WASHINGTON - After years of pleading its case in Congress, the gun lobby yesterday won a major victory with the passage of a bill preventing victims of gun crimes from suing manufacturers and dealers.
The House of Representatives passed the bill by an overwhelming vote of 283-144, with 59 Democrats voting for it. There was only one hour of debate and no amendments were permitted. The Senate voted for the same bill in July, passing it with a vote of 65 to 31, including 14 Democrats. The measure was defeated in the last Congress.
Because both House and Senate versions are the same, the measure goes directly to the White House. President Bush, who has been pushing Congress to pass legislation making it harder to sue, has said he will sign it. In a statement put out by the White House, he was quoted as saying: "Our laws should punish criminals who use guns to commit crimes, not law-abiding manufacturers."
As soon as Mr. Bush signs the legislation, it goes into effect.
The National Rifle Association, the major voice of the powerful gun lobby, greeted the news joyfully. "This is an historic victory for the NRA. Freedom, truth, and justice prevailed," said Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA. "No other industry is forced to defend themselves when a violent criminal they do not know, have never met, and cannot control, misuses a legal nondefective product. American firearms manufacturers will now receive the same fair treatment."
The NRA first argued that the bill was necessary to protect gun manufacturers while the nation is engaged in the war in Iraq. Lately, it has been arguing that the so-called "lawlessness" in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina buttressed its case for passing the measure as quickly as possible.
Dennis Henigan, a lawyer who heads the legal action project for the pro-gun-control group, the Brady Center, countered, "It is so ridiculous that the NRA's focus is on the 'lawlessness' rather than all the innocent people who died or lost their homes. It is so typical of the NRA to reach out to grab every opportunity to push their agenda of more guns for all people."
Mr. Henigan said there are about a dozen test lawsuits pending around the country brought by victims of gun violence. He said that defendants will likely move for dismissal because of the new law. In that case, he said, the lawyers bringing the cases will move to block dismissal on grounds the law is unconstitutional.
He said, "We are going to be arguing it is a violation of the due process clause to retroactively deprive victims of rights that already have been recognized by state courts."
Chris Cox, head lobbyist for the NRA, said in a statement: "We are a safer country today because Congress passed this critical legislation and acted to save American icons like Remington, Ruger, Winchester, and Smith & Wesson from politically motivated lawsuits. Our men and women in uniform abroad and at home now will not have to rely on France, China, or Germany to supply their firearms."
As his statement indicates, the issue of gun control is highly emotional. But it is not partisan, although more Democrats than Republicans support more controls and successfully pushed in the Senate version of yesterday's bill to make sure a child safety lock is sold with each gun.
Supporters of the bill passed yesterday argued that lawsuits are going about the goal of gun control the wrong way and that lawful manufacturers should not be the targets. They argue that going to court to change behavior is a "new social phenomenon" in an effort to bypass state legislatures.
Using the same argument, the House this week also passed legislation, dubbed the "cheeseburger bill," to bar lawsuits claiming a food company's high-calorie products are responsible for obesity. The House passed the measure by a vote of 306 to 120. (The bill has not passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is bogged down considering Harriet Miers' nomination to the Supreme Court.)
John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, hailed passage of the restriction on gun lawsuits and the cheeseburger bill. He said the bill finally passed because more voters realized that "runaway litigation costs threaten economic growth and job creation."
His group is urging the House next to pass a bill mandating sanctions for bringing a "frivolous" lawsuit in federal court and permits judges to order a plaintiff to reimburse the defendant for legal bills.
The American Trial Lawyers Association says 79 percent of judges oppose that bill and that the White House's argument that an "explosion in litigation" is creating "a logjam in America's civil courts" is untrue. All Toledo-area lawmakers voted for the restrictions on lawsuits yesterday.
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