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Heated Debate Sparked by Effort to Give Lawsuit Immunity to Gun Makers

Just about any American politician will tell you there are a few, "hot-button" issues that can make or break an election. These are issues American voters feel passionately about, and politicians are almost invariably labeled as being either "for" or "against" them. Abortion is one of them. The death penalty is another. And then there's the issue of guns. The right to own a gun was written into the U.S. Constitution more than 200 years ago, and some people insist any laws regulating gun ownership are therefore unconstitutional. Recently, victims of gun violence have begun to target the fire-arms industry in court, but victims won't be able to do that any more, if a bill now being considered by the U.S. Congress becomes law.

The legislation would effectively grant immunity against liability lawsuits to gun manufacturers and dealers. The gun industry began campaigning for the protection after a jury in California ordered a gun designer, its manufacturer, and its dealer to pay $50 million in damages to a child paralyzed in an accidental shooting in 1994.

Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, says "this legislation is aimed at preventing frivolous lawsuits that will just clog up our legal system. These lawsuits are the brainchild of gluttonous trial attorneys who are determined to make the gun industry responsible for the actions of criminals."

Gun manufacturers have long maintained they should not be held responsible when someone uses their product in an unsafe or illegal manner. That argument took on new meaning earlier this year, when Denise Johnson, widow of Conrad Johnson, filed a negligence lawsuit against the manufacturer of the gun used to kill her husband. Conrad Johnson was one of ten people in the Washington, D.C., area murdered last October by the infamous "Washington sniper." The families of several other victims have since joined that lawsuit, which also names the owner of the gun shop where John Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo illegally acquired the rifle used in the sniper shootings.

"The plaintiffs in these lawsuits are not suggesting that gun dealers or gun manufacturers should be liable every time their gun is used in crime. However, there are some cases where crimes are caused by specific, negligent acts," says John Lowey, an attorney for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which is representing Denise Johnson and the other plaintiffs in the case. He says the Bull's Eye gun shop where Lee Boyd Malvo shoplifted the sniper rifle had a well-documented history of misplacing guns that were in its inventory, either because the guns were stolen, or because the dealer failed to keep track of when and to whom they were sold.

Between 1997 and 2001, guns acquired at Bull's Eye were used in 52 crimes. John Lowey says if the gun shop owner hadn't been so sloppy, those fire arms might not have ended up in the hands of criminals. He also says it was irresponsible for Bushmaster, the manufacturer of the sniper rifle, to do business with Bull's Eye. And according to John Lowey, Bushmaster can still be found negligent in a civil court, even though the company wasn't breaking any laws when it sold its rifles to a sloppy gun dealer. "If you're rear-ended in your car by someone who is playing around with their cell phone, and not paying attention well, in virtually this entire country, with a couple of exceptions, it's legal to talk on the cell phone. However, it can be negligent, and there are many types of gun sales that are legal, but most everyone would agree are grossly irresponsible," he says.

John Lowey says under existing law, it's the job of a jury to determine negligence. But if the federal legislation being pushed by the gun industry passes, as many believe it will, Mr. Lowey says it will be nearly impossible for anyone to accuse a gun manufacturer or dealer of negligence. All pending lawsuits, including Denise Johnson's, will also be thrown out. John Lowey says there isn't an industry in this country that enjoys immunity from liability lawsuits. He notes that Congress never considered giving such a privilege to the tobacco industry, which will be paying out more than $240 billion over the next 20 years in liability settlements.

But Andrew Arulanandam of the National Rifle Association says the gun industry deserves special protection, because the country's national security depends upon it. "This is an industry that provides the men and women of our armed forces, the men and women of law enforcement, with the very basic tools that they need to protect our country, and to protect us during these perilous times. And as a direct consequence of these lawsuits, these gunmakers could very well be run out of business," he says.

The gun industry is also an industry with a legendary amount of political clout. The immunity legislation has passed in the House of Representatives. It's now being considered by the Senate, where it has 53 co-sponsors, more than half the members. It'll take a two-thirds vote to pass, and opponents are threatening a filibuster. But if both houses of Congress approve the bill, President Bush has already said he'll sign it.