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Senate endorses liability shield for gun makers

WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted yesterday to give gun makers and dealers immunity from civil lawsuits brought by gunshot victims and their families, handing a major victory to the National Rifle Association and the Bush administration, which championed the measure.

The bill, approved 65 to 31, would throw out dozens of pending lawsuits against the gun industry, lawyers said, including a case brought by the family of a Worcester man who was shot dead in 1999 with a gun made by Kahr Arms, a company based in New York.

Supporters of the measure expressed condolences for victims of gun violence, but said it was unfair to hold manufacturers and dealers liable for the production and sale of legal weapons.

''You don't have to be a parent to grieve over a child's injury or a child's death. How do you protect the children on the street? You go after the criminal who is packing a gun on the street," said Senator Larry Craig, Republican of Idaho and sponsor of the bill. ''This law says go after the criminal; don't go after the law-abiding gun manufacturer or the law-abiding gun seller."

The measure is expected to pass the House of Representatives and be signed by President Bush. The administration released a statement this week strongly urging passage of the bill, saying the gun lawsuits were unfair, set a ''poor precedent" for other industries, and would threaten jobs in the gun industry.

A similar measure failed last year after gun control advocates succeeded in attaching an amendment to extend a ban on the sale of assault weapons. When the NRA learned about that amendment, it quickly e-mailed senators, asking them to kill the whole bill rather than approve it in its modified form.

But this year, with a stronger GOP majority in the Senate, the NRA was able to get a clean bill approved. The Department of Defense also weighed in this week, saying in a letter to Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, that it wanted to make sure its small-arms contractors did not face financial ruin because of liability lawsuits.

The vote showcased the renewed power of the NRA in Congress. More than a dozen Democrats, including Senate minority leader Harry Reid, whose Nevada constituents largely favor gun rights, backed the bill.

''If this bill passes, we will silence the voices of victims across the country who have been harmed by gun violence," Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and chief opponent of the bill, said before the measure was approved. ''If this passes, what incentive will there be for gun dealers to act responsibly?"

Democrats offered several amendments to limit the scope of the bill, including a proposal to ban so-called ''cop-killer," armor-piercing bullets as well as a measure to allow law enforcement or the families of children under 16 to sue gun manufacturers. The amendments were all defeated.

''This legislation is another in a long line of congressional payback to the NRA, to the severe detriment of the safety of the American people. It's a shameless proposal that shields even the most reckless in the gun industry," said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts.

If the bill becomes law, as expected, lawyers for both sides in the Worcester case agree it will eradicate the case brought by the family of Danny Guzman, a 26-year-old father of two who was shot in the chest on Christmas Eve, 1999, as he entered a Worcester pub. Guzman was a bystander in a dispute between two other individuals over a woman, according to the court papers on the case.

Lawyers for Guzman's family said the gun that killed him was one that a Kahr employee sold from parts he had stolen from work. Since the guns had not yet been stamped with a serial numbers, they could not be traced, according to the lawsuit.

The family has been in court for two years, seeking damages from Kahr on the grounds that the company was negligent in not doing background checks on its employees or providing adequate security at the plant. That case will be moot if the gun legislation is signed into law, Guzman's and Kahr's lawyers said.

Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president, said the legislation was not as restrictive as critics contend. While the proposed law would not permit civil lawsuits based on product liability grounds, ''if there's illegal conduct, they can clearly be sued," LaPierre said.

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