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For Lieberman, Guns Are No Easy Target

By Dan Morgan, Washington Post,
Friday 22 September 2000; A01

Vice presidential candidate Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) has a long record of support for gun control, making him a convincing advocate for a key plank in the Democratic platform.

But when it comes to defending the interests of the firearms companies that make pistols, rifles and shotguns in Connecticut's "gun valley," Lieberman has sometimes acted like just another home-state senator defending his region's economic interests.

He has helped keep one controversial gun off Congress's list of banned assault weapons. He voted to repeal a far-reaching District of Columbia law allowing victims of assault weapons violence to sue gunmakers. He defended the industry against a Democratic-led effort to prevent gun manufacturers facing liability lawsuits from declaring bankruptcy.

And gun company representatives left a meeting with Lieberman last year convinced that he was on their side in opposing lawsuits by cities seeking to hold manufacturers liable for gun violence. Lieberman's spokesman says that is wrong but that the senator has "some sympathy" for the companies' plight.

Lieberman declined to comment directly.

His complex relationship with Connecticut weapons manufacturers is but one aspect of the pro-business record that has set him apart from many in his party. But with Vice President Gore strongly supporting increased pressure on the gun industry to make weapons safer and less accessible to criminals, Lieberman finds himself to some extent caught in the political cross-fire, pulled between his long-time support for a home-state industry and his current alliance with a candidate who has gone on the offensive against it.

Gore has denounced Texas Gov. George W. Bush, his GOP presidential opponent, for signing a law that precludes victims of gun violence from suing the manufacturers. He has also supported a major effort by the Clinton administration to get gunmakers to sign a safety agreement, something opposed by Connecticut manufacturers.

The gun industry, which traditionally has not been politically active and has contributed virtually nothing to Lieberman over the years, is firing back. Its Newtown, Conn.-based trade association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, has assembled a $10 million to $15 million war chest to fight the state and local lawsuits and what it considers to be pressure tactics by the Clinton administration.

It has hired Washington lobbyists, set up a political action committee (Shot-PAC), announced plans for a get-out-the-vote effort and aired television ads depicting the American flag being ripped apart while a narrator criticizes the Clinton administration and big-city mayors for the campaign against firearms manufacturers.

The industry's relations with Lieberman have been far warmer. In a Sept. 15 letter, the National Shooting Sports Foundation thanked Lieberman for supporting "our legal, responsible and traditional industry" and urged him to use his new role "to call for an end to the abusive, politically motivated lawsuits being championed by the Clinton-Gore administration."

The leading gun control organization, Handgun Control, considers Lieberman's record on gun control solid. Lieberman co-sponsored the 1994 crime bill that banned 19 types of assault weapons; backed the Brady bill, which established a waiting period and background checks for handgun purchases; and supported mandatory trigger locks and tougher penalties for gun-related crimes.

But on issues directly affecting the gun industry, Lieberman's record has been more mixed.

The small-arms industry grew up in the Connecticut Valley in the 19th century, and it employs several thousand people in jobs ranging from fine craftsmen to computer specialists. Connecticut boasts Colt's Manufacturing Co., making rifles and handguns in Hartford; Sturm, Ruger & Co., headquartered in Southport; Marlin Firearms Co., a leading rifle maker, in North Haven; shotgun maker O.F. Mossberg & Sons Inc., also in North Haven; and U.S. Repeating Arms Co., which manufactures Winchester-brand guns in New Haven. Smith & Wesson is located just over the state line in Massachusetts.

Changing attitudes toward guns, along with foreign competition, have put severe strains on some companies, and the industry's health has been a preoccupation of Connecticut officials.

Colt's was rescued in the 1990s by an infusion of $25 million from the Connecticut state employees' pension fund and a separate $14 million investment by the Connecticut Development Authority.

Lieberman cited the company's financial plight as his main reason for fighting to keep Colt's Sporter semiautomatic rifle from being banned as an assault weapon in the 1994 crime bill. "This is a proud old Connecticut company. It's fighting for its life now. If this was banned, Colt's [would be] history," Lieberman explained then.

At the time, the Sporter, a modified version of Colt's banned AR-15, was providing about $35 million of Colt's annual revenue of $100 million. But law enforcement officials, including the police chief of Bridgeport, Conn., fought to get the weapon banned on grounds that it was showing up in drug raids.

Under a deal worked out with Democrats leading the push for a crime bill, Lieberman and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn) won agreement to let the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, rather than Congress, decide whether to ban the weapon. Lieberman spokesman Dan Gerstein denied last week that Lieberman had obtained special treatment for Colt's.

Nonetheless, the Hartford Courant blasted the deal editorially: "Mr. Lieberman's role is especially embarrassing. He has been Mr. Law and Order in the Senate. He worked hard to toughen the $22 billion crime bill. Yet he turned soft when it came to protecting a deadly rifle merely because it was made in the state."

Indeed, ATF data show that of 2,890 Colt's rifles involved in criminal investigations between 1995 and 1998, 375 were positively identified as Sporters, according to the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence. Another 1,781 were AR-15s.

Although ATF did not ban the Sporter, California's legislature did. The ban was subsequently postponed by a lengthy court battle. But gun dealers have stopped selling the Sporter since a tough new assault weapons ban took effect Jan. 1.

"Anything that is clearly an assault weapon copycat that is meant to evade the restrictions is a problematic gun and should be banned," said Handgun Control spokeswoman Naomi Paiss.

Lieberman's involvement in the Sporter issue came two years after he sided with Republicans and 16 other Senate Democrats to allow a vote on the GOP-led repeal of a controversial District law allowing victims of assault weapons to sue manufacturers. The repeal then passed on a voice vote.

Gerstein said the D.C. law was so broad it would have allowed a wave of frivolous lawsuits and would even have enabled a drug dealer wounded in a shootout to sue a gunmaker.

Earlier this year, Lieberman went to bat for the industry again during a heated debate over an amendment to a major bill that would have excluded firearms manufacturers from filing for bankruptcy.

Lieberman asserted that the amendment, offered by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and supported by Handgun Control, discriminated against a single industry and "could cripple reputable companies such as Colt's."

Colt's, he noted, does not manufacture Saturday night specials that have been implicated in hundreds of shootings.

Lieberman also warned that several gun companies were "teetering at the edge of bankruptcy" because of the tide of liability lawsuits.

The industry's current focus involves lawsuits filed against gunmakers by New York state and 32 cities and counties to recover medical, law enforcement and other costs of gun violence. The suits have been allowed to proceed in some cities but have been dismissed in others.

Lieberman met with gun manufacturers' representatives in Washington last year to discuss the suits. Don W. Gobel, a gun company executive who chairs the Shooting Sports Foundation, described the senator as "very supportive of our position" on the litigation.

Gerstein said that was not a correct impression and that Lieberman believes there are "legitimate grounds for holding gunmakers liable for violating the law and for wrongdoing." He declined to provide specifics.

Despite Lieberman's past support for the industry, Gobel said in an interview that he is not optimistic about the Democratic ticket even with Lieberman on it. "While we believe he is a man of integrity and has stated he would continue to give his opinion to the president, he would have to support the president's decision," Gobel said. "So it doesn't give us a lot of comfort."

Researcher Lynn Davis contributed to this report.

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