Gun-control debate gets muzzled
On the same day last month, five factory workers in Mississippi were shot and killed by a co-worker and five people in a family in Bakersfield, Calif., were killed by gunfire.
Not too long ago, dramatic slayings such as these would have created a new chapter in the national debate over gun control. There would have been angry speeches in Congress and new proposals to crack down on firearms.
But today, there is mostly silence.
That’s a point I made in an earlier essay.
Democrats, who believe that their calls for gun controls might have cost them the White House in 2000, are less willing to take on the gun lobby. Polls suggest that public fears about terrorism have helped mute the debate.
Meanwhile, the gun industry is racking up legislative wins. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, says there are not enough votes in the House to renew Congress’ 1994 ban on certain assault weapons when it expires next year.
I certainly hope so. I was pissed off enough when it passed. I’d really be P.O.’d if Dubya signed the renewal.
And now, gun rights supporters are closing in on what probably would be their most enduring victory.
The Senate is close to passing a bill that would shield firearms manufacturers and dealers from civil lawsuits brought by victims of gun crimes. The measure, which the House passed 285-140 as 63 Democrats voted with the GOP majority, is an effort to shield the gun industry from the type of lawsuits that have been successful against tobacco and asbestos companies.
The popularity of the bill — it has 54 co-sponsors in the Senate, including several top Democrats — underscores the changed political dynamics of gun control. Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid, D-Nev., has signed on, and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., might do so.
Which would be a pretty fair gauge of just how at-risk Daschle thinks his seat is.
The political divide over gun control has long cut geographically: Rural areas generally oppose greater controls on firearms, and urban areas generally favor them. Republicans usually oppose restrictions; Democrats usually back them. But Democrats in rural areas where hunting is a tradition have a tough time winning elections if they are seen by voters as anti-gun.
Let me interject something here: I know that the term “anti-gun” is just shorthand reporterese, but realistically the term successfully redefines the issue. It isn’t that the electorate thinks the politician is “anti-gun,” but that the electorate believes the politician wants to disarm law-abiding citizens. That isn’t anti-gun, that’s anti-citizen – and the electorate has generally known it. Since 911, a lot more of the electorate has woken to that fact.
That longtime party dilemma came into sharp focus after Democrat Al Gore, a supporter of gun controls, lost the key states of Arkansas, Tennessee and West Virginia en route to his narrow defeat in the 2000 presidential election. Some Democrats believe Gore’s stance on guns was to blame.
Some Republicans, Libertarians, and Independents thought so too.
Democrats became even more reticent after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, made improving security a national priority.
When Republican pollster David Winston asked Americans about plans to allow pilots to carry guns in the cockpit, he found that married women with children — traditionally the strongest voices favoring gun control — were among the biggest supporters.
“The soccer mom who wants to gets guns off the playgrounds through gun control is the same mom who wants pilots to be armed ” he said. “The dynamic has changed. . . . It’s putting it in the context of safety.”
And didn’t that shock their socks off! Hell, we’ve always put it in the context of safety. And for that matter so has our opposition. We say it increases your safety, they say it increases your risk. Looks like the soccer-mom contingent has made its choice.
Today, much of the conflict over gun control is focused on the litigation bill that is before Congress.
The bill would stop pending civil lawsuits and prevent future claims by victims of gun crimes against companies that sold, imported or manufactured the weapons used in such crimes. Similar legislation has been passed in 32 states. But opponents say the federal proposal is more sweeping and could prevent the firearms industry from being sued in almost any circumstance.
“I would say the breadth of the immunity granted is unprecedented,” says Dennis Henigan, legal counsel to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “No other industry enjoys the kind of protection from legal actions that this bill would grant the gun industry.”
So sayeth the mouthpiece of the organization that promotes the book Every Handgun is Aimed at You: The Case for Banning Handguns by Josh Sugarman, executive director of the Violence Policy Center. What do you expect him to say?
The Brady Center, which is providing legal assistance in about two dozen lawsuits against the industry, says the bill would stop a lawsuit filed by relatives of those slain in a series of attacks that included the sniper shootings last fall in the Washington, D.C., area.
As well it should. The whole point of these lawsuits is to bankrupt the manufacturers since the gun
ban control groups have failed to shut them down legislatively.
Representatives of the firearms industry say legitimate businesses that sell guns legally should not be held responsible when the guns end up in criminals’ hands. They say the legislation before Congress is needed to protect gunmakers and dealers from bankruptcy, which has become a threat as the number of lawsuits against the industry increases.
Lawrence Keane, general counsel of the National Shooting Foundation, says gun dealers or manufacturers have not lost a case yet but have spent more than $100 million in legal fees defending themselves.
Now, it might be that my tinfoil hat is on a bit askew, but was it an innocent mistake to screw up Lawrence Keane’s position? He’s Vice President and general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. So, he represents sport shooters, not gang-bangers. OK?
“If a dealer sells a legal product to a consumer who has undergone a criminal background check and filled out the federally required forms, and (who) later gives that gun to someone else to commit a crime, that dealer should not be sued,” Keane says. Dealers or manufacturers who violate gun laws should be subject to lawsuits, he says. But Henigan counters that if the federal bill becomes law, the victims’ families in the sniper lawsuit would have to prove that the owner of the Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma, Wash., willfully violated gun laws involving the specific gun used in the slayings.
Well, HORRORS! Apparently Mr. Henigan believes that, simply because the owner of Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply should pay regardless of the facts.
That could be difficult to prove in court, Henigan says. The shop owner, Brian Borgelt, has claimed that the rifle allegedly used by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo was shoplifted.
The facts are that Brian Borgelt ran a shoddy operation, that the BATF knew he ran a shoddy operation, but the BATF only recently yanked Mr. Borgelt’s license because of all the publicity. It would seem to me that the party that needs to be sued for not doing their job is the BATF, but we know how likely that is. According to a Seattle Times report, Lee Boyd Malvo confessed that he stole the gun from the gun shop. (Original story is not available on-line, but reference to it is in this one.) Yes, by all appearances, Bull’s Eye was badly run, but it’s the job of the BATF to control that – not stomp kittens. If Malvo had fingered Borgelt for selling the gun under the table, then there’d be grounds for a suit, and the “immunity” legislation wouldn’t save him.
But somebody please explain to me why (other than perceived deep pockets) Bushmaster is being sued? How is it their fault?
The bill to shield gunmakers and sellers from lawsuits was passed by the House in April, while much of the nation’s attention was focused on Iraq.
With the unspoken: “Those sneaky bastards!”
In the Senate, sponsors quickly signed on. Opponents, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., promise to filibuster the bill to try to prevent it from coming up for a vote. But sponsors need just six more votes, for a total of 60, to end a filibuster and force a vote.
Litigation against the gun industry has come on the heels of lawsuits that cost tobacco companies billions of dollars in settlements.
From an industry that can support those kinds of losses. The gun industry in America is not so large, regardless of our love of guns. The tactic isn’t to milk the companies for everything they can, it’s to bleed them to death through lawsuit after lawsuit, regardless of the outcome. That’s why the legislation is necessary.
In 1998, Chicago, which had banned the sale of handguns, sued the firearms industry. The city claimed that the industry had created a public nuisance through sales patterns that allowed guns to be diverted to criminals. Within two years, 33 other cities and counties sued on similar grounds.
There is no count of the number of gun crime victims who have sued, but their claims include allegations of unsafe design and negligent distribution.
And they can still sue for unsafe design – but not if the gun goes off when the trigger is pulled. Negligent distribution? That one doesn’t fly anywhere.
So far, none of the lawsuits has been successful.
Gee, I wonder why?
Suits in New Orleans, Miami, Atlanta, Wilmington, Del., and Camden County, N.J., have been dismissed. Boston and Cincinnati voluntarily dropped their claims, in part because of cost.
And remember, they’re doing it on the taxpayer’s back. The gun industry isn’t.
About a dozen of the local lawsuits are still working their way through the courts. Henigan says he is heartened by several appellate decisions that have allowed suits in Ohio, Illinois and New Jersey to go to trial. But he believes that much of the pending litigation could be dismissed if Congress passes the immunity bill.
Even without the legislation, advocates of holding gunmakers and dealers liable for gun violence may have trouble convincing juries of it.
Peter Schuck, a Yale Law School professor, says gun litigation differs from tobacco litigation in key ways. Juries, he says, have little sympathy for cigarette companies, but they do for gunmakers.
Establishing liability on the part of the gun industry, he says, will be more difficult. “It is almost universally accepted that smoking causes lung cancer,” he says, but linking gunmakers and dealers to violence is more difficult to prove.
Perhaps because they can’t? And they know it?