July 26, 2005

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.