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Gun Makers Could Be Bulletproofed

Lawsuits blaming firearm makers for gun crimes may soon become a thing of the past, as the Senate nears approval of a legal exemption for the industry.

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, has 44 Republican co-sponsors for his bill to immunize gun manufacturers and distributors from lawsuits arising from crimes in which guns were used.

Despite a threatened filibuster by some Democrats, the bill also has the support of 10 Democrats, among them Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Ending a filibuster requires the votes of 60 senators. Craig said that with 10 Democrats now on his side, he is confident that five of the six Republican senators who are not co-sponsors of the bill will supply the votes he needs to break any filibuster.

"I think I have my 60 votes to proceed when necessary," Craig said.

Gun control advocates — including some representing victims of last year's sniper spree in the Washington area — say they still plan to lobby the issue heavily in hopes of changing a few minds in the Senate.

"Why does the gun industry deserve special protection?" said Dennis Henigan, legal director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Henigan is working on lawsuits filed by nine families of sniper victims against Bulls Eye Shooter Supply of Tacoma, Wash., which said it lost track of the .223-caliber Bushmaster AR-15 carbine found with sniper defendants John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo.

They have sued the store and the weapon manufacturer, Bushmaster Firearms Inc. of Windham, Maine, for damages.

"We're asking for a chance to go in front of other Americans and ask, 'Is the behavior of these manufacturers appropriate?'" former Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose said at a news conference held this summer by opponents of Craig's bill.

Gun advocates say firearm makers shouldn't be forced to spend millions of dollars fighting off lawsuits designed to win large rewards and bankrupt them for making a legal product.

"We have no problem with people going after those who knowingly violate the law," said Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association.

However, "in recent years, we've seen the gun ban groups and the trial lawyers try to litigate this industry out of existence," Arulanandam said.

Daschle agreed to get behind the legislation after gun supporters agreed to specify that firearms manufacturers and distributors would not be protected from lawsuits involving defective products or illegal sales.

"It is a misuse of the civil justice system to try to punish honest, law-abiding people for illegal acts committed by others without their knowledge or involvement," Daschle said two weeks ago.

Since 1998, at least 33 municipalities, counties and states have sued gun makers, many claiming that manufacturers, through irresponsible marketing, allowed weapons to reach criminals. None of the suits so far has resulted in a manufacturer or distributor paying any damages.

Private groups also have sued. The NAACP said guns "led to disproportionate numbers of injuries, deaths and other damages" among minorities, but that case was thrown out of federal court in July.

Thirty-three states have laws on the books blocking such lawsuits. The House passed similar legislation in April and President Bush has said he would sign it.

By Jesse J. Holland