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Gun bill's gapong holes

FAMILIES OF the victims of the Washington-area snipers would be unable to hold accountable the gun store that somehow "lost" the assault rifle used in the attacks if a bill before the Senate becomes law. This legislation would bestow on gun makers and gun dealers an almost total immunity from civil suits that no other industry enjoys. Senators should reject the measure, which has already been passed by the House.


Firearms and tobacco are already the only two consumer industries that are not subject to federal consumer safety regulations. Tobacco, at least, has been held accountable in suits brought by states and individuals on behalf of smoking's millions of victims and the budget-busting medical bills that government health programs have to pick up because of tobacco use. That legal recourse also would be denied to victims of guns under the bill.

The two shooters in the sniper case are responsible for the deaths they caused. But the gun store in Washington state that cannot locate records of the transaction involving its assault rifle also should be held to account for the negligent or irresponsible way it has trafficked in such dangerous goods.

Each year, several thousand children are shot to death in the United States. Many such killings could be prevented if all manufacturers were required to install safety devices. If one or two courts ruled on behalf of victims and required the gun makers to pay substantial awards, they would be quicker to include foolproof devices on their products. Senators have included an amendment in their version of the immunity bill that mandates child safety locks on all new handguns, but it would be better to do that through separate legislation and just kill the immunity bill.

Other suits now pending in courts aim at both makers and dealers for establishing a distribution system that makes it all too easy for firearms to wind up in the hands of criminals through easily detected "straw purchasers." With Congress so cowed by the gun lobby that it won't crack down on this leaky distribution system, civil suits provide leverage for cities that are particularly victimized by gun violence.

The immunity bill is opposed by many police organizations. William J. Bratton, chief of police in Los Angeles and formerly head of the Boston and New York City departments, recently said it is "crazy" to give gun makers and dealers immunity. With such a law, he asked, "What incentive do they have to make guns with safer designs or what incentive do the handful of bad dealers have to follow the law?"

Those are questions that senators should ask -- and answer honestly -- before they follow the House in passing this badly conceived legislation.

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