Legislation Could Curtail Lawsuits Against Gun Dealers

Gun control advocates say that legislation before Congress could make it difficult to shut down gun dealers who violate federal gun laws. Gun owners and gun makers say the issue is a red herring, raised by those who want to use a wave of lawsuits to bankrupt the gun industry.

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Gun control advocates say that legislation before Congress could make it difficult to shut down gun dealers who violate federal gun laws. Gun control groups are worried about language in this year's version of a bill that would bar lawsuits against the firearms industry. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

The firearms industry says the purpose of the legislation this time around is the same as it was last year. Lawrence Keane is with the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents the industry.

Mr. LAWRENCE KEANE (National Shooting Sports Foundation): And the language only applies in cases where the shooting arises out of a criminal shooting and makes clear that you cannot sue a manufacturer or dealer if they've done nothing more than sell the product lawfully.

ABRAMSON: Thirty-three states have passed laws limiting suits against gunmakers and dealers. Congress came close last year. In this Congress, the industry feels its chances are better. In fact, the gun control lobby is worried that the firearms industry has been emboldened by the Bush re-election and is pushing for more sweeping legislation. Brian Siebel of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence says the new bill contains language that goes well beyond a simple prohibition against lawsuits by shooting victims.

Mr. BRIAN SIEBEL (Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence): It has language added this year which would bar administrative proceedings by ATF, which ATF has to use if they want to revoke a corrupt dealer's license.

ABRAMSON: Corrupt dealers such as Bulls Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma, Washington, source of the gun used by the Washington area snipers. After the shootings, and investigation by ATF, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, exposed years of negligence at Bulls Eye. The agency seized the store's license through an administrative action. Stephen Higgins, ATF director from 1983 to '93, says dealers facing ATF inspections could hide behind this new law.

Mr. STEPHEN HIGGINS (Former ATF Director): Clearly, a revocation of a license is an administrative action. If you take away that administrative penalty, you've gone a long way toward weakening one of the few options they've got left.

ABRAMSON: But the gun industry says this is all based on a fantastic reading of the bill and is little more than a last-ditch effort by gun control backers to stop the legislation. Lawrence Keane of the National Shooting Sports Foundation says, in fact, the bill is more moderate than last year's. He says it only protects law-abiding dealers and manufacturers from suits by gunshot victims.

Mr. KEANE: If anybody in the chain of commerce or the chain of custody of the firearm violates any of the varied 20,000-plus laws that apply to the sale and distribution of firearms, they can be sued. The bill offers them no protection.

ABRAMSON: The man who helped write the legislation concedes that the bill's language is different this year, but Congressman Cliff Stearns of Florida says his goal is to prevent end runs around the law, not to stop ATF from doing its job.

Representative CLIFF STEARNS (Republican, Florida): What we're trying to do is just simply prevent using zoning and local licensing to put a dealer out of business or for having a sold a firearm later used in a crime.

ABRAMSON: The Brady campaign counters that this is, in fact, the latest in a series of attempts by the gun lobby to weaken the ATF. It started, they way, with the 1986 McClure-Volkmer bill which limited ATF inspections of gun dealers. The Brady campaign's Brian Siebel points out that the law also made sure that sloppy dealers faced lesser charges.

Mr. SIEBEL: So dealers that can't account for inventory, instead of facing a felony conviction and potentially time behind bars now are only facing misdemeanors; at most, they would risk the loss of a license. That threat is even being withdrawn if this new bill passes.

ABRAMSON: The Protection of Lawful Commerce and Arms Act has already passed the House Judiciary Committee. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist recently announced he plans to bring the bill straight to a floor vote this month. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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