By EDWARD EPSTEIN
San Francisco Chronicle
July 28, 2005
The legislation has long been a top priority of the NRA and other gun- rights groups, but has never passed the Senate. The time now seems ripe, however, since the 2004 elections produced a Republican majority of 55 seats, which along with some Democrats in support means the bill has 61 co-sponsors in the 100-member body.
That number of co-sponsors would allow proponents to cut off a potential filibuster by opponents.
The House has passed gun liability legislation in previous Congresses and is expected to do so again if the Senate acts.
A vote on the measure, which has the strong support of President Bush, may not come until Friday or Saturday because Senate rules call for up to 30 hours of debate and opponents plan to offer a host of amendments, if they are ruled in order. Those include a ban on .50-caliber sniper rifles, a crackdown on sales of weapons at gun shows and perhaps a renewal of the assault weapons ban that expired after 10 years in September 2004.
Similar amendments passed the last time the Senate considered the measure in March 2004, leading the NRA to take the highly unusual step of pulling its own bill. But this time the Senate makeup is sharply different.
Proponents say the measure, which would dismiss suits already filed, is needed to protect legal gun and ammunition makers and importers, dealers and gun trade associations from what they call frivolous lawsuits being filed by cities and individuals trying to collect damages because of harm and costs suffered in shootings. They say a legal industry can't be held responsible for the actions of people who use the products illegally. They also have turned the matter into a jobs-preservation issue.
"People are not going to stop buying firearms. They are legal. It would be the height of stupidity to put all our firearms makers out of business so we would have to import them," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., as he opened debate on the bill Tuesday. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, who has been an NRA board member, said anti-gun groups needed to be curbed. "Courts are not a mechanism for achieving political aims that are rejected by the people's representatives, the United States Congress," he said.
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the assault weapons ban's chief sponsor, took to the floor Wednesday and in an hourlong speech lambasted the NRA, the legislation as special interest power at its worst, and Senate Republican leaders for putting aside such bills as the annual defense authorization bill to take up the NRA-backed measure.
"This Senate is going to do the people it represents an enormous harm," said Feinstein, asserting that the legislation would grant the gun industry protections shared by no other businesses. "It's going to protect the most powerful lobby.
"No one in this body was elected to be the senator from the National Rifle Association," said Feinstein, who has tangled with the NRA ever since she came to the Senate in 1993.
She also said the decision by the majority leader, Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to put aside other legislation as the Senate pushes toward its monthlong August recess and take up the gun bill left her disheartened. "In all my years in this body I have never been more disillusioned about why we proceed or how we proceed," she added.
Feinstein said she won't offer the assault weapons ban as an amendment because it would be sure to lose, with the changes in the Senate's makeup. "We'll wait and come back another day," she said off the Senate floor.
Frist angered the bill's opponents by indicating he wouldn't allow many of their amendments to come up for a vote.
The White House has issued a statement of policy calling for the Senate to pass the legislation without any amendments. "The possibility of imposing liability on an entire industry for harm that is solely caused by others is an abuse of the legal system," the statement said.
The proposal would still allow lawsuits based on product defects and against gun dealers who break the law by selling weapons to people who don't pass background checks, for instance. But it would end suits such as the one San Francisco and 11 other California localities settled in 2003 that alleged a group of gun dealers sold weapons to people whom they should have known were linked to criminal groups.
Feinstein said that hypothetically if a gun company recklessly parked an unlocked truck full of assault weapons on a city street it couldn't be sued for negligence if the bill passed when those guns are used in shootings.
Frist said the bill was needed to maintain the domestic small arms industry that he said supplies law enforcement and the military. "We can't have frivolous lawsuits that strip guns from our soldiers and police officers, " he said.
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