liable for negligence when their weapons are used in crimes.

While it bars such suits, the measure contains an exception allowing certain cases involving defective weapons or criminal behavior by a gun maker or dealer, such as knowingly selling a weapon to someone who has failed a criminal background check.

President Bush said in a statement that he looked forward to signing the bill, which he said would "further our efforts to stem frivolous lawsuits, which cause a logjam in America's courts, harm America's small businesses, and benefit a handful of lawyers at the expense of victims and consumers."

Backers of the measure say it is necessary to keep the American arms industry in business, while opponents say the law would deprive gun violence victims of a legitimate right to sue. Dispirited gun-safety advocates said they now expected attempts to dismiss nearly a dozen lawsuits around the country, and they vowed to challenge the constitutionality of the bill in court.

"It's always been a tough fight, let's face that," said Representative Carolyn McCarthy, Democrat of New York, who ran for Congress in 1996 after her husband was killed and her son injured by a gunman on the Long Island Rail Road. She added, "This is personal for me."

Fifty-nine Democrats joined 223 Republicans and the House's lone independent to pass the bill. The chief House sponsor of the bill, Representative Cliff Stearns, Republican of Florida, said the measure received a boost in July, when Pentagon officials wrote a letter saying they supported it as a way to "safeguard our national security" by limiting lawsuits against companies that supply weapons to the military.

"There's a subtle undertow here about buy America," Mr. Stearns said, adding, "This bill has picked up a little bit of steam because of that."

Mr. Stearns said he had been working to pass the legislation for six years. But the turning point came not in the House, which had previously passed a similar bill, but in the Senate, which has 55 Republicans after the 2004 elections. The stronger majority enabled Republicans to beat back Democratic amendments that had doomed the measure in the past.

The bill's passage was a bit of good news for President Bush and Congressional Republicans, who have been consumed by an intraparty budget battle in the House, the criticism over the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet E. Miers, a leak investigation involving the president's senior political adviser and the scheduled arraignment of Representative Tom DeLay, who was recently forced to step aside as majority leader, on charges of money laundering and conspiracy in Texas.

Mr. DeLay issued a statement calling the gun bill an important step toward revamping the nation's tort law system. On Wednesday, the House passed another measure, the so-called cheeseburger bill, which protects the restaurant industry from obesity-related lawsuits. Taken together, Mr. DeLay said, the bills "protect America's legal system for genuine plaintiffs."

There have been dozens of lawsuits against the gun industry in recent years, most of them dismissed by the courts. In response to those suits, Mr. LaPierre said, 33 states have adopted laws similar to the federal bill.

While opponents of the measure said it singles out the gun industry for special protection, Mr. LaPierre said the protection is necessary because, unlike auto manufacturers or pharmaceutical companies, American firearms makers "don't have deep pockets," and the industry would be at risk simply from the cost of fighting the lawsuits.

But opponents called the bill shameful - "bought and paid for by the N.R.A.," in the words of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts. Representative Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, whose constituents include victims of the 2002 sniper shootings in Washington and its suburbs, called the measure "a cruel hoax" on victims of gun violence.

"I went to a lot of memorial services during that period of time," Mr. Van Hollen said. "I've met with family members. To tell them that their cases were frivolous is, I think, to add insult to injury."

Eight of the sniper victims or their relatives won a $2.5 million legal settlement from the manufacturer of the gun used in the shootings and the dealer in Washington State who sold it. Mr. LaPierre said that suit would have been permitted under the law passed Thursday. But the lawyer who brought it, Dennis Henigan of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, disagreed.

Mr. Henigan said that while the dealer had violated federal law, the bill would have prevented the suit nonetheless because the violations did not pertain directly to the weapon used in the sniper shootings. He said he intended to challenge the bill on constitutional grounds, arguing that it deprives states of their right to legislate and deprives victims of their right to sue.

"We're going to argue that this statute is literally unprecedented in American history," Mr. Henigan said, "because it is the first time that the federal government will be stepping in and retroactively depriving injured people of their vested legal rights under state law, without providing them any alternative."