The last thing Congress needs in an election year, when tempers and posturing tend to peak simultaneously, is a long fight over gun rights. But with a bill on lawsuit immunity for gun manufacturers coming up at the same time as reauthorization of the assault-weapons ban is due, a fight seemed inevitable. Or it did until a sensible, bipartisan agreement offered a positive compromise that all sides of the gun-rights issue should embrace.
The immunity bill, S. 659, would prohibit civil suits from being brought against manufacturers, distributors or dealers of firearms or ammunition for damages caused by the misuse of these products. The bill has wide-ranging support in Congress, including Sen. Susan Collins, and would have the support of moderate groups such as Americans for Gun Safety if it were amended through the bipartisan agreement.
Other groups vehemently oppose it, charging that the bill would give special protection to the makers of cheap, unsafe weapons. The bill accounts partly for that danger, but the larger point is that the legislation is likely to pass and those concerned with supporting effective safety measures rather than simply yelling at the gun industry should look more broadly for progress.
They should look, in fact, to a bill to be offered as an amendment to S. 659. The amendment would close the gun-show loophole, a move supported by President Bush, that currently requires dealers at gun shows to conduct background checks on buyers but exempts casual sellers who are sometimes not so casual. The loophole not only gives criminals an easy way to buy a wide range of high-powered guns in large quantities but creates an unfair market for legitimate dealers.
The bill, sponsored by Republican Sens. John McCain and Mike DeWine and Democratic Sens. Jack Reed and Joe Lieberman, redefines the difference between commercial sales, which would include sales where at least 75 firearms are offered, and private sales, including sales from private homes or at hunt clubs, which would be exempt.
Background checks have become much faster – more than 90 percent take less than a few minutes, only 4 percent take more than a day, according to the FBI – and would not be a burden for the small-time seller. Under the bill, the gun show officials itself would qualify as licensees to call in any sale. The checks would be further improved by legislation co-sponsored by Sens. Larry Craig, a Republican, and Edward Kennedy, a Democrat, to speed up and improve the accuracy of the checks.
The reauthorization of the assault-weapons ban is expected to be a second major amendment to S. 659. Despite the warnings of a slippery-slope infringement on the Second Amendment when it was passed 10 years ago, the assault-weapons ban has not led to the widespread diminishment of gun ownership. But it has worked: The percentage of banned weapons traced to crimes has dropped by two-thirds since 1994, and a strong majority of Americans, including a majority of gun owners, back its reauthorization.
Some of the Maine supporters for closing the gun-show loophole and renewing the assault-weapons ban include police chiefs Donald Winslow of Bangor, Edward Googins of South Portland, William Welch of Lewiston and Michael Chitwood of Portland. Maine’s members of Congress should support an amended immunity bill too. It is a thoughtful compromise and a way to calm the emotional debate over guns.