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House Passes Reckless Lawsuit Legislation

Friday, April 11, 2003

On Wednesday, April 9, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1036, reckless lawsuit preemption legislation, on an overwhelming, bipartisan 285 - 140 vote. H.R. 1036 seeks to end the abuse of our judicial system by the gun-ban lobby, anti-gun big city mayors, and greedy trial attorneys, by prohibiting their coordinated strategy of filing endless predatory lawsuits designed to drive law-abiding gun manufacturers into bankruptcy. Support for this bill was solidly bipartisan, with 63 Democrats voting in favor. The next step for this critical reform will be consideration in the U.S. Senate. The Senate version, S. 659, was introduced by U.S. Senators Larry Craig (R-Id.)-also an NRA Director-and Max Baucus (D-Mont.), and currently has 52 cosponsors. As with the House bill, the Senate version enjoys strong bipartisan support, with nine Democrats already signed on as cosponsors.

Debate on the House floor over H.R. 1036 was very heated at times, with those opposed to the bill using their time to offer inaccurate summaries of the legislation, or launching into anti-gun or anti-NRA diatribes. U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D- Fla.), a strident anti-gun lawmaker, claimed to support our Right to Keep and Bear Arms, but chose to attack semi-automatic and affordable firearms. A number of other anti-gun Representatives also claimed they supported the Second Amendment and that no lawmakers wanted to infringe on our Right to Keep and Bear Arms. Of course, anyone who has followed the issue of "gun control" in Congress would find such sentiments from the likes of U.S. Reps. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-N.J.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Jay Inslee (D-Was.), and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) to be absurd.

One of the most outspoken opponents of H.R. 1036, anti-gun U.S. Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), made a number of false allegations, including that the legislation would completely immunize the firearm industry from any lawsuit, and would offer "unprecedented" protections from lawsuits. He also claimed the legislation is unconstitutional, although he seemed to say he wasn`t positive of this position, and commented that if the legislation was not unconstitutional, it was at least "unfair." It was this argument that had Watt complaining that the legislation would not just prohibit future suits, but would bring an end to existing suits-some 300 of which he said are currently active.

Most of Watt`s protestations, as well as those of the others who spoke out against H.R. 1036, had no real basis in fact. During floor debate over the bill, U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), who also holds the critical position of House Judiciary Committee Chairman, explained that H.R. 1036 would not prohibit a lawsuit from being filed against any manufacturer that produces a truly defective product. He further explained that the legislation does not prohibit a lawsuit from being filed against any manufacturer, distributer, or dealer proven to have violated any one of the thousands of laws regulating firearms. U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), the bill`s lead sponsor, corrected Watt`s contention that the bill is "unprecedented," citing a number of laws on the books that prohibit similar reckless lawsuits. In fact, 32 states have passed laws prohibiting reckless lawsuits against the law-abiding gun industry, including Rep. Watt`s own state of North Carolina, making H.R. 1036 hardly "unprecedented."

Anti-gun U.S. Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.) apparently tried to support Watt`s objection to ending existing suits by arguing that legislation prohibiting these suits wasn`t necessary until the industry actually lost a case. And while it`s true that courts consistently dismiss these predatory suits for having no merit, Reps. Watts and Delahunt are likely aware that none of the suits need to actually win in order to achieve their goal of wiping out the firearm industry. As Lawrence G. Keane, Vice President and General Counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), told the House Judiciary Committee`s Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law last week, Andrew Cuomo (D) once threatened the firearm industry with "death by a thousand cuts" through endless reckless lawsuits. At the time, Cuomo was Bill Clinton`s (D) Housing and Urban Development Secretary, and one of the early proponents of the reckless lawsuit agenda. And as we also reported last week, Walter K. Olson, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, testified before the subcommittee that one of the key proponents of reckless lawsuits, John Coale, had boasted, "The legal fees alone are enough to bankrupt the industry."

Opponents of H.R. 1036 also complained that not enough time had been given to discussing the legislation. But this was clearly little more than a tactic used in an attempt to delay passage of the legislation as long as possible. The longer these reckless suits exist, the more damage they do to the law-abiding firearm industry. It has been estimated that merely fighting the suits, even as they continue to be dismissed, could cost the industry as much as $1 million per day. And, as U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah), who chaired last week`s subcommittee hearings, pointed out on Wednesday, similar legislation had already been debated at great length last year. Time is clearly of the essence in derailing this abuse of our courts by anti-gun extremists and their greedy trial lawyer collaborators.

These suits also represent a brazen attempt to circumvent the legislative process by creating de facto laws through rulings by activist judges or juries. Those promoting the most public predatory suit at this time, filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), even openly admit their suit is designed to impose new restrictions on the distribution of firearms. NAACP president and CEO Kweisi Mfume stated on NPR`s Tavis Smiley Show, "We want regulatory rules and practices that will cut down on the distribution and the widespread availability of these weapons."

But lawmakers understand that the reckless suits, such as NAACP`s, are intended to help drive an anti-gun legislative agenda, either by way of court-mandated changes, or under the threat of complete bankruptcy for the firearm industry. During Wednesday`s House debate, anti-gun U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) suggested legislating design changes as a counter to H.R. 1036-clearly indicating the suits would likely be dropped if her ideas as to how firearms should be designed were adopted. But U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), one of the primary cosponsors of H.R. 1036, objected to the concept of reckless suits being used to promote "gun control" by way of the courts. And Rep. Sensenbrenner reminded the House that the proper procedure for someone to get rid of a product they don`t like, as anti-gun extremists are seeking to do with their reckless suits, is to introduce legislation banning that product.

With the House having taken the necessary steps to bring an end to the reckless lawsuit campaign, our utmost thanks go out to the four primary cosponsors of H.R. 1036-Reps. Cliff Stearns, Rick Boucher, Melissa Hart (R-Penn.), and Chris John (D-La.)-as well as Judiciary Chair Jim Sensenbrenner and subcommittee chair Chris Cannon for all their help in moving this critical reform forward. Now the focus of the pro-gun community must move to the U.S. Senate. And although a majority of Senators have already signed on as cosponsors of S. 659, anti-gun extremists, clearly in the minority on this issue, are threatening to filibuster this critical reform. This is clearly the only hope of the desperate gun-ban lobby, the Brady Campaign/HCI, whose meek response to the passage of H.R. 1036 was to simply state that 285 U.S. Representatives did something "shameful" by voting for the bill. HCI`s Chair, Sarah Brady, accused all 285 Representatives of having made an "awful mistake" by helping to end her organization`s efforts to drive law-abiding gun makers into bankruptcy.

It is crucial that you call both your U.S. Senators and urge them to help bring an end to predatory, meritless lawsuits designed to wipe out the firearm industry. Let your Senators know that it is critical that they support S. 659, and halt the abuse of our courts by anti-gun extremists who are trying to usurp Congressional authority with the aid of greedy trial lawyers and activist judges and juries.

You can call your U.S. Senators at (202) 224-3121. For additional contact information, use our "Write Your Representatives" tool above. For a list of Senate cosponsors of S. 659, go to the Library of Congress website.

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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.