Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The House Judiciary Committee yesterday approved a bill that would shield gun manufacturers, distributors and importers from lawsuits seeking damages for the misuse of their products.

The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act now will move to the House floor, where it is expected to pass.

Lawmakers from rural districts said the time has come for Congress to protect the firearms industry from lawsuits that could put it out of business.

“This measure provides protection only against suits based on the criminal or unlawful acts of third parties — not against their own negligent or criminal conduct,” said Rep. Cliff Stearns, Florida Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors. “Under this measure, manufacturers or sellers must operate entirely within federal and state law and are still liable for acts of negligence and for defective products.”

Opponents of the bill have argued that distributors and dealers who knowingly sell guns to criminals or fail to report suspicious purchasing activity would be shielded. They say repeated purchases of handguns is a clear indication that the firearms are not for personal use.

Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia, one of 46 Democrats supporting the bill, said there is no reason to allow the lawsuits to continue.

“The effort of cities to sue gun manufacturers because someone misuses a firearm is nothing but an attempt to impose gun control by judicial means,” Mr. Boucher said.

He said the criminal who uses the gun should be held responsible, not the person who sold it legally or the company that made the gun.

Courts have agreed with that position. Mr. Stearns said judges have thrown out 20 cases brought by localities against gun manufacturers and distributors. Every appellate court has dismissed such cases, and 30 states have banned the lawsuits.

The federal legislation has been one of the National Rifle Association’s top priorities since the Clinton administration threatened to sue the gun industry in the mid-1990s.

The House has passed the measure with more than 280 votes in the past three years, but the Senate has stalled.

Senate Democrats killed the bill last year by attaching a renewal of the assault-weapons ban.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, also added a provision requiring private citizens and dealers selling firearms at gun shows to perform background checks on purchasers. That created a problem for the bill’s supporters.

The 109th Senate, with 55 Republicans, should make the difference this year, Mr. Stearns said.

Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican, who has championed the legislation for several years, said his companion bill is ready.

“It is simply a matter of scheduling; I would guess it would be sooner than later, probably sometime next month,” he said.

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