Sunday, January 30, 2005

Gun-rights advocates are hoping freshman senators will make the road smoother this year for gun makers and dealers pushing a bill that would relieve them of lawsuits brought by families of gun-violence victims.

But one of those pro-Second Amendment senators said that is unlikely.

“As an outsider, and at this point, I am still new enough to call myself that, it appears to me that part of the Senate’s difficulty with passing anything is that all the bills become Christmas trees to be decorated,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican. “I would suspect those same amendments would cause the same problems as before.”

The Senate rejected the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act last year because gun-rights senators could not stomach amendments to extend the assault-weapons ban, to make mandatory the sale of trigger locks with all handguns and to require FBI criminal background checks on people who purchase weapons at gun shows.

The legislation would have protected gun manufacturers and dealers from lawsuits charging them with negligence when the weapons are used by a third party to commit a crime.

Such lawsuits have placed the industry in a fiscal jam.

Lawyers’ fees and court costs can be devastating to gun manufacturers’ profit margins. One of the top companies, 147-year-old Smith & Wesson, was sold in 2002 for $15 million, owing in part to its settlement agreement to limit marketing of its weapons after being sued by the Clinton administration.

The amendment for trigger locks, which passed the Senate 70-27 last year, likely would pass again. But the other two amendments — the assault-weapons ban and closing the gun-show loophole — barely made it on the bill and passed the Senate on votes of 52-47 and 53-46, respectively.

“There were a number of obstacles in 2004, not only the political climate and the ‘poison pill’ amendments, and we worked in good faith with [Senate Minority Leader] Tom Daschle, who didn’t work in good faith with us,” said Chris Cox, federal director for the National Rifle Association.

Mr. Daschle, the South Dakota Democrat who voted for all three amendments, has been replaced by Sen. John R. Thune, South Dakota Republican and an avid supporter of the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Also gone are Democratic Sens. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, Bob Graham of Florida, John B. Breaux of Louisiana and John Edwards of North Carolina. All except Mr. Edwards voted for the “poison pills.” Mr. Edwards’ presidential run prevented him from voting on all but the extension of the assault-weapons ban.

Coming in as replacements are all Republicans: Mr. Isakson, Mr. Thune, Sens. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, David Vitter of Louisiana and Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, all of whom supported similar legislation when they were in the House.

“I supported it in the House and I would again,” Mr. DeMint said. “I think it is ridiculous that a manufacturer would be sued for a crime committed by someone else.”

The NRA also is counting as allies freshman Republican Sens. Mel Martinez of Florida and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

It is clear that extending the assault-weapons ban is the backbreaker, Mr. Cox said. But when asked if the NRA and gun-rights advocates could accept any of the other amendments, he said: “Last year, [President Bush] called for a clean bill without amendments that would prevent it from reaching his desk. We don’t see a need to water the bill down for unnecessary reasons, and we hope the efforts of the gun-control groups and their allies to kill this legislation with ‘poison pill’ amendments will fail.”

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