Liability Shield for Gunmakers Near Passage By Shailagh Murray Washington Post Staff Writer Friday, July 29, 2005; A01 The nation's gun lobby is close to realizing a long-sought goal of protecting firearms manufacturers and dealers from being held legally responsible for violent crimes committed with their handguns and automatic weapons. Supporters believe they have the votes in the Senate to pass as early as today a bill making it virtually impossible for victims of gun violence to file civil suits against the industry -- a testimony to the political clout of gun manufacturers, which have become increasingly vulnerable to civil lawsuits in the District and several states. Twelve Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), are joining with the Republicans to support the legislation. Congress has fought bitterly over the issue for the past four years, with the House eager to grant liability protection to the industry but with the Senate highly resistant. A similar bill failed in the Senate last year after opponents loaded it up with amendments that were anathema to the National Rifle Association and other gun enthusiasts. But this year, the Senate appears on the verge of approving a bill that is far broader than most of the 33 immunity-related state laws on the books and that would even halt pending cases, including those brought under the District's Assault Weapon Manufacturing Strict Liability Act, a 1991 law designed to hold manufacturers accountable for selling military-style guns. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals in April upheld the act as constitutional, allowing victims of crimes involving semiautomatic weapons to bring claims under it. If the Senate approves the measure, the House is likely to approve a companion measure -- probably after the August recess -- and to send it on to President Bush for his signature, according to gun lobbyists and some lawmakers. Vincent Morris, a spokesman for D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, said: "It's disappointing but not surprising that this Congress wants to accommodate gunmakers at the expense of victims." The firearms industry is particularly nervous about the D.C. law because plaintiffs are not required to show fault or prove that a gun used in the commission of a crime was defective. Lawrence G. Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents the gun industry, said every injury involving a semiautomatic weapon within the District's borders "could potentially give rise to a lawsuit." "We feel very vulnerable," Keane said. Keane's group recently retained Theodore B. Olson, a former solicitor general for President Bush, to file a Supreme Court petition challenging the D.C. law. But critics say the Senate bill goes overboard in its attempt to block frivolous suits. "It completely eliminates the right to sue in the vast majority of cases," said Dennis Henigan, legal director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which has participated in most legal actions against the gun industry. "It goes right to the heart of our civil liability system." Henigan said his group will challenge the constitutionality of the federal liability exemption, should it be signed into law. Democratic opponents characterize the bill as a flagrant political favor to the gun lobby and ridicule Republicans for playing the national security card. Supporters of the bill contend that the lawsuits could bankrupt firearm manufacturers such as Beretta USA Corp., which provides the standard side arm to the U.S. armed forces, potentially compromising the safety of American troops. "The Department of Defense faces the very real prospect of outsourcing side arms for our soldiers to foreign manufacturers," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).