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ZELL MILLER

Firearms firms need protection

MORE THAN TWO years ago, my good friend from Idaho, Larry Craig, introduced a bill in the US Senate to protect law-abiding firearms manufacturers and dealers from being held responsible for the criminal actions of third parties. Fifty-five of his fellow senators, myself included, joined Senator Craig in sponsoring this common-sense legislation. Ultimately, however, the bill went down to defeat because several unrelated gun-control amendments were attached to it.

Now a new day has dawned, and with broad support, Senator Craig has reintroduced his bill -- S. 397, the ''Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act." Senators on both sides of the aisle recognize, as do the vast majority of Americans, that these ridiculous lawsuits are really all about shoving a social agenda -- firearms prohibition -- through the courts. The endgame is to use potentially bankrupting litigation to force the makers of a legal product to cease manufacture.

This attempted end run around our legislatures is regulation through litigation, plain and simple. As one attorney active in these lawsuits put it bluntly: ''You don't need a legislative majority to file a lawsuit."

By any standard, S. 397 is common-sense legislation. Let's think about it for a second but remove firearms from the equation. We'll substitute some other products. Do you believe that Ford Motor Co. should be dragged into court to be held responsible for damage to life and limb caused by drunk drivers? Do you believe that Callaway Golf should be held accountable because someone was assaulted with one of that company's Big Bertha irons? Of course you don't.

I think you'll agree that these are both ridiculous scenarios. But are they any more ridiculous than allowing someone to sue a gun company because a handgun the firm made decades ago was used to shoot someone during a convenience store robbery? I really don't think so. Maybe that's because I've been around long enough to remember a time in this country when we held the criminal who pulled the trigger responsible for his crime.

Times do change, but how did we arrive at where we are today with these predatory lawsuits? I believe that in large measure it's because the gun prohibitionists in this country have failed. They have been unable to convince the people's elected representatives that law-abiding citizens will somehow become safer if they are universally disarmed. To counter this failure, the gun-ban crowd has formed a tripartite alliance with big-city mayors who lack the will to get tough with the criminals who prowl their streets and with greedy trial lawyers who seek big paydays.

Craig and a bipartisan majority of the US Senate recognize the dangers posed by this alliance. They know that even if the firearms industry were to win every case -- which is basically what has happened to date -- victory will come at the cost of many millions of dollars in legal costs. And these are costs this relatively small industry cannot absorb.

While this legislation seeks to protect a lawful industry, it also recognizes that any firearms dealer or manufacturer who breaks the law must be held accountable for those illegal actions -- no protection is offered for such acts. Neither does the maker of a defective product get a free pass.

Senators supporting the ''Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act" also recognize that should our firearms industry be driven into bankruptcy, the impact not only will harm sportsmen, hunters, and citizens who keep and bear arms for self-defense. Our military and the law enforcement community will also feel the adverse impact.

To date, 33 states have acted to block these predatory lawsuits that so clearly abuse the tort liability system. But because 17 states have failed to act, the ''Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act" must be passed -- without ''poison pill" amendments designed to defeat it -- and enacted into law. The time is long overdue.

Zell Miller is a former Democratic governor and United States senator from Georgia.

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