(CNSNews.com) - The U.S. House of Representatives adopted legislation Wednesday that would put a stop to the growing number of lawsuits targeting the firearms industry for misuse of its products.
The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act breezed to passage by a 285-140 vote. The bill, which had the support of 63 Democrats, met little opposition in the House but faces a tougher road in the Senate.
"Congress acted today to protect one of America's oldest and most honorable industries," said Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association. "Their action is a big step forward toward ending these careless lawsuits. These suits are a deliberate attempt aimed at manipulating our legal system to advance a failing political agenda."
Gun-rights supporters have heavily lobbied Congress to limit lawsuits against firearms manufacturers, dealers and distributors. They fear the negligence suits will put the gun industry in the same predicament as tobacco companies, which had to make multimillion-dollar settlements for lawsuits brought against them.
The firearms industry doesn't have deep pockets to take the same type of hit, said Lawrence G. Keane, vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry trade association.
"One multiple-hundred-million-dollar verdict against this small, responsible industry will destroy it," he said. "No other industry is being attacked the way the firearms industry is. This industry is being singled out by frivolous lawsuits."
Keane has spent the past week in New York City at a trial that would be dismissed if Congress adopts the legislation and President Bush signs it into law. The bill would also ban most future lawsuits unless the manufacturer, dealer or distributor breaks an existing law.
Although other cases are pending, the suit brought by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has the gun industry's attention. The NAACP is suing 85 gun makers and distributors, claiming their sales practices disproportionately harm blacks.
Only one of the 33 lawsuits brought since 1998 has resulted in financial damages. Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), who voted against the bill, said even that case was dismissed on appeal. For that reason, he said there's no need for Congress to protect the gun industry.
Other Democrats expressed similar feelings during Wednesday's debate, most of which was spent considering amendments. Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) led the charge, complaining that the bill would shut the courtroom door to victims of gun-related crimes. Without that option, he warned that dealers and distributors might become irresponsible.
One of Watt's amendments would have provided protection only for manufacturers. But the National Rifle Association complained that it would essentially gut the bill, leaving dealers, importers and even trade associations still vulnerable.
Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), a co-sponsor, defended two manufacturers located in his upstate New York district. He said frivolous lawsuits would hurt everyone in the gun industry, from the workers at these plants to sportsmen who would have to pay more for firearms.
"Remington Arms and the Ithaca Gun Co. are two examples of responsible American companies that take pride in producing quality products, while at the same time employing thousands of American men and women," he said.
Others, like Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.), cited self-defense and a loss of Second Amendment rights as reasons for their support.
While some Democrats spoke out in favor of the measure, others complained that it was being pushed through the House to appease gun-industry lobbyists.
"We're rushing this bill through to the other side so that two weeks from now, when the National Rifle Association convenes its national convention in Florida, they'll be energized, they'll be motivated to do whatever they need to do to support many of the supporters of this bill," Watt said. "There is no reason this bill has to be dealt with in the form it is being dealt with."
Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said he opposes the bill because victims of the sniper shootings in the Washington, D.C., area would not be able to sue the gun shop or manufacturer for negligence.
"This legislation is an attempt to provide special legal protection for the gun industry at the expense of innocent Americans who have been harmed by the dangerous and irresponsible actions of some firearms manufacturers and sellers," he said.
But not all of Moran's Democrat colleagues agreed with that assessment.
"I happen to oppose gun control," said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), a co-sponsor. "But even if I favored it, I would be for this bill, which will remove gun-control policymaking from the courts and return it to the legislative arena, where it belongs."
The bill's passage in the House does not necessarily guarantee easy sailing to the White House. Although it has 51 co-sponsors in the Senate, it might not have the 60 votes needed to override a filibuster. The bill has already made it further than last year, however, when it didn't get a House vote.
See Earlier Stories:
Anti-Gun Group Takes Aim at Bill Banning Negligence Lawsuits (March 26, 2003)
Gun Manufacturers Prevail in Calif. Negligent Marketing Case (March 10, 2003)
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