KENNEDY FIGHTS GUN BILL
OFFERS AMENDMENT TO ALLOW FAMILIES TO CONTINUE CHALLENGING GUN MANUFACTURERS
Washington, D.C.--Today, on the floor of the United States Senate, Senator Edward M. Kennedy spoke out on the shameful bill before the Senate that would allow gun manufacturers to strip away law enforcement and gun violence victims of their right to go to court. Rather than debating the Department of Defense Authorization bill that would send support to our troops overseas and here at home, the Senate instead debated whether gun manufacturers should receive legal immunity, and therefore not be held accountable, for deaths they cause through incompetence, negligence or illegal activity. Kennedy offered an amendment to require that, if passed, this irresponsible bill would only apply to cases filed after the bill was signed into law.
Senator Kennedy said, "Americans want gun manufacturers and gun dealers to be held accountable for their own actions. They want gun dealers to be held responsible if they fail to keep guns out of the hands of terrorists, criminals and other prohibited purchasers. Supporters of this bill are aiding and abetting in the flow of guns to criminals."
Kennedy offered his amendment in an effort to give families that have been challenge gun manufacturers in court the ability to continue fighting for justice for their slain loved ones. Worcester, Massachusetts, like hundreds across the country, has seen firsthand the tragedy gun manufacturers can cause and the loved ones left behind. Thirty-three year old father of two, Danny Guzman of Worcester, Massachusetts was an innocent bystander killed by a gun that went missing from Kahr Arms, a gun manufacturer with factories in Worcester. Danny's mother has been engaged in a court battle with Kahr since Danny's death in 1999. Under the bill before the Senate today, Danny's case would be thrown out.
The people of Worcester, like those across the United States, want gun manufacturers to be held accountable. Mayor Tim Murray of Worcester said, "In Worcester we have seen first-hand how a gun manufactures lack of proper controls and security measures of its weapons inventory has resulted in destruction and violence in our neighborhoods. There is absolutely no justification for the United States Congress to exempt such irresponsible behavior from liability."
Cities, counties and states incur billions of dollars in costs each year as a result of gun violence--the costs of medical care, the cost of law enforcement, the costs of many other public services. Studies estimate that the public cost of firearm-related injuries is over one million dollars per shooting victim.
Now, just as the gun industry is beginning to be held accountable, the industry is striking back with this unconscionable effort to prevent injured citizens from having their day in court.
Senator Kennedy's floor remarks are below.
OPENING STATEMENT OF SENATOR EDWARD M. KENNEDY ON LEGAL IMMUNITY FOR THE GUN INDUSTRY (S.397)
Here we go again. Without shame, the Republican leadership has brought back this special-interest, anti-law enforcement bill that strips away the rights of victims to go to court.
Why the urgency to take up this bill right now? This is a critical moment for the country's future. The war in Iraq brought new dangers, imposed new costs, and more and more American lives are being lost each week. The recent bombings in London remind us that terrorism can shatter the calm of an otherwise ordinary morning in any community in America and our cities our at serious risk.
The Senate is about to begin work on the confirmation of the next Justice of the Supreme Court. We owe it to the country to approach this process with serious deliberation because the President's nominee will have a vital role in setting the direction of the country for generations to come.
The country is waiting for Congress to finish the energy bill. That conference has been held up because the oil companies want their own liability protection from groundwater contamination suits. What other special-interest bills will take priority over our nation's interests?
The list of other major issues that demand the Senate's immediate attention is long. Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee reported out a bill to reauthorize the PATRIOT Act with unanimous support. Through lengthy negotiations, we produced a bipartisan compromise that strikes the right balance between national security and civil liberties. The President has asked Congress to finish the bill and get it to his desk. But, instead, the Republican leadership insists on taking time to debate a bill that provides flagrant protection for the gun industry.
Let's not forget the other issues at hand. The nation's pension system is a mess. Without construction funds, our schools are literally falling apart. Health care and prescription drug costs are on the rise. Federal budget deficits continue to grow. Over the last four years, the well-being of most American families has declined at an alarming rate.
Surely, the Republican leadership can take some time to address these priorities before attempting to give a free pass to the gun industry. Surely, Congress can do more for our citizens than rush to pass unprecedented special-interest legislation. We can and should be acting to meet the real challenges we face.
Make no mistake -- the National Rifle Association clearly has the top priority in the Senate Republican agenda. This is not just about the immunity bill on the floor today. If this bill passes, it will open the floodgates for the NRA's priorities. Its past efforts have systematically weakened federal gun laws over the past two decades. Unbelievably, the gun industry and the tobacco industry are the only two consumer industries that are not subject to federal consumer safety regulation.
Last year -- the federal government recalled a water pistol -- the Super Soaker -- just a few days before the assault weapons ban expired. America does more today to regulate the safety of toy guns than real guns - and it's a national disgrace. The gun industry has worked hard to avoid federal consumer safety regulation. Where are our priorities? Where is the logic in passing a bill that makes it harder to sue for harm caused by a real gun than harm caused by a plastic toy gun?
The industry has conspicuously failed to use technology to make guns safer. It has attempted to insulate itself from its distributors and dealers, once guns leave the factory. Under this bill, it won't even matter if the guns are stolen by factory employees and sneaked out of the factory in the middle of the night.
The gun industry wants to become the only industry in the nation exempt from lawsuits. The overwhelming majority of Americans believe that gun dealers and gun manufacturers should be held accountable for their irresponsible conduct, like everyone else.
Cities, counties, and states incur billions of dollars in costs each year as a result of gun violence - the costs of medical care, the costs of law enforcement, the costs of many other public services. Studies estimate that the public cost of firearm-related injuries is over one million dollars for each shooting victim. Yet, this bill would take a fierce toll and dismiss even pending cases where communities are trying to get relief. The supporters of this bill do not want to give these towns their day in court.
Too often, citizen lawsuits - including lawsuits brought as class actions - are the only means for the American people to hold industries accountable. In recent years, citizens have been succeeding in getting their day in court against the gun industry. Individuals, organizations, and municipalities are making progress in the effort to hold the industry liable for its failure to include reasonable safety measures in the guns they sell.
Now, just as the industry is beginning to be held accountable, it is striking back with this unacceptable effort to prevent injured citizens from obtaining their day in court. Under this bill, even all pending cases would be dismissed -- regardless of the merits of any lawsuit.
The bill's proponents claim they want to eliminate "junk lawsuits." But, the real effect of this bill would be to prevent victims of gun violence from pursuing even obviously valid claims in state or federal courts.
This bill would bar the legal rights of hard-working law enforcement officers, such as Ken McGuire and David Lemongello. These two police officers from Orange, New Jersey were seriously wounded in a shoot-out with a burglary suspect. The gun used by the suspect was one of twelve guns sold by a West Virginia pawnshop to an obvious "straw purchaser" for an illegal gun trafficker. Fortunately for the officers, this bill did not become law last year -- and their case was able to proceed.
Recently, David Lemongello was able to obtain a $1 million settlement. Significantly, the settlement required the dealer and other area pawnshops to adopt safer practices. This precedent will make our communities safer and put real hurdles in front of gun traffickers trying to beat the system. These reforms go beyond the requirements of current law and are not imposed by any manufacturers or distributors. This is not about money. This is about public safety, and I commend these brave officers for their courageous battle to change the system.
If the NRA had succeeded in passing this bill last year, the families of the victims of the D.C. snipers would also have been thrown out of court. Fortunately, this case was also able to proceed. These families sued Bushmaster, the manufacturer of the assault rifle used in the shooting, and the Bull's Eye Shooter Supply Store which sold the gun. The families wanted to hold the defendants accountable for their failure to use reasonable care in distributing the weapon and maintaining its inventory. In addition to the snipers' assault rifle, the dealer had "lost" more than 237 other guns. Last year, the families won a $2.5 million settlement. As part of the settlement, Bushmaster also agreed to inform its dealers of safer sales practices that will prevent other criminals from obtaining guns - something Bushmaster had never done before. Like Officers Lemongello and McGuire, these survivors of gun violence have done more to improve the safety of our streets than this Congress is willing to do. They achieved these remarkable accomplishments because they were able to have their day in court.
It is clear what will happen if Congress gives the gun industry this unprecedented legal immunity, on top of its existing exemption from federal consumer safety regulations. Guns will be more dangerous. Gun dealers will be more irresponsible. More guns will be available to terrorists and criminals. There will be more shootings, and more dead children.
America has a massive gun problem. The crisis is especially serious for children. In 1997, the most recent year for which figures are available, firearms killed no children in Japan, 19 in Great Britain, 109 in France, 153 in Canada, and 5,285 children in the United States. For every child in the United States killed with a gun, four more are wounded. The overall rate of firearm-related deaths for American children is nearly twelve times greater than in twenty-five other industrial countries.
The nation's response to this death toll has been unacceptable. Yet year after year, little changes in our approach to regulating guns. How can we possible justify this neglect? How can we continue to ignore this vast discrepancy in gun deaths in the United States compared to other nations? How can we possibly justify this effort to give the gun industry even greater protection for irresponsible behavior?
Law enforcement officers are strongly opposed to any bill that gives the gun industry special legal immunity. The International Brotherhood of Police Officers, the National Black Police Association, the Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association, the National Latino Peace Officers Association and the Major Cities Chiefs Association, representing the largest the nation's largest police departments, all oppose this bill. They know this legislation will strip away the legal rights of victims of gun violence, including law enforcement officers and their families, to seek redress against irresponsible gun dealers and manufacturers.
Proponents of this bill argue that it is needed to stop victims from bankrupting the firearms industry. Give us a break. Smith & Wesson just filed a statement with the SEC last month, stating that "we expect net product sales for fiscal 2005 to be approximately $124 million, a 5% increase over the $117.9 million reported for fiscal 2004. Firearms sales for fiscal 2005 are expected to increase by approximately 11% over fiscal 2004 levels." Another gun manufacturer Sturm, Ruger, reported to the SEC earlier in the year that: "It is not probable and is unlikely that litigation, including punitive damage claims, will have a material adverse effect on the financial position of the Company." The claims that the industry is facing an economic crisis are grossly unfounded.
I urge my colleagues to break the stranglehold of the gun industry and gun dealers on Congress, and oppose this shameful legislation.