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Houses Approves Bill Shielding Firearm Industry From Lawsuits

By Sheryl Gay Stolberg
THE NEW YORK TIMES


WASHINGTON

The Republican-controlled Congress delivered a long-sought victory to the gun industry on Thursday when the House, with considerable Democratic support, voted to shield firearms manufacturers and dealers from liability lawsuits. The bill now goes to President Bush, who has promised to sign it.

The gun liability bill has for years been the No. 1 legislative priority of the National Rifle Association, which has lobbied lawmakers intensely for it. Its final passage, by a vote of 283-144, reflects the changing politics of gun control, which many Democrats began shying away from after Al Gore, who promoted it, was defeated in the presidential election of 2000.

“It’s a historic piece of legislation,” said Wayne LaPierre, the association’s executive vice president, who said the bill was the most significant victory for the gun lobby since Congress rewrote the federal gun control law in 1986. “As of Oct. 20, the Second Amendment is probably in the best shape in this country that it’s been in decades.”

The bill, which is identical to one approved in July by the Senate, is aimed at ending a spate of lawsuits by individuals and municipalities seeking to hold gun manufacturers and dealers liable for crimes committed with their weapons. While it bars such suits, the measure contains an exception allowing certain cases involving defective weapons or criminal behavior by a gunmaker or dealer, such as knowingly selling a weapon to someone who has failed a criminal background check.

Bush said in a statement that he looks forward to signing the bill, which he said would “further our efforts to stem frivolous lawsuits, which cause a logjam in America’s courts, harm America’s small businesses, and benefit a handful of lawyers at the expense of victims and consumers.”

Backers of the measure say it is necessary to keep the American arms industry in business, while opponents say the law deprives gun violence victims of a legitimate right to sue. Dispirited gun safety advocates said they now expect attempts to dismiss nearly a dozen lawsuits around the country, and vowed to challenge the constitutionality of the bill in court.

“It’s always been a tough fight, let’s face that,” said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., who was elected in 1996 after her husband was killed and her son injured by a gunman on the Long Island Rail Road. She added, “This is personal for me.”

Fifty-nine Democrats joined 223 Republicans and the House’s lone independent to pass the bill. The chief House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., said the measure received a boost in July, when Pentagon officials wrote a letter saying they supported the measure as a way to “safeguard our national security” by limiting lawsuits against companies that supply weapons to the military.

“There’s a subtle undertow here about ‘buy America,”’ Stearns said, adding, “This bill has picked up a little bit of steam because of that.”

Stearns said he had been working to pass the legislation for six years. But the big turning point came not in the House, which had previously passed a similar bill, but in the Senate, where Republicans have numbered 55 in the wake of the 2004 elections.