Published on Thursday, April 8, 2003 by the Washington Post
Debate on Gun Rights In House Turns Racial
by Juliet Eilperin
A House debate over gun rights legislation erupted into a racially charged dispute yesterday when a Republican lawmaker from Wyoming seemed to equate African Americans with drug addicts or people undergoing drug treatment.
Rep. Barbara Cubin's remark -- which triggered a vote on whether to strike it from the congressional record -- nearly overshadowed the House's approval of a measure to protect gun manufacturers and dealers from lawsuits resulting from the criminal use of firearms. One independent, 63 Democrats and 221 Republicans backed the bill, which could block several pending lawsuits by counties, cities and individuals stemming from gun crimes -- including last year's sniper shootings in the Washington area.
Yesterday's debate suddenly veered from guns to race when Cubin criticized a failed Democratic amendment that would have banned gun sales to drug addicts or people in drug treatment. One amendment today said we could not sell guns to anybody under drug treatment. So does that mean that if you go into a black community you can't sell any guns to any black person? she said: "One amendment today said we could not sell guns to anybody under drug treatment. So does that mean that if you go into a black community you can't sell any guns to any black person?"
Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.), who is black, interrupted and demanded that Cubin retract the statement. Cubin said that she did not mean to offend her "neighbors" on the Democratic side, and maintained that her comment was within House rules.
Watt was not satisfied. "She needs to apologize for using words that are offensive for the entire African American race," he said. He demanded Cubin's comment be "taken down," meaning it was inappropriate for a House debate. In a largely party-line vote, the GOP-controlled House voted 227 to 195 to uphold the chair's ruling that the remark fell within House rules.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said GOP leaders should have condemned Cubin's comment. "The Republican Party has consistently said it's working hard to become a racially diverse party," he told reporters. "If that is true, the Black Caucus calls on the Republicans to synchronize their conduct with their conscience."
A few Republicans criticized Cubin's statement. "She should have withdrawn them," Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.) said. "I can really understand how they would have been found offensive."
When the dust settled, the House returned to the most high-profile debate on gun issues since it voted in 1999 against banning gun shows as part of a juvenile justice bill. Yesterday's outcome was a major victory for the National Rifle Association, a steadfast supporter of Republicans.
The bill will move to the Senate, where 52 members say they back it. The White House issued a statement of support, saying: "The manufacturer or seller of a legal, non-defective product should not be held liable for the criminal or unlawful misuse of that product by others."
The debate focused on whether individuals and state and local governments could seek damages from gun manufacturers and licensed dealers when guns are used illegally or injure innocent people. Rep. Melissa Hart (R-Pa.), who supports the bill, said Congress needed to step in before gun opponents bankrupt a legal industry.
"Having lost the fight in Congress to curb the rights of law-abiding firearm owners, like the many sportsmen who live in my district, the gun control lobby has turned increasingly to the courts with frivolous, time-consuming lawsuits against manufacturers," she said. "These lawsuits don't curb crime, but they do destroy jobs by driving many manufacturers out of business."
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) disagreed. "This is special treatment for a special interest," he said. "This body should work to protect our citizens, not the gun lobby."
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said the bill would keep victims of the Washington area snipers from getting compensation from gun manufacturers and dealers, even if they had provided weapons to illegal buyers. "My community was terrorized and paralyzed by a pair of snipers last fall," he said. "It is outrageous that we would even consider a bill that would deny the families of sniper victims a fair day in court."
Denise Johnson, whose husband, Conrad, was killed in the sniper shootings, has sued the manufacturer of the rifle believed to have been used, and the store that sold it.
The legislation would not protect someone who transferred guns or ammunition knowing they would be used in connection with a violent crime or drug trafficking. Nor would it bar claims alleging a manufacturing or design defect in a gun or ammunition.
The House rejected several Democratic amendments, including one that would have preserved a plaintiff's right to sue on product liability grounds.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company