Tuesday, March 2, 2004

The Senate yesterday rejected a bill to grant gun manufacturers immunity from civil-liability claims after several amendments left it unpalatable to both gun rights and gun control supporters.

The final vote on the legislation, which failed 90-8, showed more division than it did uniformity in the Senate.

Senate Democrats despised the bill as a “special-interest giveaway” — what they called a unique exemption for gun makers — even though they successfully amended the bill with three measures dear to them: an extension of the assault-weapons ban, mandatory handgun trigger locks and the removal of the gun-show loophole.

Still, most Democrats voted against the bill.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans were unwilling to accept the amendments and decided that the underlying immunity bill should be scrapped and the issue raised another day. The original bill was designed narrowly to protect gun manufacturers and licensed dealers from frivolous lawsuits.

But Senate Democrats wanted the amendments debated on the Senate floor, not in conference committee as the Republican leadership had asked for.

“When it became clear we could not get a clean bill to the president and that [Democrats] would not participate in the conference on these amendments, we weighed it down,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said.

The quick turn of events is highly unusual in national politics said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican. The judgment of interest groups also shifted just as quickly.After the gun-show and assault-weapons amendments were attached, Americans for Gun Safety, an organization that touts itself as supporting “centrist” gun-safety measures, endorsed the bill. But hours later, the group praised the defeat of the bill, calling it a “victory for [the] gun-safety movement.”

The National Rifle Association, which supported the base immunity bill, changed their position after the assault ban and gun-show amendments passed. NRA officials sent a letter to senators encouraging them to vote against the bill.

“While we will continue to work to save the firearms industry, we have said from the start that we would not allow this bill to become a vehicle for added restrictions on the law-abiding people of America,” NRA Executive Vice President Wayne R. LaPierre wrote.

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, said he was shocked but not surprised that the bill was killed after reading the letter.

“When the NRA pulls the chain in their office, that chain pulls right here in this body,” Mr. Lautenberg said. “This is a moment of truth for America that constituents don’t control what goes on here. Decisions are made elsewhere.”

Mr. Craig, whose term as an NRA board member expires this year, downplayed the significance of the letter in his decision to kill the bill. He said the lack of commitment from Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, to assign conferees and the fact that the House leadership has said it would not send a bill muddled with amendments to the president were his reasons.

“The NRA, typical of any lobby, will send out e-mails to any senator one way or the other,” the Idaho senator said.

Mr. Craig said his job was to send a “clean bill” either with a floor vote or in conference, “but the process would not have been allowed to go on.”

He also downplayed the appearance and votes cast by Democratic presidential candidates Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, but said gun laws are clearly now a presidential election issue.

The two candidates broke from their Super Tuesday campaigning to appear on the floor and vote for the first time this session.

Both sided with Democrats to continue the current ban on assault weapons — defined as semiautomatic handguns and rifles that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition in the magazine — and close the gun-show loophole.

And the two votes made little difference as the reauthorization of the ban passed 52-47 with 10 Republicans crossing the aisle, while the amendment to close the loophole, authored by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, passed 53-46.

“I believe the [National Rifle Association] leadership is defending the indefensible,” Mr. Kerry said in what became somewhat of a campaign-stump speech. “President Bush promised to support the gun-show loophole and assault-weapons ban, and now under pressure, he is running away from his promise.”

Democrats and Republicans said they were shocked by what happened on the Senate floor when the surprise negative vote began.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Mr. McCain who said he would have voted for the bill no matter what was on it.

The author of the bill to reauthorize the assault-weapons ban, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said yesterday morning that she was “elated” when her amendment passed. But by the end of the day, she was nearly speechless about the defeat of the bill.

“My emotions are bizarre. For this to have happened is amazing. This scenario never entered my mind,” Mrs. Feinstein said.

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