WASHINGTON, May 16 (UPI) -- White House-backed legislation that aims to protect gun manufacturers and retailers from civil lawsuits when a weapon they sell is used unlawfully is based on faulty logic, according to think tank policy analysts in Washington.
The experts -- from various points on the political spectrum -- say the controversial measure shows the limits of the political debate over gun ownership in America.
"You don't want to hold any industry accountable for outcomes that are out of their control," John D. Cohen, director of the community crime-fighting project at the liberal-centrist Progressive Policy Institute, told United Press International. PPI is affiliated with the Democratic Leadership Council.
"On the other hand, to give a certain industry blanket protection from liability just doesn't make sense, nor is it fair for other industries," said Cohen. "If there is a compelling case where the manufacturer is negligent, then they should be held liable."
The legislation, which has passed the House of Representatives with strong bipartisan support, would give protection from these civil lawsuits to companies and individuals that manufacture or sell guns. A federal jury in Brooklyn, N.Y., determined Wednesday that 68 gun manufacturers should not be held liable in a civil case brought by the NAACP. The suit alleges that the sale of guns promotes street violence and victimizes minorities. The judge has yet to make his final ruling on the case.
Despite this possible victory, it is only a single case, and the gun industry remains afraid of the immense negative impact on their bottom line that could result from the remaining civil suits it faces around the country. In response, they have been spending millions of dollars in an effort to gain legislative protection against such suits.
Supporters of the bill argue that it would stop the rash of lawsuits aimed simply at winning large rewards from gun makers and bankrupting the industry. Critics of the bill say it would allow gun makers who misplace weapons, and dealers who sell guns to felons, to escape deserved civil penalties. They say the measure amounts to little more than government protection for a powerful special interest.
John Lott, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said that lawsuits against gun manufacturers are an attempt to accomplish a task that has not been possible legislatively. He argued that the suits are being filed not for their legal merits but to overwhelm a small industry and put it out of business.
"They are being brought in a lot of jurisdictions and will impose a very large cost on companies, making it infeasible for them to defend themselves," said Lott. "The bottom line is that these lawsuits are very questionable and it is very doubtful that even the people who bring these suits really believe they are going to win. But that is not the reason they are bringing them."
Despite criticism to the opposite, Lott said that plaintiffs would still be able to file civil actions against companies if the legislation is signed into law. He that said if a gun seller or manufacturer is prosecuted due to an illegal act, a civil case could still be filed by those wronged by the action.
"My guess is that there is very little (legal) merit to most of these cases and that is the reasons why they (gun control advocates) are so upset about having those kinds of conditions being put on this," said Lott.
Robert A. Levy, senior fellow in constitutional studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, agreed that the anti-gun manufacturer lawsuits are not driven by correct legal thinking, but added that this doesn't mean the gun industry deserves or should get protection from Congress.
"These lawsuits are entirely bogus," said Levy. "They are based on perversions of tort law that are designed solely to extort damages from an unpopular industry, so I am dead set against the lawsuits."
Nevertheless, Levy said that Congress does not have the constitutional authority to tell states how to act on the matter, and therefore does not have the right to grant protections to the industry from lawsuits filed in state and local courts.
Lott said another negative aspect to these civil cases is the ultimate impact they could have in terms of access to weapons for self-defense purposes, especially for the urban poor.
"My concern is that you are basically going to make it so that the people in high crime urban areas, who benefit the most from having guns to protect themselves, are going to be the ones who are unable to have guns," said Lott.
Jack Riley, director of the public safety and justice program at the RAND Corp., said that despite the widespread belief that guns provide protection from crime, no definitive study has ever been done on the effectiveness of guns in deterring crime. A major reason for this is that the methodology for such a study would be very complicated, involving unobservable events that could only be understood through an individual victim's recollections.
Such a study would also take an immense investment of time and money. He said the incentive for such a study to be undertaken is limited for the two camps that dominate the political debate.
"I think it is important to continue to do analysis and address the issue," said Riley. "But it is one of those questions where the likelihood is that you would find an answer between the two extremes."
The debate over gun liability is being framed by other issues in the fight over gun control. For example, it is widely believed that recent increases in support for the gun lobby by members of Congress show how successful the National Rifle Association and the rest of the gun lobby have been in gaining political clout and support since the 2000 elections. Republican and Democratic congressional staff told UPI that the popularity of the liability measure could be at least partially attributed to this growing political clout of the NRA in Washington.
One Republican Senate staffer noted that the NRA has proven that it can derail incumbents seeking re-election, and that many members of Congress are now afraid to take them on. Even Democrats who have traditionally supported gun control efforts have supported the liability bill.
"The NRA has done very well lobbying this issue," said Cohen. "You have to give them credit."
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said Tuesday that he doesn't expect the House to reauthorize 1994 federal ban on assault weapons when it up comes up for renewal next year. Although President George W. Bush has stated his support for continuing the ban, congressional Republican staffers told UPI that the administration is not expected to lobby lawmakers for an extension of the ban or push for a vote on the issue.
However, since 2004 is an election year, the situation could change dramatically. On Thursday, Speaker of the House Dennis J. Hastert, R-Ill., split with DeLay and said that GOP leaders in the House have not yet decided whether to let the assault weapons ban expire.
The future of the gun liability measure remains uncertain despite its 52 supporters in the Senate, enough for passage of the Senate version of the bill. Some Democrats opposed to the measure have promised to attempt to filibuster the bill when it comes to the floor sometime next month.
Cohen, who is a former police officer and who also heads PSComm LLC, a strategic marketing and consulting firm specializing in innovative law enforcement, said the debate over the liability bill demonstrates how the issue of gun control in the United States has become a losing situation on the policy front. He added that even though he is not a gun control advocate, his years in law enforcement taught him that the United States could be doing a better job of keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, and that this could be addressed through better funding and policy decisions.
"The issue has become so immersed in the politics of the gun issue, I don't think any side is presenting a realistic solution that is best for society," he said.
Riley said he is not convinced that adding more gun control laws to the books is the answer to getting less gun violence, but that more can be done to make existing laws more effective, an approach that is ignored in the political debate.
"I think it is not really clear that we are coaxing as much utility (out of existing laws), and that we understand the impact (of that) as much as we could," he said. "There are a lot of ways -- without touching existing gun laws -- that we can think about attempting to gain better control over access to illegal firearms. We really haven't thought about those issues."