Maybe it's because I recently was awakened by a volley of gunshots that resulted in the death of an innocent college student — a budding leader in her community — that I am so outraged that Congress has decided to grant the gun lobby its most fervent and irresponsible wish: blanket immunity from civil lawsuits.
That protection, offered to no other industry, was assured last week when the House ratified a bill, previously passed by the Senate, shielding gun manufacturers and retailers from civil lawsuits by the victims of gun violence. The bill, now heading to the President's desk for certain approval, is a reward to the National Rifle Association and the rest of the gun industry lobby for doing so much to put the Republican Party in power.
Although the Senate passed the bill with the Bush Administration's blessing before Hurricane Katrina, the gun lobby is justifying its victory as a logical response to the breakdown of civil order in the aftermath of the storm.
When "no police protection was available, [New Orleans residents were] defending their lives and their property with a firearm," said NRA leader Wayne LaPierre, who labeled the new legislation a "historic victory for the NRA."
What irony that the NRA once again invoked the Second Amendment, which was intended to preserve the states' right to maintain "a well-regulated militia."
The National Guard is the modern incarnation of the state militias that the framers of the Constitution had in mind. Its failure to protect New Orleans had nothing to do with a lack of a lawsuit shield for gun manufacturers and everything to do with this Administration depleting the local National Guards through deployment to Iraq while dragging its feet in responding to a natural disaster at home.
Nevertheless, the hurricane has proved a wonderful cover for politicians, including fifty-nine House Democrats, to stay on the right side of the gun lobby and its massive campaign support.
Not that this legislation has anything to do with the NRA's purported aim of protecting the right of law-abiding citizens to own guns. What it protects is irresponsible behavior on the part of gun manufacturers and sellers, such as allowing guns to be sold easily to individuals not allowed by law to own them.
That is exactly what happened at a pawnshop in Raleigh, NC. A convicted felon legally prohibited from buying guns paid a mentally retarded man to buy a 12-gauge shotgun subsequently used by the felon to kill a sheriff's department investigator.
The seller of that gun is being sued by the investigator's widow, who is represented by a lawyer for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence — named after James Brady, the press secretary who was severely wounded in an assassination attempt on President Reagan. The center — which has nine pending civil cases against gun manufacturers and retailers, filed on behalf of individuals and municipalities — warns that the new, retroactive legislation "would essentially place the entire gun industry beyond the bounds of civil liability law."
One case that would be wiped out is the lawsuit by New York City that charges the gun industry with "selling guns through retail dealers who facilitate trafficking of guns into the illegal market." New York's Republican mayor, Michael Bloomberg, termed the bill passed by Congress "a disgraceful piece of legislation that will give gun manufacturers immunity from acting negligently."
Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami-Dade County, New York state and twenty-eight other cities, counties and states have also filed civil lawsuits against the gun industry. But the president is now prepared to deny a day in court to the victims of gun violence and the local governments that must deal with the financial and societal costs and mayhem that plague our cities, claiming that the new legislation "will further our efforts to stem frivolous lawsuits."
What hypocrisy for the Republican Party, which came to power railing against an overbearing federal government, to now use its power in Washington to prevent local governments from seeking to protect their citizens through the legal system.
There will, of course, be a battle in the courts over the constitutionality of this new legislation, because it represents a unique and extreme limitation on Americans' ability to hold corporations accountable for their behavior. If gun makers receive special status under the law, why couldn't chemical manufacturers, automakers, drug makers or even the tobacco industry all claim to be victims of what President Bush so wrongly crusades against as "frivolous lawsuits"?
By Robert Scheer
Reprinted with permission from the The Nation