Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - Federal legislation introduced Tuesday would subject firearms to heightened scrutiny, similar to consumer safety standards for products like teddy bears, nightlights and pancake makers.
Gun control advocates hailed the announcement, vowing to strike back at pro-gun lawmakers who supported legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in April granting firearms manufacturers' immunity from nuisance lawsuits.
The Firearms Safety and Consumer Protection Act, introduced by Sen. Jon S. Corzine (D-N.J.) and Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), would give the Department of Justice authority to regulate the design, manufacture and distribution of guns.
Gun rights groups dismissed the effort. The National Rifle Association noted that firearms are already subject to many regulations. Even some states, such as California, have established their own guidelines.
"Apparently, Senator Corzine and Representative Kennedy haven't heard of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the government agency responsible for enforcing federal laws and regulations relating to firearms and explosives," spokesman Ted Novin said. "No other product is as highly regulated as firearms."
But the handful of gun control advocates who attended Tuesday's gathering disagreed with that assessment. Supporters of the bill, including the Violence Policy Center and Consumer Federation of America, complained that teddy bears and toy guns have to meet safety standards, while firearms do not.
The bill does not have bi-partisan support, and Kennedy conceded that it's not likely to reach President Bush's desk.
But Corzine said despite the divisiveness of gun control, tougher safety standards make sense for gun owners. He said the bill would ensure that safety features like magazine disconnects and load indicators were standard on every gun.
"Owning a shotgun that explodes in your hand when you're using a weapon is a real issue of consumer safety," he said. "We need to have someone overseeing this so that real guns are treated the same way toy guns are. I think we will be able to appeal to the common sense of those who believe very strongly in the Second Amendment."
Kennedy, whose Rhode Island district includes toymaker Hasbro, said the company's fake guns are scrutinized by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, while a firearms manufacturer faces no safety checks.
"If you're going to have guns, at least make sure they're manufactured properly," Kennedy said. "Part of the legislation we're introducing ensures that we're able to track and thereby determine which guns have the greatest accident rate, just like you would with any other product."
Besides giving the Justice Department authority to collect data on gun-related deaths and injuries, the bill also would allow the government to issue product recalls and warnings and limit the sale of firearms when no other remedy was available.
"The ulterior motive here, as it has been in the past, is for the restriction on firearms rights under this false premise to increase safety," said Gary Mehalik, spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. "The best way to ensure safety of the firearms is to have a safe human operator."
The foundation is pushing the Senate to adopt a measure that would make the firearms industry immune from negligence lawsuits. It's an issue that drew the ire of gun control supporters, including former Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), who urged lawmakers to strike back.
But gun control advocates are also facing the prospect that the 1994 federal ban on so-called "assault weapons" will expire in September 2004 without reauthorization from Congress. A lack of congressional support for the ban might doom its renewal, even though Bush supports it.
Without having seen a copy of the Corzine-Kennedy bill, Mehalik said it was difficult to know the breadth of the regulation that had been proposed, but he said gun makers are doing an adequate job producing safe firearms, as they have been for more than 100 years.
In fact, he said, gun owners have been abiding by safety techniques since the 19th century, when cowboys carried five bullets in six-shooters for fear that the gun might discharge if it was dropped. Today, manufactures are equipping firearms with high-tech safety devices, but Mehalik said they could only go so far to protect people.
"The only foolproof way to make sure a firearm does not accidentally shoot is to keep it unloaded and your finger off the trigger," Mehalik said. "Any attempt to create some mechanical contraption that's going to override the human involvement that's required for firearms safety is bound to fail."
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