After years fending off lawsuits, gun manufacturers appear close to getting Congress to exempt them from suits blaming them for gun crimes and seeking millions of dollars in damages.

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, has 44 Republican co-sponsors for his bill to immunize gun manufacturers and distributors from lawsuits arising out of the use of guns in crimes.

And despite a threatened filibuster by some Democrats, the bill also has the support of 10 Democrats, among them Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

"It is a misuse of the civil justice system to try to punish honest, law-abiding people for illegal acts committed by others without their knowledge or involvement," Daschle said two weeks ago. He began promoting the legislation after gun supporters agreed to specify that firearms manufacturers and distributors would not be protected from lawsuits involving defective products or illegal sales.

Since 1998, at least 33 municipalities, counties and states have sued gunmakers, many claiming that manufacturers, through irresponsible marketing, allowed weapons to reach criminals. None of the suits have yet to result in a manufacturer or distributor paying any damages.

Private groups also have sued, including the NAACP (search), which said guns "led to disproportionate numbers of injuries, deaths and other damages" among minorities. That case was thrown out of federal court in July.

Thirty-three states already have laws on the books exempting gun manufacturers and distributors from such suits. The House in April passed the bill to extend the prohibition on such suits nationwide and President Bush has said he would sign it.

What has blocked it is the promise of a filibuster by gun control advocates among Senate Democrats. It's a tactic Senate Democrats have used effectively this year to stall some of President Bush's judicial nominees.

To end a filibuster requires the votes of 60 senators, and Craig said that with 10 Democrats now on his side, he was confident that five of the six Republican senators who are not co-sponsors of the bill will supply the votes he needs to break any filibuster.

"I think I have my 60 votes to proceed when necessary," Craig said.

Gun control advocates — including some representing victims of last year's sniper spree in the Washington, D.C., area — say they still plan to lobby the issue heavily in hopes of changing a few minds in the Senate.

"Why does the gun industry deserve special protection?" said Dennis Henigan, legal director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence (search).

Henigan is working on lawsuits filed by nine families of sniper victims against Bulls Eye Shooter Supply of Tacoma, Wash., which said it lost the .223-caliber Bushmaster AR-15 carbine found with sniper defendants John Allen Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo.

They have sued the store and the weapon manufacturer, Bushmaster Firearms Inc. (search) of Windham, Maine, for damages.

"We're asking for a chance to go in front of other Americans and ask, 'Is the behavior of these manufacturers appropriate?'" former Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose said at a news conference this summer by opponents of Craig's bill.

Gun advocates say firearm makers shouldn't be forced to spend millions of dollars fighting off lawsuits designed only at winning large rewards and bankrupting them for making a legal product.

"We have no problem with people going after those who knowingly violate the law," said Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association (search), an industry group.

But, "in recent years, we've seen the gun ban groups and the trial lawyers try to litigate this industry out of existence," Arulanandam said.