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.