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Immunity, it seemed, was theirs for the taking. Backed by 54 U.S. senators, including that chamber’s majority and minority leaders, America’s handgun manufacturers, dealers and distributors had within their grasp legislation that would have forever barred almost all future gun liability lawsuits and stopped many pending cases in their tracks. Instead, the legislation was shot down on March 2 – defeated at the urging of the National Rifle Association by a 90-8 vote. So the lawsuits live on. More than two dozen gun industry liability suits faced sudden death if the measure had passed into law. A pair of amendments triggered the collapse of the coalition favoring the immunity bill that, depending on the speaker’s viewpoint, either enhanced the legislation or poisoned it. In the aftermath, both pro- and anti-gun control advocates claimed victory. Andrew Arulanandam, the NRA’s director of public affairs, said, “When we said ‘clean bill,’ we meant it.” He also said that while the immunity bill was important, the amendments were “unacceptable.” Pegging the NRA’s membership at 4 million people spread across the 50 states, he declared, “We’ll be back.” Dismissing that as bravado, Brian J. Siebel, an attorney with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said, “I think it was a huge setback for the NRA.” He said the measure was one of the NRA’s top legislative priorities and characterized its defeat as “crushing.” FATAL AMENDMENTS Before the final floor vote, Senate Bill 1805, titled the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, was altered. First, the chamber voted 52-47 to add an amendment extending for 10 years President Clinton’s assault weapons ban, which is set to expire in September. Then, in a 53-46 vote, it agreed to the closure of a loophole exempting gun-show purchasers from criminal background checks. Before the Senate voted on the final integrated bill, Arulanandam said, NRA leadership blanketed the chamber with an e-mail expressly opposing the amended measure. The organization called the bill “a vehicle for added restrictions on the law-abiding people of America.” The message concluded, “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.” Among the suits given new life by the defeat of S. 1805 is a suit brought by the city of Gary, Ind., against more than 20 gun makers, distributors and dealers. Gary’s suit charges that they have created a public nuisance by turning a blind eye to “an active illegitimate secondary market in handguns” for criminal use. With Siebel and other Brady Center lawyers, attorney James B. Meyer of the Gary firm Meyer & Wyatt represents the city. “We’re happy that the legislation got defeated – at least that part that dealt with immunity for gun manufacturers,” Meyer said. But he said that his team was not happy with the simultaneous failure to close the gun-show loophole and extend the assault weapons ban. Meyer said that the outcome of the legislative process left him “chagrined.” “Almost instantaneously, a substantial number of senators immediately changed their vote,” he said. “I can’t imagine that their policy theories had changed. So it appears to me that the NRA said, ‘We don’t want it any more,’ and that’s all it took. As an American citizen I find that very distressing . . . almost a Pavlovian response.” Sarah L. “Sally” Olson of Chicago’s Wildman Harrold Allen & Dixon represents Sturm Ruger & Co., the nation’s largest firearms maker. She is also one of the lead counsel for the defense in the Gary case. Olson declined to comment on the collapse of the legislative initiative, deferring to the NRA. Asked about the appearance that the NRA had placed its perceived need for a “clean bill” over the interests of its own constituents, Arulanandam said that his organization represents consumers, not gun dealers or distributors. Meanwhile, Siebel said, the civil suits will press on. In addition to the Gary case, industry liability suits filed by the cities of Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Newark and Jersey City, N.J., will also move forward, as will several cases filed by individuals and the families of individuals who have been injured or killed by guns that moved through the gray market between legitimate sales and straw purchases or outright theft. One of those cases involves Bulls’ Eye Shooter Supply and Bushmaster Firearms Inc., the seller and manufacturer, respectively, of the rifle used by convicted Washington-area snipers John Allen Muhammad and his teenage accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo. “There’s a third branch of government for a reason,” Siebel said. “It’s there to be the arbiter of these disputes, and it’s more than capable of doing so.” This article originally appeared in The National Law Journal , a publication of American Lawyer Media.

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