Thu, Mar 04, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Gun-control legislation dies after NRA takes aim

THE DEVIL YOU KNOW The bill protecting the firearms industry from legal action was amended by anti-gun forces, so its sponsors abandoned it

REUTERS , WASHINGTON

The US Senate in a surprise move on Tuesday killed legislation to shield the firearms industry from lawsuits after gun-control advocates added measures that drew the ire of the powerful gun lobby.

Overcoming intense opposition from the National Rifle Association (NRA), gun-control advocates passed amendments extending the 1994 assault weapons ban for another decade, instituting criminal-background checks at gun shows and requiring trigger locks or similar safety devices to be sold with all handguns.

But just before the final vote, the NRA repudiated the amended bill in an e-mail to senators, and said the senators' vote "will be used in our future evaluations and endorsements of candidates."

The legislation's chief sponsor, Idaho Republican Senator Larry Craig, urged colleagues to vote against it at the last minute.

"I believe it is so dramatically wounded that it should not pass," said Craig, who serves on the NRA board.

Craig said later the bill was most likely dead for the year -- although he also vowed to block any attempt to revive the assault weapons ban, which is supported by many law enforcement groups and big city mayors.

Until Craig's unexpected repudiation, the bill, the NRA's top priority, had been coasting toward passage in the Senate. President George W. Bush strongly supported it.

Its sponsors had easily overcome procedural hurdles and beaten back attempts to narrow the legal protections it offered to the gun industry. They had said that they expected any anti-gun amendments to be easily stripped out in negotiations with the House, which has not hesitated to kill Senate gun-control measures in the past.

Asked what it would take to get the House to accept those measures, Arizona Republican John McCain, part of the bloc of Republicans who joined most Democrats in backing gun-control measures, joked, "a tsunami."

The controversy is likely to echo in the 2004 presidential campaign. Both John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina interrupted their campaigns for the Democratic nomination to cast votes for the key gun-control measures.

The White House has been pushing for a "clean" liability bill with no amendments, giving Bush's critics an opening to accuse him of backing away from his 2000 campaign pledge to support extension of the assault weapons ban.

"When his support was most critical ... he was not there," said Rhode Island Democrat Senator Jack Reed, saying Bush "played both sides against the middle and then ended up with nothing."

Senate Republicans backed off a threat to offer an amendment that would have overturned Washington, DC's strict 1976 ban on handgun sales and gun licensing rules.

Craig and other backers said the liability legislation would have shielded the gun industry against politically inspired civil suits like those filed by some cities that attempted to hold the industry responsible for urban gun violence.

But foes said the bill would give the industry far more immunity, even blocking suits by people whose relatives were killed by the Washington-area snipers in 2002.

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