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A Half-Cocked Gun Bill

One might think that senators heading home for a month-long summer holiday would first want to pass the defense bill, a gesture that would show support for America's troops risking their lives around the world.

Instead, Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R) has decided they should spend these last hours sending a box of candy and a bouquet to the gun lobby.

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Earlier this week Senator Frist abruptly cut off debate on the defense bill - effectively pushing it back to the fall - to turn attention to a measure that's a darling of the National Rifle Association. It would shield firearms manufacturers and dealers from individuals or local governments trying to hold them responsible in court for damages caused by the unlawful use of guns. Lawsuits already under way would have to be dismissed. And no local laws could be passed in the future to supercede this special protection.

That the Senate would turn away from important national security legislation to deal with a special plea from a powerful lobbying group is unsavory enough. But, just as important, the bill itself is both unnecessary and harmful.

Proponents, including the White House, have implied that gun manufacturers could be driven out of business by a deluge of frivolous lawsuits and thus need special protection. But there's no evidence to show that US arms manufacturers are facing any financial difficulties or any grievous onslaught of suits.

Statistics from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence show that just 57 suits were filed against the gun industry from 1993 to 2003. That's out of an estimated 10 million tort suits filed in that period.

What the gun bill would do is prevent citizens or local governments from suing the tiny number of unscrupulous gun dealers, only about 1 percent of the industry. These operators have nothing to do with supplying arms to US forces, the reason the administration gives for supporting the bill.

Last year, families of the six victims of snipers who terrorized the Washington D.C. area in 2002 won a modest settlement of just over $2 million from Bull's Eye Shooter Supply in Washington State. The gun dealer could not account for how more than 200 weapons mysteriously left his shop, including the assault rifle used by convicted snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo. These families can only be grateful that this ill-advised measure had not yet passed.

What this gun bill does show is how much the gun lobby's grip on Congress appears to have strengthened since the 2004 election.