Fredereka Schouten, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - You can carry a loaded firearm into national parks and can tuck your rifle and ammunition into stowed luggage on Amtrak trains. Federal product-safety laws subject everything from toys to toasters to safety inspection and recalls, but exempts guns.
In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., massacre, the national debate raging over high-profile issues such as proposals to ban assault weapons also is bringing fresh attention to an array of little-known laws approved by Congress - some at the behest of the powerful National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups - that either ease restrictions on firearms or clamp down on the ability of the government to regulate guns.
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The NRA also has used its political muscle in state capitols - where its lobbyists and members have successfully pushed laws that allow gun owners to carry concealed weapons into parks, bars and churches, have sought to restrict the ability of doctors to talk to patients about gun safety and fought increased fees for background checks.
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In the last decade alone, the NRA has spent $21 million to lobby Congress and federal agencies - 10 times the amount spent by one of the nation's best-known gun-control groups, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, during the same period.
"The NRA has had great influence because they have largely had the field to themselves," said Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at the State University of New York College-Cortland and author of The Politics of Gun Control.
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said the NRA's "successes are due to the fact that the overwhelming majority of American people agree with our position, not because of any influence."
The organization, which has vigorously opposed any gun restrictions, faces new pressure after the Dec. 14 Newtown shooting that left 20 schoolchildren dead. President Obama this week plans to unveil proposals to curb gun violence, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is readying legislation that would reinstate the assault-weapons ban that lapsed in 2004.
"We'll do what we've always done: fight," Arulanandam said about the NRA's response to any new gun-control proposals. "That's what our members want us to do. That's what tens of millions of law-abiding gun owners want us to do."
Examples of recent laws easing gun restrictions include:
--A measure, inserted into a 2009 credit-card regulation bill, that ended a 25-year ban on carrying concealed and loaded guns into national parks. Supporters said the change was needed to address a patchwork of state and federal firearms regulators that made it hard for gun owners to travel between state and federal lands.
In addition, the law's author, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., "believes gun-free zones disarm everyone but the assailant," his spokesman John Hart said. The NRA backed the proposal, but Coburn "offered the amendment at his own initiative," Hart said.
Associations representing current and retired National Park rangers opposed the law, raising concerns about the potential for illegal poaching and arguing it would change the nature of USA's 398 national parks.
That year, Congress also overturned Amtrak's ban on carrying weapons, put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and renewed after 2004 bombing attacks on Madrid's train system. Gun-control advocates argued the change made train travel less secure.
The measure's sponsor, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., called the Amtrak gun ban an "overreaction" that punished gun owners. He noted that the law brought Amtrak's rules closer in line with airline regulations, which now allow passengers to transport unloaded firearms in checked baggage - provided they are locked in a hard-sided container.
--A federal law passed by Congress in 2005 that shields gun dealers, trade associations and manufacturers from liability in lawsuits involving firearms used in crimes. The measure sponsored by then-senator Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican and former NRA board member. The law kept in place the ability to sue over defective guns.
Firearms, however, long have been exempt from oversight by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which regulates everything from cribs and children's toys to washing machines and pools - making it the only U.S. consumer product not subject to federal safety regulations. The federal agency with regulatory power over the gun industry is Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which focuses on law enforcement.
"It shows the immense political clout of the NRA to exempt itself from product-safety regulation and keep it that way for years and then to get protection from civil liability," said Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center.
On Monday, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., announced plans to introduce a bill to overturn the 2005 law limiting lawsuits. "Other industries across our country don't enjoy this protection under the law," he said. "It's inexcusable for Congress to give the NRA and gun manufacturers a blank check."
The NRA's Arulanandam called moves to expand legal liability part of a "strategy by gun-control advocates to bankrupt the gun industry by holding them responsible for the activities of criminals."
--Laws restricting the ability of doctors and insurance companies to ask questions about firearm ownership, usage and storage.
A law signed last year by Florida's Republican Gov. Rick Scott threatens doctors with the potential loss of their medical licenses for recording information in patients' files about firearms. A federal judge last year ruled the law unconstitutional and blocked its implementation. Florida officials have appealed.
Marion Hammer, a Florida gun rights lobbyist and former NRA president who pushed the measure, did not return telephone calls from USA TODAY. But in a letter to The Tallahassee Democrat, she said the law addressed "the growing political agenda being carried out in examination rooms by doctors and medical staffs - and the arrogant berating if a patient refuses to answer questions that violate privacy rights and offend common decency."
Mobeen Rathore, president of the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said doctors have a First Amendment right to talk with patients about potential hazards in the home.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also has raised objections about a provision in the massive 2010 federal health-care overhaul that it argues will deter doctors from asking about guns in homes.
The provision, inserted by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., bars the government from using the health-care law to collect gun information and prohibits the insurance companies that participate in new health-care exchanges from using gun ownership as criteria for denying coverage or determining premiums.
In addition, the law's "wellness" provisions, which expand employer-backed efforts to encourage workers to take healthy actions such as losing weight, "may not require disclosure or collection" of information about patients' guns or ammunition.
The NRA pushed the measure to "make sure law-abiding gun owners are not target of discrimination by insurance companies," Arulanandam said this week.
Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson said the provision only sought to reassure gun owners that the federal government had no plans to use the health law to create a national firearms registry.
"It was entirely intended to reinforce current law," he said, "and to make it clear that there was no back-door attempt to create a gun database."