Pols Give Gun Industry A Silver Bullet

handgun against backdrop of U.S. flag and the capitol building
The gun industry is about to become the only industry in the country shielded from lawsuits. Seriously. In his latest Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer wonders how this can be.

"To be really, really candid," Rep. James C. Greenwood, R-Pa., promised The Washington Post, "There are a lot of us who are often at odds with the gun lobby back home who saw this as an easy vote to give."

That "easy vote to give" away to the gun lobby would be H.R. 1036, the "Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2003" passed by the House in early April. You may recall there was a war going on then and national attention was slightly diverted.

The House bill would prevent civil lawsuits by victims of guns (or classes of victims) against companies that manufacture, sell, or import firearms (and their trade associations). The gun business would be anointed as the only industry in the country immune from lawsuits.

The gun industry? Not the pharmaceutical companies that try to make products that save lives and get sued all the time. Not doctors. Nope. This special right is being bestowed upon the makers of killing devices only. Only in America.

Victims of the Washington snipers are preparing a lawsuit against Bull's Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma, Washington, the store that supplied the Bushmaster rifle used in the crimes, even though both suspects could not legally purchase a firearm. That lawsuit, and some 30 others like it around the country, would disappear as quickly as you can say NRA.

The NRA and other industry groups say the law is necessary to protect companies from extinction simply because a gun they made or sold was used in a crime. They also say the bill is needed to protect the industry from frivolous lawsuits.

Both claims can't be true. If the lawsuits are frivolous, then gun businesses are not at risk for extermination.

Critics of the legislation, the major pro-gun control lobbies, argue that it would let gun dealers who sell guns to minors and felons, and manufacturers who lost track of gun shipments, off the hook.

There are 52 sponsors for this bill in the Senate and Republicans plan to bring it to the floor soon. The White House has indicated the President will sign the bill. Short of a miracle filibuster, it will be the law of the land.

The NRA has skillfully pushed the legislation, as has a lesser-known gun industry group, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which has raised over $100 million to fight gun lawsuits in courts and legislatures.

These political posses are doing what they always do. In my mind, they're not wearing the black hats – this time.

No, save the black hats and the 'weenie of the week' awards for those yellow-bellied members of Congress who are so addicted to reelection that they're caving into this gun lobby.

It is now accepted political gospel that his mild support of some gun control was a big factor in Al Gore's defeat. He lost Arkansas, West Virginia and his native Tennessee – all Democratic states in recent president elections, but also pro-gun rights states that enjoy their hunting.

The Republicans' top campaign strategist in the House, Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., told The Washington Post "the gun issue was the cornerstone" of the party's success in the 2000 elections.

This conventional strategic wisdom has politicians with rural constituencies from both parties even more frightened of the gun industry's hired guns than usual. Thus, the easy fate of this year's gun bill.

This also means they'll be ready to roll over on several other gun control issues that will come before Congress.

During the fall sniper spree in Washington, the administration relented, a tiny bit, from its opposition to ballistic fingerprinting, a forensic technique that some think could help connect bullets used in crimes to the guns that fired them. The White House grudgingly agreed to launch a major scientific study of the technique.

That study is now in the black hole, along with Osama and Saddam. It hasn't been begun yet, if it ever will. Some Senators are trying to force the administration to conduct the study. Don't hold your breath.

And next year – an election year -- the ban on assault weapons passed in 1994 is set to expire. The NRA badly wants the ban lifted, but President Bush has supported it. So all the lobbying will be on a Congress already in retreat on gun control. And this piece of legislation is closer to the hearts of NRA members than the lawsuit bill.

If Congress isn't going to give the gun industry a string of easy victories, the Senate gun control supporters better lock and load right now.

Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, is based in Washington. Formerly, he was a political and investigative producer for The CBS News Evening News With Dan Rather.

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Against the Grain

By Dick Meyer