WASHINGTON -- The House sent to President Bush yesterday a long-debated bill that would shield gun makers and sellers from lawsuits arising from the misuse of their weapons - the latest in a spate of bills aimed at limiting lawsuits that congressional leaders say are hurting business.
The bill, which passed the Senate earlier this year, has been a top priority of the National Rifle Association, which accused gun control groups of attempting to use the courts to impose gun controls.
Once Bush signs the bill, as expected, gun industry lawyers are expected to seek the dismissal of about a dozen cases filed by cities and crime victims. Gun control groups vow to challenge the constitutionality of the law.
The legislation grew out of a rash of lawsuits filed in the late 1990s by a number of cities seeking to hold the gun industry liable for the damage caused by firearms used in crimes. Gun rights advocates contended that the lawsuits - which they say have cost the industry an estimated $250 million in legal fees - were intended to drive gun makers out of business.
"Our nation's judicial system is out of control," said Rep. Phil Gingrey, a Georgia Republican. "If a group or a person does not like what someone else does or believes, they try to sue them out of existence."
The bill's opponents said it offered unprecedented immunity to an industry.
"Why do we want to make the gun industry the most protected industry in America?" said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat.
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat whose husband was killed and son injured by a gunman on a Long Island commuter train in 1993, opposed the bill. "We are taking away the right of victims to be able to have their day in court."
The bill is the latest in a string of Bush-backed proposals to overhaul the legal system to rein in what the president has called frivolous lawsuits brought against businesses. The House on Wednesday approved a bill aimed at blocking lawsuits that seek to hold restaurants liable for a customer's weight gain. Bush earlier this year signed into law a bill limiting class-action lawsuits and is still pressing Congress to limit medical malpractice awards.
The legislation also was the latest sign of the political shift on Capitol Hill over gun issues since the 2000 election.
Congressional Democratic leaders backed away from their aggressive pursuit of gun control after Al Gore's advocacy of gun control was blamed for his presidential campaign's loss of support in rural states. In fact, Congress did not act to keep a decade-old federal ban on assault weapons from expiring last year.
Yesterday's measure was approved 283-144, with 59 Democrats joining 223 Republicans and one independent in supporting the bill.
The Maryland delegation voted along party lines. The state's six Democrats voted against the measure while Republicans Wayne T. Gilchrest and Roscoe G. Bartlett supported the bill.
Democrat Rick Boucher of Virginia called the lawsuits "nothing more than thinly veiled attempts to circumvent the legislative process and achieve gun control through litigation."
Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president, said that lawmakers have learned that "it's bad politics to be on the wrong side of the 2nd Amendment."
The measure created unusual splits. The Pentagon portrayed the bill as critical to national security, saying it was necessary to preserve an industry that arms the troops, while a number of law enforcement groups opposed the measure.
The NRA scuttled the measure in the Senate last year after gun control advocates attached amendments that would have extended the federal ban on assault weapons and tightened background checks for sales at gun shows. The election last year, however, gave the NRA a net gain of four friendly senators, ensuring the bill's passage earlier this year in that chamber.
Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.