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Gun laws keeping industry covered

| Monday, Aug. 25, 2003

Skateboards. Motorcycles. Lawn darts. Baby pacifiers. McDonald's coffee. McDonald's hamburgers and fries. Commercial airlines. Heavy metal and rap music. Besides their status in the popular culture, these things share something else in common: They've been the targets of lawsuits filed by consumers -- some that resulted in huge settlements because of accidental injuries and deaths that have occurred during their use.

Calling in the lawyers has become an accepted, and occasionally bizarre, part of everyday life. Few personal injury attorneys would balk at, say, suing a ski resort after a Jacks-and-Coke-fueled skier plows into a tree. It's not as easy to find one willing to take on the firearms industry.

In Pennsylvania, lawmakers are writing bills to protect gun manufacturers. U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter has introduced a bill that would absolve gun makers from any responsibility for murders and other injuries caused by their products.

This proposed law raises an interesting question: Does society really consider cigarettes and cheeseburgers to be more deadly than instruments designed to kill• If you're a lawmaker, the answer likely is a big yes.

It's no secret how to get a bill to make your product off-limits to the legal community: Hand a politician money and deliver votes. Few lawmakers are willing to take a serious look at the human costs of a market flooded with handguns and rifles when pro-gun groups such as the National Rifle Association consistently make the top 10 lists of soft-money contributors to campaigns.

Fearful of losing campaign contributions from the gun lobby, most members of Congress are willing to provide sweeping protection for the bang-for-bucks crowd.

In the past four years, mayors and residents of Chicago, New Orleans and Los Angeles have filed lawsuits aimed at holding gun makers responsible for flooding inner-city areas with cheap firearms. They say the gun makers have failed to provide trigger locks and generally have allowed neighborhoods to become war zones. All of the lawsuits have faced fierce opposition.

Specter's bill was introduced last year, but pulled in light of the D.C.-area sniper killings. If it succeeds this time and isn't derailed by yet another sniper, in West Virginia, it would blow a fairly huge hole in the efforts of several states and large urban areas.

Bills like this send a powerful message to the makers of all sorts of other products that lawyers have held accountable over the years. Pay enough money to the guys in Washington and your wobbly skateboards, your top-heavy SUVs, your filterless smokes and even your flammable kiddie pajamas can be made, er, bulletproof.

Maybe the NRA is right. Guns don't kill people. Dumb laws do.

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