House Sends First Major Gun Safety Bill in Decades to Biden

The House on Friday passed the most significant gun control legislation in nearly three decades, sending a modest set of gun safety measures to President Joe Biden’s desk on a vote that was mostly along party lines.

Although the bill passed 234 to 193 votes, it does not contain any of the more comprehensive gun control measures Biden had called for. Still, the White House released a statement indicating that the President would sign the bill, calling it “one of the most significant steps Congress has taken to reduce gun violence in decades.”

Biden appealed to Congress in a televised speech earlier this month as the nation reeled from mass shootings across New York, Texas, and Oklahoma. Biden knew he didn’t have the votes to ban assault weapons and urged lawmakers to at least raise the legal age for purchasing an assault weapon to 21. This was made difficult by the uneven political dynamic in the Senate. The majority of Republican senators opposed any proposals to restrict gun ownership. Late Thursday, 15 Republicans joined the chamber’s Democratic caucus in passing the bill, teeing up Friday’s vote in the House.

“Many have come to doubt whether we’re capable of making our institutions work,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the lead Republican negotiator of the bill, said on Thursday. “We proved that we can.”

14 Republicans voted in support of the bill, as did every Democrat. This vote came exactly one month after a gunman shot and killed 19 schoolchildren in Uvalde (Texas), in the worst school shooting incident in American history. The massacre happened just 10 days after another mass shooting, this time racially motivated, at a Buffalo N.Y. grocery store. According to the Gun Violence Archive, 279 mass shootings have occurred this year. This is defined as an incident in which four or more persons are killed or shot, but not the shooter.

“All of us who have met the survivors in the wake of the tragedies have heard their message loud and clear,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, said Friday. “Today, in their honor, we hear their powerful cry, sending the major gun violence prevention legislation to President Biden’s desk for signature.”

Shortly before Friday’s vote, a group of roughly 30 House Democrats gathered on the Capitol steps with other gun control advocates. They sang “God Bless America” while holding photos of people lost to gun violence. “Our success today will never be the end of this fight, but it is a beginning,” Rep. Lucy McBath, a Democrat from Georgia, said as family members affected by gun violence listened. “This bill doesn’t answer all of our prayers, but this is hope.”

Background checks are enhanced by the bill, but this only applies to gun buyers who are under 21. This first requirement requires that authorities conduct a search of juvenile criminal and mental records within ten days. Current law allows anyone aged 18 and older to buy shotguns or rifles. This includes the semi-automatic military rifles that were used in many recent mass shootings. Just like the 2004 assault weapon ban, this more extensive background check would end after 10 years.

The legislation also expands a current law that bars domestic abusers from being able to purchase a firearm to include serious dating partners, closing what’s known as the “boyfriend loophole.” Under existing law, only domestic-violence offenders who committed their crimes against a spouse or partner with whom they had lived or had a child with are barred from purchasing firearms. If they are first offenders, and have not been convicted of any violent offense or misdemeanor, negotiators will allow them to buy a firearm again after five years.

The bill also sets aside $750 million over five years to help states implement crisis intervention programs, including so-called “red-flag” laws, which allow authorities to temporarily confiscate guns from people deemed to represent a threat to themselves or others. Other provisions toughen the criminal penalties for third-party gun sales, known as “straw” purchases, and clarify that individuals who repeatedly buy and sell firearms “to predominantly earn a profit” must register for a federal firearms license so they can run background checks on their customers.

The legislation also sets aside billions in grants to help with school security and mental health. The bill would launch more than a dozen new initiatives, including one that would create a broader network of “community behavioral health centers” and another that would increase access to telehealth services for those in a mental health crisis. The bill would offset federal spending by delaying for one year a Medicare rebate provision. Federal savings are estimated at around $21 billion.

Steve Scalise (the Louisiana minority whip) and Kevin McCarthy (the minority leader in California), urged colleagues to reject the gun safety bill. The National Rifle Association also fiercely opposed the bill, releasing a statement on Tuesday that said it “does little to truly address violent crime while opening the door to unnecessary burdens on the exercise of Second Amendment freedom by law-abiding gun owners.”

In the meantime, various other organizations supported the bill, such as the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACoP), the National Domestic Violence Hotline, National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the American Psychological Association.

“This bill doesn’t do everything we would like to do,” Pelosi acknowledged, adding that Democrats would like to see more productive action on background checks and high-capacity magazines.

Rep. StenyHoyer (a Democrat from Maryland) praised those Republicans who were willing and able to withstand any political fallout by supporting the bill.

“Those Republicans who said the NRA does not stand for No Republican Action—they took action, they stood up,” Hoyer said. “Even in the face of boos from their own party.”

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