WASHINGTON — Conrad Johnson, a bus driver in Montgomery County, Md., was standing on the top step of his bus last Oct. 22, getting ready for his morning route, when he was shot once in the back and killed.
For Mr. Johnson's wife, Denise, it was an incomprehensible act. Now she is confronting another action that she says is nearly as baffling.
Mrs. Johnson has filed a lawsuit against the gun shop, Bull's Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma, Wash., that supplied the gun, a Bushmaster rifle, to one of two men charged in the sniper attacks that killed her husband and nine others last fall. She has also sued the rifle's manufacturer. But last week the House of Representatives, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, passed a bill granting the gun industry nationwide immunity from virtually all lawsuits. The Senate is expected to take up the bill after the Easter recess.
So Mrs. Johnson is hurriedly trying to turn herself into a lobbyist, going to news conferences in the Capitol and working Senate offices to tell her story.
"When I heard that Congress is seriously considering giving gun dealers special protection from suits like mine, I figured this had to be some kind of bad dream," Mrs. Johnson said in an interview, after attending a news conference with Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey. "I'm appalled and outraged that Congress can take away my rights as an American to have my day in court."
The suit by Mrs. Johnson, which is likely to be joined by seven other victims or families of victims of the Washington-area sniper attacks, is one of many suits that would be stopped if the bill passes the Senate and is signed into law by President Bush. The bill would make gun dealers and gunmakers the only industry in the nation exempt from lawsuits.
Lawrence G. Keane, the general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry trade association, said the legislation was needed to "prevent frivolous, politically motivated lawsuits" that may "bankrupt responsible companies by blaming them for the actions of criminals."
The industry is facing suits by almost 30 cities and counties, including ones by Cleveland and Cincinnati that judges have ruled can go to trial, and others by Chicago, Detroit, Newark and New York at various stages in proceedings.
There is also a suit by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that is being tried in Federal District Court in Brooklyn. The N.A.A.C.P. has accused gunmakers and dealers of negligently helping supply criminals with guns in a way that disproportionately harms poor African-Americans.
There are also many suits by individuals, including one by two New Jersey police officers, David Lemongello and Ken McGuire, who are suing a pawnshop in West Virginia that sold a semiautomatic pistol used to badly wound them while they staked out a gasoline station that had been repeatedly robbed.
An investigation by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives determined that the gun had been sold to a gun trafficker, James Gray, who was legally prohibited from buying the weapon because he was a felon.
Mr. Gray went into the store, Will's Jewelry and Loan, in Charleston, W.Va., and handed thousands of dollars in cash to an accomplice after pointing out 12 guns he wanted to buy. The accomplice, who had no criminal record, then bought the guns for him, in front of the store owner, in what is known as a straw purchase.
Federal firearms law prohibits straw purchases, but they are one of the most common ways that criminals get guns.
Mr. Gray, who lived in New Jersey, resold the guns on the black market, court records show, including one to Shuntez Everett, a career criminal who soon used it to shoot the two officers at the gasoline station, in Orange, N.J. Mr. Everett died in a shootout with the police after shooting Officers Lemongello and McGuire, hitting both in the chest and the stomach and one officer in an arm and the other in a leg.
Both men have had to retire because of the severity of their wounds.
Mr. Lemongello was the one witness the Republicans who control the House Judiciary Committee allowed to testify against the gun industry immunity bill earlier this month.
In an interview afterward, Mr. Lemongello, 32, said the shooting had deprived him of his lifelong dream of being a police officer and that he had been eager to sue the Charleston gun shop, which is still in business and has not been prosecuted.
"But then I heard about this bill in Congress that would do nothing but protect bad dealers, and I felt sick and angry," Mr. Lemongello said.
"I'm not looking to put the gun industry out of business," he said. "I believe in the right to bear arms. I own a gun. I was a police officer and a police firearms instructor.
"But this case is a no-brainer," Mr. Lemongello said. "We are going after one bad dealer and one irresponsible manufacturer who didn't monitor what its dealers did."
The N.R.A. and the gun industry have made passing the immunity bill their main legislative priority this year. The Web site of the gun industry trade association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, has an appeal for gun enthusiasts to write their congressmen to support the bill.
In the Senate, the bill has 52 co-sponsors, enough to pass it if there is no Democratic filibuster.
Mrs. Johnson, who was not allowed to testify, said she was not suing to win money. "This is about making these companies do things responsibly."
Bull's Eye, the Tacoma gun shop, is still in business, and Bushmaster is still selling rifles, Mrs. Johnson said, though a series of inspections by the federal firearms bureau found that the store could not account for 238 guns in its inventory in the last three years.
A spokesman for the United States attorney's office in Seattle said that Bull's Eye was under investigation.
But Scott McKenna, a spokesman for the federal firearms agency in Seattle, said the bureau had not been able to determine whether Bull's Eye had illegally sold the rifle to one of the sniper suspects without recording the sale or whether the gun had been stolen.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company