Senate defeats gun bills after hostile amendments

Democrats add extension of assault weapon ban

Republicans kill package

March 03, 2004|By Kristina Herrndobler | Kristina Herrndobler,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - In a victory for gun control advocates yesterday, the Senate rejected a popular bill to protect gun manufacturers, wholesalers and dealers from liability lawsuits when guns are used in crimes.

The bill had broad support in the Senate and was a priority for gun rights groups - and President Bush had said he would sign it - but when Senate Democrats added two gun control amendments, supporters decided to kill the bill instead of accepting the amended version.

Before the final vote, Sen. Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican who was the chief author of the liability protection legislation, said that once the gun control amendments were added, the House of Representatives would never accept the bill, so there was no point trying to pass it.

`Wounded' bill

"This was a very important bill, a substantial move in tort reform. It was clear and it was clean," Craig said. "But I now believe it is so dramatically wounded that it should not pass, and I ask my colleagues to vote against it."

Moments later the Senate rejected the bill - which once had 55 co-sponsors - on a 90-8 vote.

Craig's original bill would have granted legal immunity for the gun industry in most cases charging gross negligence and liability for crimes committed with guns.

Two gun control amendments made the final bill unacceptable to Craig and the National Rifle Association: one would have required criminal background checks for people who buy firearms from private dealers at gun shows; the second would have renewed the assault weapons ban that is set to expire in September.

The amendments passed by narrow margins yesterday, after an all-out effort by Democrats and gun control advocates to rally support for them.

Democratic presidential contenders John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina left the campaign trail on Super Tuesday to cast votes on the Senate floor in support of the amendments.

Eight Republicans voted with 44 Democrats and one independent to pass the gun show amendment.

On the assault weapons ban, 10 Republicans joined 41 Democrats and one independent to vote for passage. Kerry said the amendments would not interfere with the rights of honest gun owners.

"The opposition to these common-sense gun safety laws is being driven by the NRA's special interest leadership and lobbyists here in Washington," Kerry said. "This is not the voice of gun owners across America."

White House spokeswoman Jeanie Mamo said yesterday's votes confirmed the administration's fears that the gun control amendments would kill the bill.

"This legislation was about important, meaningful reforms to stop lawsuit abuse. Our concern was that amendments unrelated to lawsuit reforms would lead to its defeat, and that is exactly why we urged passage of a clean bill," Mamo said.

While the final vote killed the gun control amendments along with the liability protections, Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois called the "very bizarre day" a success.

"A bad bill was sunk with good amendments," he said. "The thought of exempting manufactures from liability [would have been] the ultimate concession to special interest groups."

NRA weighs in

Although the NRA lost the battle for its top legislative priority, Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said the organization will use the vote to campaign against Democrats in this year's elections.

"We said from the start [that we wanted] a clean bill or no bill, and we said we would not let this bill become a backdoor way of enacting gun restrictions on law-abiding Americans," LaPierre said.

The vote, he said, "was a good benchmark for who supports the Second Amendment and gun owners and who doesn't. And gun owners are going to pay attention to votes, not rhetoric."

But Eric Howard, the associate director of communications at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, called the vote a huge victory for the victims of gun violence and said the result is unlikely to hurt Democrats at the polls.

"[The NRA has] always tried to make this a Republican/Democrat issue, but it is not a Republican/Democrat issue," Howard said.

"Gun violence is blind to party affiliation, and that is why it is an American issue and it is clearly why the Senate rejected this."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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