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The Gun Lobby's Dead Aim

The gun lobby is about to squeeze the trigger on its biggest shot in the post-Columbine era and perhaps its greatest bull's eye ever. But it's Senate Democrats who deserve the credit here because they're the ones who have changed course, wimping out and giving in on one of the most inane pieces of legislation a legislature could concoct.

The Firearms Manufacturers Protection Bill, also called The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, is sponsored by Larry Craig, a director of the National Rifle Association who happens to be a Republican Senator from the state of Idaho.

The legislation, which has 61 co-sponsors and is about to pass the Senate, would give gun manufacturers, dealers, distributors and importers unprecedented protection from civil litigation and lawsuits filed by victims of gun crimes or accidents, or by cities and municipalities (like New York City) that have tried to use litigation to control illegal guns.

No other American industry, no other branch of commerce would have this kind of special protection from civil law. Not drug makers, hospitals, doctors, farmers, or food processors. Not knife makers, car companies, tobacco companies, brewers, distillers or firecracker makers. Just the gun industry.

This legislation, for example, would have prevented the lawsuit that awarded victims of the Washington snipers $2.5 million from the gun store where John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo got their rifle. There have not been scads of these lawsuits. Some of the litigation brought by cities is proceeding, some has already lost. That's the way courts and civil justice work.

The NRA has been pushing for cover since 1998. The House has passed the gun shield before and it will do it again as soon as it gets through the Senate. Last year, Senate Democrats, with help from a few Republicans, blocked the bill after the House passed it. This year the Senate is sure to cave. What changed?

The easy answer is four seats - seats the Republicans gained in the 2004 elections. But those election returns took away more than Senate seats: they also took away backbone.

After Al Gore's 2000 defeat, many Democrats worried that gun control, so important to their urban constituency, was a big fat loser of an issue. After the 2004 election went south on them, they became convinced of it and the Democratic retreat on gun control was essentially complete.

Conveniently for the NRA and company (and pardon me if this sounds morbid and cynical), the country is further away from Columbine and the D.C. snipers, huge national stories, and traumas in which the victims were not only innocent, they were mostly white and middle class. They were voters and the children of voters. Those kinds of tragedies are setbacks for the gun lobby. For a little while, that is.

Last year's debate over gun liability was noisy. Police chiefs and mayors (of both parties) campaigned against the bill. The gun industry had to make the argument that it shouldn't be held liable for what people do with guns and point out that companies could still be sued for things like product failure and that dealers could still face criminal charges for gun law violations. We in the media paid some attention.

This year, the skids are greased. Because that's the way the Democrats, led by new Minority Leader Harry Reid, want it. The Republicans and the NRA aren't doing anything differently. The Democrats, for reasons of politics not policy, just don't want to be associated with gun control, so with a few principled exceptions, they have punted.

Actually, I take that back - the Republicans have done one thing differently. Party elders have used an especially ludicrous and phony argument for the bill: national security.

The administration issued its official proclamation of support for the bill on July 26. It said, "The bill would also safeguard our national security by preventing frivolous lawsuits against an industry that plays an important role in fulfilling our military's procurement needs." (By the way, please explain: if the lawsuits are really "frivolous," how can they be a threat to a whole industry?) Majority Leader Bill Frist has repeatedly floated the same canard. It's absurd, egregious propaganda.

The pro-gun control lobbying group Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence cites a public filing the gun manufacturer Sturm, Ruger & Co. made with the SEC on March 11, 2005 "[I]t is not probable and is unlikely that litigation, including punitive damage claims, will have a material adverse effect on the financial position of the Company." Smith & Wesson reported to the SEC in June that they expected product sales to be up 5 percent in 2005.

Gun makers aren't endangered. But the backbone of the Democrats and their future may be.



Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

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By Dick Meyer