The House yesterday voted to shield companies that make and sell firearms from lawsuits by the victims of shootings, sending the legislation to the White House and handing the nation's gun lobby a paramount victory it has sought for years.
The House's 283 to 144 vote, less than three months after the Senate approved identical legislation, delighted President Bush, who portrayed it as part of the administration's drive to "stem frivolous lawsuits" and said he will sign it into law. Leading proponents of gun control immediately vowed to challenge the law's constitutionality.
Congress's decision has particular relevance for the District, the only place in the country with a law that explicitly allows victims of crimes involving semiautomatic weapons to bring legal claims. In April, the D.C. Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the city's 15-year-old law, and the Supreme Court this month declined to hear the case.
Supporters and opponents of the legislation said the law would halt pending District government litigation trying to win compensation from gun manufacturers for medical costs and other expenses associated with shootings and several claims by local victims and their families. The pending suits include a federal lawsuit brought against Bushmaster Firearms Inc. by the relatives of Pascal Charlot, a victim of the 2002 rash of local sniper shootings.
The legislation is intended to cut off an avenue that gun-control advocates have used in recent years to exert leverage on the firearms industry, trying to curb the sale of weapons to criminals by holding it financially responsible for crimes. The National Rifle Association and other gun enthusiasts have complained that the expense of fighting lawsuits put manufacturers and gun stores on shaky financial ground, regardless of who wins the cases.
Shortly before yesterday's vote, House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) said, "Congress must fulfill its constitutional duty and exercise its authority . . . to deny a few state courts the power to bankrupt the national firearms industry and deny all Americans their fundamental right to bear arms."
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." He estimated that the law would cut off 15 current lawsuits around the country.
But 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."
The legislation would allow lawsuits under limited circumstances but, in general, provides a broader shield against litigation than most of nearly three dozen laws that states have adopted to limit gun liability.
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who was traveling yesterday, said in a statement: "The entire community in the District is working hard to keep down gun violence. It's discouraging when members of Congress pass legislation that would inhibit our ability to hold accountable those individuals or corporate entities who contribute to the proliferation of firearms that are used in committing crimes."
Similar legislation was first introduced in the House four years ago and provoked bitter disagreement among lawmakers. Yesterday marked the second time the bill has passed the House, but the Senate has resisted in previous years. In late July, however, the Senate approved the legislation, in part because of support from Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and other Democrats from GOP-leaning states in the West and the South. Last year, the NRA worked successfully to defeat Reid's predecessor, Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who had opposed the measure.
In the House vote, 59 Democrats and one Independent joined Republicans to support the bill, while four Republicans opposed it. Among Washington area lawmakers, the only member to cross party lines was Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who voted for the bill.
Staff writer Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.