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Friday, October 21, 2005 - Page updated at 11:31 AM

Congress passes bill to shield gun makers

WASHINGTON — Congress voted yesterday to sweep away the ability of gun-crime victims to sue firearms manufacturers and dealers for damages, answering complaints by President Bush and the gun industry that big jury awards could lead to bankruptcy.

Opponents called the 283-144 vote in the House proof of the gun lobby's power over the Republican-controlled Congress, but Bush said he looked forward to signing the bill. "Our laws should punish criminals who use guns to commit crimes, not law-abiding manufacturers of lawful products," the president said.

The Senate passed the bill, 65-31, in July.

The bill's passage was the National Rifle Association's top legislative priority and gave Bush and his Republican allies on Capitol Hill a rare victory at a politically troubled time when several top White House officials and GOP congressional leaders are under investigation.

Washington Republicans Richard "Doc" Hastings, Cathy McMorris and Dave Reichert were joined by Democrats Brian Baird and Rick Larsen in voting for the bill.

Democrats Norm Dicks, Jay Inslee, Jim McDermott and Adam Smith voted against it.

Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president, called the vote "a historic day for the NRA and also for the Second Amendment."

Saying that Congress "saved the firearms industry today," LaPierre asserted that "the people that want to ban guns in this country have not been able to win in the political arena" and thus have resorted to "a blizzard of litigation to bankrupt the industry with legal fees."

When Bush signs the measure into law, a half-dozen pending lawsuits filed by cities and counties against the gun industry would be dismissed. The localities that are plaintiffs in those suits include New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Cleveland and Gary, Ind.

Anti-gun groups said pending suits by families of people murdered in gun crimes also could be dismissed.

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"This is a get-out-of-liability-free card," said John Russo, city attorney for Oakland, Calif.

Supporters of the bill say it still would permit lawsuits against importers, manufacturers and dealers where criminal wrongdoing is found. Gun makers and dealers still would be subject to product-liability, negligence or breach-of-contract suits, the bill's authors say.

The point, say the bill's sponsors, is to stop anti-gun activists from running the industry out of business by filing lawsuits that at best cost money in lawyers' fees and at worst could bring large damage awards.

"Lawsuits seeking to hold the firearms industry responsible for the criminal and unlawful use of its products are brazen attempts to accomplish through litigation what has not been achieved by legislation and the democratic process," House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., told his colleagues.

"It is shameful that Republicans in Congress are pushing legislation that guarantees their gun-dealing cronies receive special treatment and are above the law," countered Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla.

Dennis Henigan, director of the legal-action project at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, called the legislation "such an egregious piece of special-interest legislation, it is almost shameless."

He said the law would violate a basic premise of tort law because it "retroactively bars lawsuits against a particular industry, even if the members of that industry behave negligently."

"We are going to vigorously attack the law in courts," Henigan said, remarking that "Congress has no power to retroactively deprive people of their rights."

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