Senate passes measure to shield gun makers and dealers from lawsuits

Bill expected to get OK in House, has support of President Bush and NRA

July 30, 2005|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The Senate has easily passed legislation long desired by the National Rifle Association that would block most civil lawsuits against gun makers and dealers whose products are used to commit crimes. Despite strong opposition from gun control advocates, 14 Democrats - most from rural or heavily Republican states - joined all but two Republicans in the 65-31 vote yesterday.

The bipartisan vote underscored the changing politics of gun control, an issue Democrats championed in the 1980s and early 1990s but have since backed away from as politically damaging. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada was among those voting for passage.

Maryland's senators, Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, both Democrats, voted against the bill.

Stocks for some gun makers rose yesterday as it became clear that supporters of the legislation would defeat amendments by gun control advocates to allow lawsuits on behalf of children and law enforcement officers harmed by firearms.

Handgun maker Smith & Wesson's shares rose by 25 percent; those of Strum, Ruger & Co., which makes a variety of firearms, were up by 11 percent.

Proponents said the bill was carefully written to protect law-abiding manufacturers and dealers. Some advocates linked the legislation to national security, saying lawsuits brought by municipalities and individuals threatened to bankrupt the firearms industry at a time when the nation is fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"What we have crafted is a very narrow kind of exemption from predatory lawsuits," said Sen. Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican and the bill's author. "It is intended to stop these kinds of abusive lawsuits."

But opponents said gun makers do not face a liability lawsuit crisis, and they decried the legislation as offering unprecedented protection to a single industry. The bill also requires pending suits to be dismissed.

"It's a blatant special interest bill to protect gun makers and dealers, even if they make firearms recklessly available to criminals and terrorists," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat. He called it a demonstration of the "raw, special interest power" of the gun lobby.

The bill is expected to easily pass the House, where it enjoys broad bipartisan support, after Congress returns from its summer recess in early September. The White House strongly supports the measure, and President Bush is expected to sign it into law if the House passes it.

Just last year, gun control supporters - mostly Democrats - were strong enough to block the shield bill in the Republican-controlled Senate.

But the GOP gain of four Senate seats in November's election improved the bill's chances, and some Democrats have become more wary of the political cost of supporting gun control.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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