House Passes Sweeping Gun Bill

Feb 27, 2019
Originally published on March 1, 2019 10:16 am

Updated at 6:35 p.m. ET

The House passed what advocates call the most significant gun control measure in more than two decades on Wednesday when it approved the first of two bills aimed at broadening the federal background check system for firearms purchases.

The vote on the first bill, dubbed the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, passed largely along party lines 240 to 190 with Democrats who control the House cheering as they carried the legislation across the finish line.

A second bill, expected to be taken up Thursday, would extend the period federal authorities have to complete a background check before a gun sale can go through. Under current law, if a check isn't finalized in three business days, the transaction can automatically proceed.

House Democrats hope the swift passage of the companion bills will put pressure on the Senate to act. The National Rifle Association opposes the legislation, and it faces major headwinds in the Republican-controlled Senate. In the unlikely event the Senate approves the measure, the White House has already signaled the President would veto the bill, should it reach his desk.

As its name suggests, the first bill did garner modest GOP support, even attracting five Republican co-sponsors. Yet, in the end, only eight Republicans crossed party lines to support the bill.

In a statement John Feinblatt, president of the anti-gun violence group Everytown for Gun Safety, praised lawmakers for "stepping up."

"We applaud Speaker Pelosi and the bipartisan coalition of House members who supported this bill for stepping up and doing their part to close the giant — and deadly — loopholes in America's background checks law."

Chris Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action, issued a statement, calling the background check bill "extreme," adding it will "make criminals out of law-abiding Americans."

"Criminals, on the other hand, will continue to get their firearms the way they always have – through the black market, theft, and straw purchases. Forcing more government paperwork and additional fees on good people trying to exercise a constitutional right will do nothing to make Americans safer," Cox said.

The legislation mandates background checks be performed on all gun sales, including firearm purchases made privately, whether it be online or at gun shows. Under current law, only licensed gun dealers are required to conduct a background check for someone seeking to obtain a gun.

There are exceptions.

The background check does not apply to transfers between close relatives. A firearm could also be loaned to someone using it at a shooting range or for the purposes of hunting and trapping, unless there's a reason to suspect the gun will be used in a crime or the person receiving the gun is prohibited from possessing the gun under state or federal law.

A temporary transfer of a gun can also take place in situations where it's "necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm."

At a press conference ahead of its passage, the bill's sponsor, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., called it a "historic time," adding that expanded background checks would "help save lives." He also highlighted the difficulty of getting a gun control vote during the previous eight years, when the chamber was controlled by a Republican majority.

"We were not able to get a single hearing or have a single vote in the House under the last majority. It's a new day," Thompson said.

He was joined by former congresswoman turned gun control advocate Gabby Giffords who nearly died from injuries sustained when a gunman opened fire at a constituent meeting in Tucson, Ariz., in 2011.

She said stopping gun violence takes "courage."

"I've seen great courage when my life was on the line. Now is the time to come together, be responsible. Democrats, Republicans, everyone," Giffords said.

Critics of the bill, including many Republicans, say the background check legislation would have done nothing to stop many of the recent mass shootings, including the one in Parkland, Fla., where 17 students and faculty were killed at a high school. They also argue that if passed into law, the bill would prevent law-abiding citizens from having access to firearms.

Just before the bill's final passage, a handful of Democrats broke ranks and joined Republicans in getting an amendment added. It requires federal immigration officials to be contacted in the event someone in the U.S. illegally tries to buy a gun.

One prominent opponent of the background bills is Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the House minority whip. He was severely injured during a shooting at a congressional baseball practice in Virginia in 2017. He appeared in a video tweeted out by the NRA on Wednesday ahead of the vote.

"I'm proud to work with the NRA to oppose these gun control bills they are bringing to the Capitol – HR 8 and HR 1112," Scalise said referring to the official names of the Bipartisan Background Checks Act and the one that advocates say would close the "Charleston loophole."

"Both of these bills will strongly infringe upon the rights of law-abiding citizens to buy and ultimately share their own guns," he said.

HR 1112, sponsored by House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., would give the FBI more time to complete a background check.

Supporters say because of the flaws in the current system, a white supremacist in 2015 was able to buy a gun and kill nine churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., despite having a drug arrest that should have prevented him from getting the gun.

Public opinion polls show a large majority of Americans support background checks for gun buyers.

A Quinnipiac poll last month found 92 percent of respondents supported background checks for all buyers.

The poll found strong support even when factoring in the political affiliation of poll respondents: 95 percent of Democrats, 94 percent of independents and 89 percent of Republicans were in favor of background checks.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The House had some other business today, too. They passed sweeping legislation aimed at tightening the nation's gun laws. It's the first of two bills backed by House Democrats. Both would strengthen the federal background check system for firearm purchases, but they are expected to fail in the Republican-controlled Senate. NPR's Brakkton Booker has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: On this vote, the yeas are 240, and the nays are 190. The bill has passed.

BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: The passage of the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019 was never really in doubt. It had 230 co-sponsors. One of them was freshman Congresswoman Lucy McBath.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUCY MCBATH: As many of you may know, gun violence is an issue that is deeply personal for me.

BOOKER: The Georgia Democrat's son was killed when a man opened fire on a car full of teenagers in 2012. Changing gun laws is her top priority.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCBATH: Gun violence prevention and a desire to make meaningful change is the very reason I am here today.

BOOKER: Under current law, only licensed gun dealers have to conduct background checks. The House bill mandates federal background checks be performed on all gun sales. That includes purchases made online and at gun shows. No background checks would be needed for transferring guns between close family members. Despite having five GOP co-sponsors, it got strong pushback from House Republicans, including Doug Collins of Georgia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOUG COLLINS: All this legislation will do is burden law-abiding citizens wishing to exercise their Second Amendment rights, including defending themselves from the gun-toting criminals this bill does nothing to combat.

BOOKER: Republicans were able to get one victory - an amendment requiring immigration authorities to be notified when someone in the U.S. illegally tries to buy a gun. But Minority Whip Steve Scalise, who was badly injured by a gunman during a Congressional baseball practice in 2017, still opposed the bill. He says it's exemptions like allowing a friend to borrow a firearm for sport shooting could cause confusion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE SCALISE: They say there's an exemption in the bill, but it's written so vaguely that you not only need to bring your hunting partner, you might need to bring your attorney to find out if loaning your shotgun to your friend makes you a felon under this bill.

BOOKER: Tomorrow, House Democrats are expected to call a vote on another background check bill. That one calls for firearms dealers to wait at least 10 business days before completing a sale - up from the current three. Neither bill, though, is expected to get through the GOP-controlled Senate. And the White House has already signaled the president would veto the bill passed today if it ever reaches his desk. Brakkton Booker, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.