WASHINGTON (AP) -Congress voted Thursday 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.

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 to those suits include Los Angeles, San Francisco, Cleveland, Gary, Ind. and New York City. Antigun groups said suits by families of people killed in gun crimes also could be dismissed.

“This is a get-out-of-liability-free card,” said John Russo, city attorney for Oakland, one of California 11 cities and counties whose suits against the industry would be dismissed.

“If you were to do something that brought harm to somebody else, you would be subject under the laws of your state to a lawsuit,” he added. “I guess that does not apply to gun manufacturers.”

Closely watched is a Massachusetts case in which the family of Danny Guzman -killed with a handgun stolen from Kahr Arms – is suing the company, alleging it did not have enough security at its factory, according to Daniel Vice, staff attorney with the Brady Center To Prevent Handgun Violence. Guzman, 26, was shot in 1999 outside a Worcester nightclub with a gun stolen by a Kahr employee with a criminal record, the family’s attorney said.

Defense attorneys could cite the just-passed bill in a motion to dismiss, Vice said. Brady Center lawyers for the family would then argue that the bill is unconstitutional because it violates due process and dictates policies of state courts.

But 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 antigun 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.

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, did not vote. He was in Houston Thursday being booked in connection with his indictment in an alleged scheme to violate state election law.

Propelled by GOP election gains and the incidents of lawlessness associated with Hurricane Katrina, support for gun rights has grown since a similar measure passed the House last year and was killed in the Senate.

Images of people in New Orleans who lacked the protection of public safety made a particular impression on viewers who had never before felt unsafe, according to the gun lobby.

“Americans saw a complete collapse of the government’s ability to protect them,” said Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president.

“That burnt in, those pictures of people standing there defending their lives and defending their property and their family,” he added, “where the one source of comfort was a firearm.”

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

Democrats and Republicans alike court the NRA at election time, and the bill has garnered bipartisan support. But the firearms industry still gave 88 percent of its campaign donations, or $1.2 million, to Republicans in the 2004 election cycle.

Gun control advocates, meanwhile, gave 98 percent of their contributions, or $93,700, to Democrats that cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.



The bill is S. 397.

On the Net:

Congress: http://thomas.loc.gov


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