Washington – Gun control supporters and victims of gun violence in the U.S. House gallery yelled “thank you” to the group of mostly-Democratic lawmakers who passed a bill Wednesday that would expand federal background checks for gun purchases and transfers.
The vote on the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019 was 240-190, the first time in at least 25 years that the U.S. House has approved a substantial gun control measure.
The bill, which garnered only eight GOP votes Wednesday, was first introduced more than six years ago in response to the 2012 killing of 20 first graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, but failed to win enough support in the Senate and was not ever put forth for a vote in the House.
“This day has been a long time coming,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, who came over from the Senate to witness the historic vote on the House floor.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal also kept an eye on the House proceedings.
“The families of Sandy Hook were in my heart and on my mind today as I watched the House take a historic step toward making America safer,” he said. “It is a clear sign that momentum is on the side of common sense gun violence reform and the gun lobby’s grip on Congress is weakening.”
The gun safety advocates’ victory is expected to be short-lived, however. The bill is unlikely to be considered in the Senate, where Republicans hold a 53-vote majority and 60 votes are needed to advance legislation.
President Donald Trump also issued a veto threat Tuesday for the legislation, which would require FBI background checks of prospective buyers for individual gun sales on the Internet and at gun shows.
“This day has been a long time coming.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, D- Conn.
During debate on the bill Wednesday, several amendments were defeated. But lawmakers approved a Republican amendment that would require the FBI to notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, when an undocumented alien attempts to purchase a gun.
Like other supporters of the legislation, Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, said universal background checks have the support of 97 percent of Americans and would keep more guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals.
But he said the legislation is not “a panacea.”
“We need additional legislation to make guns safer, keep weapons that are designed only to kill off the street, and provide better mental health support for Americans,” Himes said.
Rep. Jared Golden, a freshman lawmaker from Maine, and Minnesota’s Rep. Colin Peterson were the only House Democrats to vote against the bill.
While gun control helped a number of Democrats in last year’s midterm elections, the National Rifle Association, which strongly opposed the background check bill, continues to have strong influence on Republicans in Congress.
The NRA says the legislation would lead to a national gun registry, and “make criminals out of law-abiding gun owners for simply loaning a firearm to a friend or some family members.”
Before the vote, Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., called the bill a “partisan show” that would not have prevented the mass shootings in Newtown, Las Vegas, San Bernadino or other places that have been the scene of a gun massacre.
Most of the guns used in recent mass shooting, including the one that killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School, were bought legally.
Like Newtown shooter Adam Lanza, many of the attackers had criminal histories or mental health problems that did not prevent them from obtaining a weapon. Even so, gun control advocates promote universal background checks as a first step in preventing gun violence.
During the often passionate debate on the bill, Hudson and other Republicans repeated the NRA argument that it would make criminals out of those who loan guns to family members and friends.
“If you loan your gun to a friend under this bill, and they may be thinking of buying a similar gun to protect themselves, and they go to a range… you may become a felon, subject to a year in jail,” said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., who is the victim of a shooting. He was severely injured during a shooting at a congressional baseball practice in Virginia in 2017.
However, there are a number of exceptions in the background check bill, including one for a family member giving a firearm as a gift, or lending a gun to someone to practice at a gun range or who is in imminent danger.
The U.S. House plans to vote on a second gun bill on Thursday.
That bill would extend the FBI’s current three-day deadline to conduct a background check to as many as 20 business days, closing the so-called “Charleston Loophole.” That loophole allowed white supremacist Dylann Roof, who killed nine African-Americans at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, to buy a gun despite pending felony drug charges against him.