WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats gunning for a ban on assault weapons unexpectedly forced down a bill Tuesday that would have prevented gun manufacturers from liability after the bill's sponsor said the amendment made the measure too unpalatable.
The Senate voted 90-8 to defeat the bill that would deny victims the opportunity to sue gunmakers and dealers when their products are used in a crime. The vote followed a 52-47 vote to attach an amendment that would have renewed for 10 years the assault weapons ban (search) set to expire this year.
The Senate also voted 53-46 to require background checks (search) of purchasers buying guns at private shows.
Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, who sponsored the bill that was strongly supported by the National Rifle Association (search), said it was doomed because of the amendments.
"The semiautomatic ban, the gun show loophole, a variety of other kinds of issues could simply drag this bill down and deny us substantial tort reform," Craig, an NRA member, said.
"It is a most bizarre and unusual day," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who opposed the measure to relieve gunmakers from liability and sponsored the assault weapons ban amendment.
Feinstein and Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said they believed that the NRA heavily manipulated the vote by Republicans and accused President Bush of being absent during a time when his leadership was needed.
Bush said during his last presidential campaign that he supports renewing the ban on at least 19 types of military-style assault weapons. But he has not stood up in strong support for any legislation calling for a ban.
Nonetheless, Democrats accused the bulk of Republicans of kowtowing to the National Rifle Association (search) after Executive Director Wayne LaPierre (search) sent a letter to GOP leaders announcing that the NRA opposed passage of the bill with its amendments and note recorded votes for future use.
"... Having made our decision, this vote on final passage is a key vote for the NRA and will be used in our future evaluations and endorsements of candidates for the U.S. Senate," LaPierre wrote.
"It is satisfying to know that the truth has come out... it's a pity, the American people have to look and say whose country is this?" Lautenberg said.
House leaders said last year that they did not want to renew the ban, which opponents argue is ineffective and unnecessary. The White House had hoped for a "clean" bill — one with no amendments attached.
But Republicans, including Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner of Virginia, voted for the ban extension, saying he had changed his mind over the last 10 years when he voted against it after hearing testimony from his state's law enforcement officers.
"Law enforcement has shown that it has reduced the use of these weapons in crime, so my words pale in significance to the law officers of the four corners of the commonwealth of Virginia," Warner said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that he supported the requirement of gun dealers at private shows to ask for government checks before selling weapons because it would close a deadly loophole.
"Today's Senate vote to close the gun show loophole is a victory for common sense ... Americans will be safer when this sensible proposal becomes law," McCain said.
Ten Republicans broke party ranks to extend the ban: Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan Collins of Maine, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Richard Lugar of Indiana, Gordon Smith of Oregon, Olympia Snowe of Maine, George Voinovich of Ohio and John Warner of Virginia.
Six Democrats voted against extending the ban: Max Baucus of Montana, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Zell Miller of Georgia, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Harry Reid of Nevada.
Democratic presidential contenders John Kerry (search) of Massachusetts and John Edwards (search) of North Carolina broke away from the Super Tuesday campaign trail to cast votes — their first of the year. Both voted for the renewal and the background checks.
The appearance of Kerry and Edwards in the Senate for their first votes of the year underscored the political overtones of the assault weapons issue. Democrats argued that law enforcement officers and regular citizens all would be safer if the assault weapons covered under the bill continued to be banned.
"These are weapons of war. They are designed to kill a lot of people quickly," said Schumer, who authored the 1994 gun ban while in the House.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.