Emboldened by their majorities in the House and Senate, Democrats are making a new push to enact the first major new gun control laws in more than two decades -- starting with stricter background checks.
The House passed two bills Thursday to require background checks on all firearms sales and transfers and to allow an expanded 10-day review for gun purchases. Similar bills were passed by the House in 2019, shortly after Democrats won the majority, but languished in the GOP-controlled Senate for the next two years.
Democrats now hold the Senate, as well, giving the party hope as the legislation will at least be considered. But the bills would need significant bipartisan support to pass.
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The renewed push is the latest effort by Democrats – and some Republicans – who have repeatedly tried, and failed, to pass tougher gun control laws since the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that killed 20 children and six educators. While enhanced background checks are generally popular with the American public, even with some conservatives, Congress has so far not been able to find compromise on the issue. It is unclear whether Senate Democrats could find deep enough support among Republicans to pass new gun control legislation in a 50-50 Senate, as they would need 60 votes to do so.
Still, the bills are part of an effort by Democrats to move on several major legislative priorities while they hold both chambers of Congress and the White House. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday that the Republican “legislative graveyard is over” and that the bill to require background checks on all firearms sales will have a vote in the Senate.
“A vote is what we need,” Schumer said, and they will find out where Republicans stand.
“Maybe we’ll get the votes,” he said. “And if we don't, we’ll come together as a caucus and figure it out how we are going to get this done. But we have to get it done.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who has been working on gun legislation with Schumer since the 1990s when they were in the House together, said she and her colleagues have promised survivors of shootings and family members of those who have died that “we are not going away” until the background checks legislation passes.
“The gun violence crisis in America is a challenge to the conscience of our country – one that demands that we act,” Pelosi said during floor debate on the bills Wednesday. “These solutions will save lives.”
President Joe Biden has called for Congress to strengthen gun laws, including requiring the background checks on all gun sales and banning assault weapons.
“We owe it to all those we’ve lost and to all those left behind to grieve to make a change,” Biden said as he marked the three-year anniversary of the Parkland school shooting massacre in Florida, which killed 17. “The time to act is now.”
The first bill, which passed 227-203, is designed to close loopholes to ensure background checks are extended to private and online sales that often go undetected, including at gun shows. The legislation includes limited exceptions allowing temporary transfers to prevent imminent harm, for use at a target range and for gifts from family, among others.
The second bill, which passed 219-210, would extend the review period for background checks from three to 10 days. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., introduced the legislation after a shooter killed nine people at a Charleston, S.C., church in 2015. The FBI said afterward that a background check examiner never saw the shooter's previous arrest report because the wrong arresting agency was listed in state criminal history records, and the gun dealer was legally permitted to complete the transaction after three days.
While the House bills have Republican cosponsors and won a handful of GOP votes, most Republicans voted against them. During the floor debate, Republicans argued that the background checks would not stop most mass shootings and would mistakenly prevent some lawful gun owners from purchasing firearms.
Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry said the bill would lead to more crime because there would be “less people out there defending themselves.”
At the same time, Democrats are hoping that there's a gradual political shift among voters that could help them win GOP votes. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who has introduced a companion bill expanding background checks in the Senate, said he doesn't think Democrats should just accept that there aren't 60 votes.
“I just think we are living in a different world than 2013,” Murphy said ahead of the House vote, referring to failed congressional efforts after the Newtown school shooting.
Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who has pushed gun control legislation with Murphy since then, said “what’s changed is we now have a president who can put pressure on our colleagues."
Democrats also point to troubles at The National Rifle Association, the long-powerful advocacy group that poured tens of millions of dollars into electing Donald Trump in 2016. The organization has been weakened by infighting as well as legal tangles over its finances.
But change does not come easy in the Senate as many in the GOP base are still viscerally opposed to any new gun control. Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a moderate, have worked together for years to find compromise on background checks but have yet to propose anything that will pass.
In a statement, a spokesman for Toomey said the senator remains supportive of a previous bipartisan proposal with Manchin but believes "progress is only possible on this issue if the measure in question is narrow and protects the rights of law-abiding gun owners.”
The spokesman, Steve Kelly, did not say whether the House bills meet that standard.
Schumer did not say when the Senate would schedule a vote. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said this week that his committee plans to have hearings on gun policy.
Democrats will “test the waters and see what the sentiment is in the Senate,” Durbin said.