WASHINGTON – A powerful House committee on Thursday approved legislation that would block antigun lawsuits of the kind now being argued by the NAACP in federal court, alleging a link between gun marketing practices and street violence.
By a 21-11 vote, the GOP-controlled House Judiciary Committee approved legislation to prohibit lawsuits from being brought against gun and ammunition manufacturers, distributors, dealers and importers for damages resulting from "misuse" of their product.
Only one Democrat, Rick Boucher of Virginia, voted to send the legislation on to the full House for approval, with all of the rest voting against the bill. Republicans unanimously voted for the measure.
This is the second year in a row that the House Judiciary Committee has approved the bill.
"Logic and fairness dictate that manufacturers and merchants should not be held responsible for the unlawful use of their lawful products," Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said.
But the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is expected to argue a federal court in New York this week that irresponsible marketing of handguns has "led to disproportionate numbers of injuries, deaths and other damages" among minorities.
Unlike other gun-liability cases across the country, the NAACP seeks no monetary damages. Instead, it asks for injunctions that would place sweeping restrictions on buyers and sellers of handguns. NAACP Chairman Kweisi Mfume is expected to testify on Thursday.
Such lawsuits by private individuals or groups also would be blocked by the GOP bill.
Since 1998, at least 33 municipalities, counties and states have sued gun makers, with many alleging manufacturers allowed weapons to fall into criminals' hands because of lax distribution policies and irresponsible marketing. Many of the lawsuits sought restitution for the costs of handgun violence and improved gun safety.
Gun manufacturers and advocates have argued that gun companies cannot be held responsible for the crimes of gun users, and that the cost of defending the lawsuits could sink the entire industry.
"To blame Colt for the criminal misuse of firearms that are lawfully manufactured and sold is unjust," said Carlton Chen, Colt's Manufacturing Co.'s vice president and lawyer. "It is also threatening our very existence."
Former police detective David Lemongello of the Orange, N.J., police department is suing a West Virginia gun dealership that sold the pistol used by a criminal to wound him and his partner -- an injury he said ended his police career.
"I am outraged that Congress is considering passing a bill that would protect that irresponsible dealer and would deny me my legal rights as an American," Lemongello said.
Democrats suggested the bill was timed to placate the National Rifle Association before its convention two weeks from now. Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., said GOP lawmakers are rushing the bill through the House Judiciary Committee.
Republicans denied there was any link. "Proximity in time is not necessarily proximity in cause," said Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, who chairs the Judiciary subcommittee on commercial and administrative law.
The NRA annual meeting will be in Orlando, Fla., April 24-27. The association vehemently opposes additional gun controls or regulation of the firearms industry and contributes heavily to political candidates who share that view.