The House passed legislation Wednesday to shield gun manufacturers and dealers from civil suits by crime victims, saying the industry was being unfairly targeted with frivolous litigation.
The legislation, approved by a vote of 285 to 140, would undercut more than a dozen lawsuits, including one filed in San Diego, by cities seeking to hold gun makers and distributors responsible for local violence. A growing number of suits by families of crime victims, including several filed in connection with the sniper shootings in the Washington area last fall, would also be affected.
In a sometimes-emotional debate, the bill's Republican sponsors defended the legal protections, saying trial lawyers and antigun groups are using specious theories in court in an attempt to hold gun makers liable for crimes and violence committed by others. The suits, which have cost the industry more than $100 million in legal fees, could ultimately dry up the supply of guns, infringing on gun owners' 2nd Amendment right to bear arms, they asserted.
"Where will our soldiers get the arms they need to protect our freedoms?" said Rep. Candice S. Miller (R-Mich.). "From France? From Germany?" She noted that one of the defendants in the suits, Colt's Manufacturing Co., based in Hartford, Conn., makes the M16, a weapon used by U.S. forces in Iraq.
A vote on the legislation initially was scheduled for last fall, but it was tabled because of the sniper shootings. The fate of a companion bill in the Senate is uncertain, although a majority of members there have announced their support for it.
On Tuesday, the Bush administration threw its support behind the legislation. "The manufacturer or seller of a legal, nondefective product should not be held liable for the criminal or unlawful misuse of that product by others," the administration said in a prepared statement.
Known as the "Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act," the legislation "would help prevent abuse of the legal system and help curb the growing problem of frivolous lawsuits in the United States."
Critics said the lawsuits are anything but frivolous, and called the bill an egregious form of special-interest legislation.
They said the suits are beginning to unearth evidence that gun manufacturers have long known that some of their dealers sold guns to criminals. They said that court action is needed because there has been no serious legislative attempt to regulate industry practices, including "straw man" purchases of guns for felons who otherwise would be barred from owning guns under federal law.
An antigun group, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, is set to release a new report today that it says shows through industry documents obtained in some of the lawsuits how the gun industry funnels guns to the illegal market.
The group contends that the suits have already had the effect of pressuring several gun makers to start installing trigger locks and other safety measures. "That is a really disastrous policy consequence of this," said Dennis Henigan, a Washington attorney who is involved in a number of the suits, and legal director of the Brady Center. "The trend toward safer guns would come to a screeching halt."
Other critics expressed skepticism about the timing of the consideration, on the eve of the annual meeting later this month of the National Rifle Assn., which has dubbed the legislation the "reckless lawsuit protection" act. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D.-Fla.) said it appeared Republicans were more concerned with "satisfying priorities of contributors than in seeking justice." He added: "At a time when America needs more corporate responsibility ... Congress should not give one industry a free pass."
Last year, the California Legislature repealed a law dating to the 1980s that gave special immunity privileges to gun makers. That followed a state Supreme Court decision that ruled that victims of gun crimes were barred from suing under the law. In a statement Wednesday, Gov. Gray Davis said the House-backed measure would "unfairly close the courtroom door to victims of gun violence and would give gun sellers unprecedented special immunity not granted to the makers of other products." The federal bill, he added, would "take us right back to square one."
Proponents said the bill would offer only "qualified legal immunity," and that distributors who sold guns to people who they knew were likely to use them "in a manner involving unreasonable risk of physical injury" to others could still be sued. They argued that, in general, gun makers shouldn't be sued where their products function "as designed and intended" -- just as auto makers or makers of baseball bats are protected.
"There are dozens and dozens of pieces of such legislation very similar to this bill that have been passed by Congress to protect and enforce protections against nuisance lawsuits," said Rep. Cliff Stearns (R.-Fla.), the bill's main sponsor. He cited federal laws enacted over the last several years protecting interests ranging from makers of biomaterials used in medical devices and implants to volunteers and schoolteachers.
Since the early 1990s, Congress has considered, and uniformly rejected, broad-based legislation that would limit civil damage awards against makers of allegedly defective products. Those bills generally didn't seek to limit damages in cases against gun makers because the issue was considered too politically volatile. Congress is also currently considering legislation that would limit court awards against former manufacturers of asbestos-containing products. That industry has sustained billions of dollars in legal costs over the last 40 years.
In another legislative development related to business liability, a Senate committee Wednesday postponed action on a bill that would give new legal protections to the vaccine industry. Republicans said a compromise was near, although Democrats privately complained that a bipartisan deal my have been sidetracked by vaccine manufacturers.
Times staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report.