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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 October, 2003, 14:42 GMT 15:42 UK
Bill puts sniper case in firing line
By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News Online

Hong Im Ballenger said goodnight to her colleagues and shut up the beauty products shop in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that she managed. Minutes later, she was lying dead in the parking lot, shot in the head with a bullet from the same gun said to have been used by the sniper who later went on to terrorise the Washington area.

John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo have been charged in the September 2002 killing of the 45-year-old mother-of-three, and the 10 killings in the Washington area in October 2002. Mr Muhammad is now on trial for one of the killings.

In 2000, there were 10,801 gun-related homicides in the US, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention
The second amendment to the US constitution defends the right of all citizens to bear arms
More than 1,000 kilometres separate the Ballenger family from other families of sniper victims but all are united in their anger and frustration at moves by politicians to give the gun industry special protections that no other businesses enjoy.

These would derail a lawsuit brought by Mr Ballenger and eight other sniper victims' families against Bull's Eye Shooter Supply, the gun dealer in Washington State which supplied the weapon, and the gun's manufacturer, Bushmaster.

The suit, which is backed by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, has outraged members of the gun industry and their supporters, who accuse gun-control advocates of seizing on the sniper case for political reasons and using the courts to undermine the constitutional right to bear arms.

They hope that the case will never come to court courtesy of a bill to protect gun dealers and manufacturers from ongoing and future lawsuits, which is currently being examined.

The proposal, which has had White House backing, has already been passed by the House of Representatives and a Senate vote is expected soon.

'Acting responsibly'

"It's a slap in the face," Mr Ballenger told BBC News Online of the Gun Industry Immunity Bill.

"My wife was the love of my life, she's gone, my children have to suffer without their mother. Now my rights are being taken away. As an American, I have the right to my day in court. I want senators to know that the gun industry must be responsible for what they sell."

John Allen Muhammad
Muhammad's trial in connection with the shooting of Dean Harold Meyers in the Washington area has started
Police traced the gun used in the killings to Bull's Eye Shooter Supply, which was unable to provide sales receipts for the weapon.

An investigation by the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) at the time found that the shop could not account for more than 75 other weapons. Previous audits in 1999 and 2000 had found more than 160 guns were unaccounted for.

The lawsuit alleges that despite ATF audits, showing the store had lost the guns, Bushmaster continued to use it as a dealer. Bushmaster maintains that it did nothing wrong and sold the rifle legally to a firearms dealer.

Bull's Eye was sold in the summer and the new owner, who is not connected to the legal case, is operating under a new ATF licence.

Mounting legal action

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were nearly 11,000 gun-related homicides in America in 2000, the latest year for which data are available.

Gun-control campaigners say that with such a high death count, a legal framework is needed to prevent guns getting into the wrong hands.

ATF studies show less than 2% of gun stores sell weapons traced to 57% of gun crimes. Gun-control advocates argue that these few gun dealers have a vastly disproportionate impact on public safety.

The Brady Center has backed a number of cases against manufacturers and suppliers in an attempt, it says, to get the industry to act responsibly. Back in the spring, the gun industry was facing suits in more than 30 cities and counties around the US.

But in the face of mounting legal action, the US firearms industry says it needs legislation to protect it from what the National Shooting Sports Foundation describes as "frivolous, politically motivated lawsuits" that could "bankrupt responsible companies by blaming them for the actions of criminals".

Gun shop
Guns are popular in rural areas
Many of the cases have gone in favour of the gun industry. But some have resulted in gun industry defendants agreeing to change the way they do business in return for being released from lawsuits.

John Lott, author of the book More Guns, Less Crime and a member of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank, argues that the Gun Industry Immunity Bill is needed to fight back against what he describes as a ridiculously litigious culture.

There cannot be a "vague negligence standard," he told BBC News Online.

"There is a question about what level of surveillance is needed to ensure that a product is used properly."

He says trial lawyers have targeted the gun industry in order to set a precedent. It could be guns today, car manufacturers or alcohol producers tomorrow, he says.

This bill would set a disturbing precedent by giving a singly industry broad immunity from civil liability
Senator Reed

Fifty-five out of 100 senators have said they will back the bill but some say they will "filibuster", or block, the legislation.

Democratic Senator Jack Reed describes the bill as "shameful" and is working to secure votes needed to block it.

"This bill would set a disturbing precedent by giving a single industry broad immunity from civil liability, depriving victims with legitimate cases of their day in court. If this legislation is enacted, other industries will almost certainly line up for similar protections," he said.

He warned the Senate to take a "long look" at the bill before "putting the interests of the firearms industry above the rights of innocent victims of gun violence".

The country's main firearms lobbying group, the National Rifle Association of America (NRA), enjoys huge support in the Republican-controlled Congress and the White House. It raised and donated $10m in last year's Congressional election campaigns.

James Ballenger has long wondered why his government would seek to deny him access to the courts. Now he concludes:

"Most politicians just don't look at these things from a human perspective. They don't seem to care about what happens to a human life, they are just interested in their wallets."

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