Saturday, February 19, 2005

Congress is again attempting to shield the firearms industry from civil liability lawsuits filed by third parties seeking damages for the criminal use of a gun.

The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act is likely to pass the House much the same way it did when first introduced in 2003, on a bipartisan vote of 285-to-140. The bill never made it out of the Senate.

Democrats tacked on amendments to the bill that would have extended the assault weapons ban, required sellers at gun shows to conduct FBI criminal background checks, as well as made mandatory the inclusion of trigger locks with all handgun sales.

Extending the assault weapons ban is a deal breaker for a majority of Senate Republicans, said the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Larry E. Craig. “I don’t think any of those amendments have value,” the Idaho Republican said. “The industry, to protect themselves, is voluntarily including trigger locks already, so I don’t see where that’s necessary.”

He said the argument to close the so-called gun show loophole is an attempt to undermine “a valuable commerce tool.”

All federally licensed gun dealers are required to conduct criminal background checks on their customers, Mr. Craig said, but private citizens selling firearms at gun shows are not. He said such a requirement could push people out of the shows and into the streets, where the government loses all ability to track the sales.

Senate Democrats are expected to oppose the bill outright and introduce some of the same amendments with some alterations.

“[T]his issue of creating a carve-out for the gun industry to protect it from gross malfeasance makes no sense to me at all when any other industry is subject to liability,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who led the fight against the bill last year.

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, said: “We’re staying exactly where we were last year. We’re not going to step aside for a bill like that.”

The senators indicated they’re not likely to fight for an extension of the assault weapons ban as part of their debate strategy.

Mrs. Feinstein said she’s going to focus on restricting the sale of .50-caliber rifles, saying the weapon’s ability to be “accurate for miles” and “then go through concrete walls” poses a serious and undeniable threat to America’s homeland security should a terrorist get hold of one.

Gun-rights advocates have complained for the past eight years that “junk lawsuits” are a scheme by gun control groups and politicians to sue the firearms industry out of business. At least 20 localities nationwide have filed lawsuits for medical expense reimbursements or damages for the victims’ surviving family members.

Every case has been thrown out, and every appellate court that has considered the claims has dismissed the case, said Rep. Cliff Stearns, Florida Republican and sponsor of the House bill.

Last week, a California appellate court unanimously upheld a lower court’s decision dismissing claims filed by Los Angeles, San Francisco and 12 other cities against the firearms industry. The supreme courts of three states have dismissed similar lawsuits.

“These lawsuits employ dubious legal theories that have no legal merit. They are merely attempts to impose their gun control agenda using the courts,” Mr. Stearns said.

Thirty-three state legislatures have passed laws banning such lawsuits, and Mr. Craig and Mr. Stearns said it is time for the federal government to follow suit with a majority of the states already in agreement.

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