After four days of emotionally charged debate, the Senate easily approved a broad liability exemption for the firearms industry that would protect gun manufacturers and sellers from lawsuits by shooting victims.
The legislation, which passed 65 to 31, would protect the industry from a rash of lawsuits brought forward in recent years, including the 33 cases brought by government entities such as the District of Columbia. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said the suits could bankrupt gun manufacturers and threaten police and military firearm supplies.
"America's crime problems will be solved not by unjustly targeting the gun industry for the criminal actions of others," Frist said in a statement after the vote.
In a joint statement, National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre and lobbyist Chris Cox called the Senate vote historic and said the bill would "put an end to politically motivated predatory lawsuits."
Fourteen Democrats along with Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) supported the legislation, although few spoke publicly in favor of it. Maryland Democrats Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski opposed the bill while Virginia Republicans John W. Warner and George Allen voted for it. The House is expected to approve the bill when Congress returns from its August recess.
Frist pulled a similar bill from the Senate floor last year after Democrats amended it with provisions opposed by the gun lobby, including an extension of the assault-weapons ban and criminal background checks before sales at gun shows.
This time, the bill benefited from the support of Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), along with other Democrats from Republican-leaning states in the South and West. The gun lobby, led by the NRA, worked doggedly in the 2004 election to defeat Reid's predecessor, Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), blaming him for the bill's failure last year. Democrats said privately that Daschle's defeat left their red-state colleagues reluctant to cross the powerful NRA and its allies again.
Critics said the bill's liability exemption goes well beyond other tort-reform measures, including the cap on medical malpractice damages long sought by President Bush and Republican leaders in Congress. The legislation would bar all civil liability actions related to the misuse of firearms by third parties -- namely, criminals.
For instance, the bill would have prevented a suit brought by eight victims of the D.C. area sniper shootings against the rifle manufacturer and the Washington state gun dealership where sniper John Lee Malvo shoplifted the assault rifle used in the killings. The dealer was not aware that the gun had been stolen, nor could it account for 200 other missing firearms. The case was settled last year for $2.56 million.
"It's a perfect example of an obviously meritorious suit," said Dennis Henigan, legal counsel for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which represented the sniper victims and has brought numerous suits against the industry.
A case brought in January 2000 by the District of Columbia against Beretta U.S.A. and other gun manufacturers is among the most worrisome for the industry, as it seeks millions of dollars in compensation for health care assistance provided to shooting victims, along with compensation for the massive costs associated with gun-related crime.
The claim was brought under a D.C. statute, believed to be unique in the nation, that renders all manufacturers, sellers and importers of semiautomatic weapons liable if their firearms are used to injure or kill someone. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld the statute in April 2005.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who led the Democratic opposition to the bill, tried to narrow the bill to bar only suits brought by municipalities. He said he made the effort "reluctantly" in order to preserve the right of individuals to sue. "Nobody is going out and getting shot so they can bring a lawsuit," Reed said. "This legislation would bar the door to courthouses for real people." His amendment failed 63 to 33.