Thursday, February 26, 2004

President Bush urged the Senate to pass a bill that would protect gun dealers and manufacturers from frivolous lawsuits but without any amendments that would extend the assault-weapons ban or close gun-show loopholes.

“The administration urges the Senate to pass a clean bill, in order to ensure enactment of the legislation this year,” the president said in a statement released late Tuesday. “Any amendment that would delay enactment of the bill beyond this year is unacceptable.”

The legislation aims to protect gun makers and dealers from lawsuits that blame them for criminal acts by persons using their guns. The bill, if passed, would be retroactive and thus affect litigation in progress.

The president softened his stance on the gun-show loophole, which allows unlicensed dealers to sell guns without thorough background checks, and on the assault-weapons ban, since last week, when he said he supported those measures.

That stance irked Senate Democrats, who accused Mr. Bush of reneging on a promise to the American people and turning his back on his allies in the Senate.

“If we can’t amend this bill, we don’t have another vehicle,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “In effect, the president is breaking a promise he made to the American people.”

White House spokeswoman Clare Buchan said the president hasn’t changed his position on any of the gun-related issues but doesn’t want the lawsuit-protection bill to fail because of amendments.

But Mr. Schumer said the Bush statement will lead at least 10 or 12 senators to shift their votes and oppose the assault-weapons and gun-show amendments.

“For the president to say he is for the assault-weapons ban and then act against it, well that is a flip-flop if I ever saw one,” Mr. Schumer said.

But Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, said that the bill had a good chance of passing with or without the amendments, but that the president’s action has made it a tougher battle to extend the Clinton-era assault-weapons ban, which expires Sept. 13.

“I would think [President Bush] would be pleased to sign this bill, extend the ban and close the loophole because he pledged to support both,” Mr. Reed said.

In the past weeks, Mr. Bush has taken great strides to solidify his political base leading up to the November election.

Last week, Mr. Bush appointed William H. Pryor, the Alabama attorney general and a conservative, to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals while the Senate was on recess. This week, Mr. Bush called for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between a man and woman.

Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican and author of the lawsuit-protection bill, said, “The antigun lobby is using these lawsuits to bankrupt gun companies and put thousands of people they employ out of work.”

Mr. Craig said the gun-show loophole and assault-weapons ban were not effective policies to reduce gun violence in America.

“The only effective way is to go full tilt after the criminals,” he said.

However, House Democrats and moderate Republicans introduced companion bills that address assault weapons and the loopholes.

“We must break the stalemate on the renewal of the assault-weapons ban and the gun-show loophole issue in Washington, D.C., and this gun-liability legislation is likely our best legislative vehicle this year to do so,” said Rep. Michael N. Castle, Delaware Republican, who introduced the bill with New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy.

And during floor debate yesterday, Mr. Reed, as did nearly every senator, invoked the memory of Conrad Johnson, the Montgomery County bus driver who became the last victim of the Washington-area snipers last year.

Mr. Johnson’s widow, Denise Johnson, filed a lawsuit against the gun dealer and manufacturer who sold the men the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle used to kill her husband.

“This bill is retroactive and would kill the lawsuit Denise Johnson has against Bullseye and the manufacturer who were clearly negligent,” Mr. Reed said, referring to Bullseye Shooters Supply, the Tacoma, Wash., gun store where the snipers bought their rifle.

The gun store had been cited by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) for improper cataloguing and losing track of 237 guns.

Mr. Craig responded to Mr. Reed, saying, “The shop is closed, the owner is broke, and the ATF has referred the case to the Justice Department for prosecution,” and there was no further need for a civil suit.

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