Washington — The Senate is poised to hold two cliffhanger votes this week on gun control, opening another front in the political culture wars as the 2004 election begins to take shape.
The votes are scheduled today on Democratic amendments to a bill that would give the gun industry broad immunity from lawsuits. While the main bill appears to have broad support from Republicans and Democrats, the amendments have fewer supporters in the GOP.
The Democrats' willingness to press for gun restrictions marks a strategic shift for the party, which until recently had tiptoed quietly around the guns issue since some strategists concluded it contributed to Al Gore's election loss in 2000.
One proposal would renew the assault-weapons ban passed in 1994. That legislation, which banned the manufacture and importation of 19 types of military style assault weapons, is set to expire this September.
The second is a provision to close the so-called "gun show loophole," which critics say allows criminals and others prohibited from owning weapons to avoid background checks by shopping at gun shows.
Both measures have attracted bipartisan support, with Sen. John Warner, R-Va., co-sponsoring the assault-weapons provision, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., co-sponsoring the gun show amendment.
But the votes are still expected to be close -- so close that supporters are hoping that the two leading Democratic presidential contenders, Sens. John Edwards, D-N.C., and John Kerry, D-Mass., will return to Washington from their campaigns and vote.
Proponents are seeking to attach the twin gun control measures to a broader bill that would grant the gun industry broad immunity from lawsuits unless a manufacturer or dealer violated the law or sold a defective weapon.
Advocates argue that the gun industry has been under assault from dozens of frivolous suits that attempt to hold manufacturers accountable for the misuse of their products by criminals.
Critics contend the bill is a sop to the NRA and would prevent legitimate suits against reckless dealers who sell guns to criminals, including a case brought by families of some victims in the 2002 sniper shootings that terrorized the Washington area.