WASHINGTON – The House of Representatives passed significant gun violence legislation on Friday aimed at curbing the frequency of mass shootings in the United States, ending the measure’s quick trip through Congress. It now heads to President Biden for his signature to make it law.
Following Senate action Thursday night, House passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act broke an almost 30-year logjam in Washington on the contentious and emotional issue of gun rights. The metastasizing divisions that have separated Republicans and Democrats on the issue since the passage of the 1994 assault weapons ban have prevented meaningful changes to acquiring and retaining firearms for those who are not law-abiding citizens.
The House took the noteworthy step on the same day that the Supreme Court, across the street from the U.S. Capitol, released its historic decision to overturn abortion rights as established in Roe v. Wade, painting a dramatic tableau in Washington. Democrats clapped, smiled and linked arms after the gun measure passed the House, a striking departure from their earlier grim faces.
The gun legislation was the result of negotiations by a handful of Republican and Democratic senators, led by Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, in the wake of recent mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York.
In addition to providing funding for mental health services and school security initiatives, the legislation expands criminal background checks for some gun buyers, bars a larger group of domestic-violence offenders from purchasing firearms and funds programs that would allow authorities to seize guns from troubled individuals.
The bill passed the House overwhelmingly along party lines, 234 to 193, with no Democratic defections. Fourteen Republicans voted in favor, including Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, who represents Uvalde, the small city that is now the infamous home of the second-largest mass school shooting after the one in Newtown, Connecticut, almost a decade before.
Democrats were seen hugging Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., who ran for Congress after her son, Jordan Davis, was shot and killed following a dispute over loud music at a gas station. They were congratulating her after provisions she supported made it into the bipartisan package.
McBath audibly sobbed on the House floor after Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., handed her a piece of paper with the final vote tally, leading McBath to gently place her head on Pelosi’s shoulder as they embraced.
“With this bipartisan package, we take the first steps to fight back on behalf of the American people, who desperately want new measures to keep communities safe in the high numbers in the polling,” Pelosi said on the House floor. “To those who lacked the courage to join in this work, I say your political survival is insignificant compared to the survival of our children.”
The Senate approved the measure, which was agreed to by 20 bipartisan senators, late Thursday. Fifteen Republican senators joined all Senate Democrats, marking a historic and rarely seen agreement across party lines in an equally divided Senate. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., supported the bill, while the National Rifle Association opposed it.
“Behind the facade and the contrived talking points of safety, school security and mental health, this is a gun control bill,” the NRA said Friday.
The package is being sent to Biden’s desk one month to the day after an 18-year-old killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. The tragic loss of life shook the nation as it was already coping with a mass shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo that left 10 dead.
The twin incidents influenced Rep. Chris Jacobs, R-N.Y., a father of young daughters who was born and raised in Buffalo, to break with his party and come out in support of banning assault weapons and limiting high-capacity magazines, among other measures. The move appeared to have hurt him politically, prompting him to announce a week later that he would not seek re-election, after he lost significant GOP support.
Other Republicans who are retiring joined Jacobs in passing the measure, including Reps. John Katko (New York), Fred Upton (Michigan), Anthony Gonzalez (Ohio) and Adam Kinzinger (Illinois). Rep. Tom Rice (South Carolina), who lost his primary race, backed it. Vulnerable GOP Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (Pennsylvania), Peter Meijer (Michigan) and Maria Elvira Salazar (Florida), plus several Republicans in the Ohio delegation – including Reps. Steve Chabot, Michael Turner and David Joyce – also voted in support.
In the most surprising defection from her party, Rep. Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican facing a heated primary challenge in August, also backed the measure, meaning she will probably face attacks in her conservative Western state over this issue as well as her prominent role on the committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. She has been working to win over Democratic voters ahead of her primary.
“As a mother and a constitutional conservative, I’m proud to support this sensible bill that will protect our children and limit violence without infringing on law-abiding citizens’ Second Amendment rights. Nothing in the bill restricts the rights of responsible gun owners. Period,” Cheney said in a statement.
Her office also noted that the legislation had received the backing of the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Sheriffs’ Association, groups the GOP often turns to before considering how to vote on legislation.
The legislation is modest compared with what Biden had asked of Congress, including banning assault weapons and raising the age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21. Neither are in the compromise package.
The bill does, however, direct millions to increase mental health services and school security measures, which Republicans have championed as the best ways to address school shootings instead of tougher measures pushed by Democrats. The measure also expands criminal background checks for some gun buyers, and bars a larger group of domestic-violence offenders from being able to purchase firearms as part of language aimed at what is known as the “boyfriend loophole.” It also funds programs that would allow authorities to seize guns from troubled individuals.
The package faced less resistance from both parties in the Senate than in the House, where Republicans said the bill does not go far enough in expanding school safety and shamed Democrats for arguing that more laws would eliminate future school shootings.
“I’ll tell you what saves lives – the decision we got from the Supreme Court today saves lives. This bill takes life away from law-abiding citizens,” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, responded to Pelosi, referencing the Supreme Court abortion decision.
A small number of progressives initially had reservations about the legislation, citing concerns over funding police presence at schools, which they said could indirectly increase the criminalization of minority students. Most Democrats thought the legislation was weak compared with more sweeping changes they have promised voters; one, Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., argued Friday that the bill was the “bare minimum.”
“We should be embarrassed,” she said.
Following previous mass shootings, Murphy and Cornyn tried to strike a deal but fell short. The group of 20 senators knew that meaningful and lasting reforms meant approaching negotiations without poison pills that would immediately push Republicans away from the table.
On Thursday, McConnell acknowledged that the deal “is the sweet spot … making America safer, especially for kids in school,” and later telling reporters that he hopes it will help the GOP earn good will from “voters in the suburbs that we need to regain to hopefully be a majority next year.”
The 15 Republicans who joined all Democratic senators in supporting the bill were Sens. Roy Blunt (Mo.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), Bill Cassidy (La.), Susan Collins (Maine), Joni Ernst (Iowa), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Rob Portman (Ohio), Mitt Romney (Utah), Thom Tillis (N.C.), Patrick Toomey (Pa.) and Todd Young (Ind.), as well as McConnell and Cornyn.
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