WASHINGTON - Congress gave the gun lobby its top legislative priority Thursday, passing a bill protecting the firearms industry from massive crime-victim lawsuits. President Bush said he will sign it.
"Our laws should punish criminals who use guns to commit crimes, not law-abiding manufacturers of lawful products," Bush said in a statement.
The House voted 283-144 to send the bill to the president after supporters, led by the National Rifle Association, proclaimed it vital to protect the industry from being bankrupted by huge jury awards. Opponents, waging a tough battle against growing public support for the legislation, called it proof of the gun lobby's power over the Republican-controlled Congress.
"This legislation will make the unregulated gun industry the most pampered industry in America," said Kristen Rand, director of the Violence Policy Center.
Under the measure, a half-dozen pending lawsuits by local governments against the industry would be dismissed. Anti-gun groups say some lawsuits filed by individuals could be thrown out, too.
The Senate passed the bill in July.
The bill's passage was the NRA's top legislative priority and would give Bush and his Republican allies on Capitol Hill a rare victory at a time when some top GOP leaders are under indictment or investigation.
"Lawsuits seeking to hold the firearms industry responsible for the criminal and unlawful use of its products are brazen attempts to accomplish through litigation what has not been achieved by legislation and the democratic process," House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., told his colleagues.
Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, did not vote. He is in Texas in connection with his indictment in an alleged scheme to violate state election law.
Propelled by GOP election gains and the incidents of lawlessness associated with the passing of Hurricane Katrina, support for the bill has grown since a similar measure passed the House last year and was killed in the Senate.
Horrific images of people without the protection of public safety in New Orleans made a particular impression on viewers who had never before felt unsafe, according to the gun lobby.
"Americans saw a complete collapse of the government's ability to protect them," said Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president.
"That burnt in, those pictures of people standing there defending their lives and defending their property and their family," he added, "where the one source of comfort was a firearm."
With support from four new Republicans this session of Congress, the bill passed the Senate for the first time in July. House passage never was in doubt because it had 257 co-sponsors, far more than the 218 needed to pass.
The bill's authors say it still would allow civil suits against individual parties who have been found guilty of criminal wrongdoing by the courts.
Opponents say the strength of the bill's support is testament to the influence of the gun lobby. If the bill had been law when the relatives of six victims of convicted Washington-area snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo sued the gun dealer from which they obtained their rifle, the dealer would not have agreed to pay the families and victims $2.5 million.
"It is shameful that Republicans in Congress are pushing legislation that guarantees their gun-dealing cronies receive special treatment and are above the law," said Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla.
Bush has said he supports the bill, which would prohibit lawsuits against the firearms industry for damages resulting from the unlawful use of a firearm or ammunition. Gun makers and dealers still would be subject to product liability, negligence or breach of contract suits, the bill's authors say.
Democrats and Republicans alike court the NRA at election time, and the bill has garnered bipartisan support. But the firearms industry still gave 88 percent of its campaign contributions, or $1.2 million, to Republicans in the 2004 election cycle.
Gun control advocates, meanwhile, gave 98 percent of their contributions, or $93,700, to Democrats that cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The bill is S. 397.