Senate moves toward shielding gun industry from suits

Measure would provide immunity, could signal turning of tide on control

July 29, 2005|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - After years of battle, gun rights advocates are poised to win one of their biggest victories as the Senate moves toward shielding gun makers, dealers, distributors and importers from liability lawsuits.

A result of increased Republican majorities in Congress, the passage of legal protection for the gun industry would mark an enormous setback for gun control advocates and for leaders of cities such as Chicago, which has filed suit against gun dealers and manufacturers.

It would also be the second big win for the National Rifle Association and its supporters in two years. Last year, a national ban on assault weapons was allowed to expire over the protests of gun control activists.

The gun liability measure, which is expected to pass as early as today, could signal that the tide has decisively turned on gun control, whose high-water mark came in 1994 with passage of the Brady law mandating a waiting period before guns could be purchased. Some Democrats have blamed their recent electoral losses in part on their general support for gun control.

Mike Franc, the vice president of government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank, attributed the shift to an increasingly pro-security climate and to Democrats worried about losing votes in rural areas and small towns.

The legislation would provide immunity from civil lawsuits to gun manufacturers, gun dealers, distributors and importers of firearms and ammunition. In addition, trade groups would be protected and any pending legal action against gun makers would be moot. Democrats said that if the legislation becomes law, the gun industry would be the only one granted such blanket immunity.

Other supporters have said the problem stems from the people using the guns, not the people making or selling them.

In other action by Congress yesterday:

The Senate voted to set up a national sex offender database that would be available on the Internet and require strict monitoring of high-risk sex offenders for a year after their release from prison.

The bill is designed to compensate for a patchwork of state laws that has hindered searches for sexual predators when they cross state lines. It would create a national sex offender registry that would enable the public to search by ZIP code across state lines.

Legislation that would limit damages for medical malpractice passed the House for the third consecutive year.

The bill, approved by a vote of 230-194, would cap awards for pain and suffering at $250,000. There would be no limit on economic damages, which provide reimbursement for expenses such as medical bills and lost wages. Finally, the bill would in many cases cap punitive damages at $250,000.

The legislation was largely supported by Republicans, with backing from doctors, hospitals, insurers and pharmaceutical manufacturers. The opposition came mostly from Democrats, with backing from attorneys and some consumer advocacy groups, who said victims of malpractice would be prevented from obtaining fair compensation for their injuries.

The House voted to provide an extra $1.5 billion for veterans' health care programs, an amount lawmakers said should be enough to last until the next budget year begins Oct. 1.

The move resulted from an embarrassing episode for the Veterans Affairs Department, which has issued ever-rising estimates of how much is needed to fill a gap and has acknowledged that its budget forecasting models are outdated.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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