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.
The bill, which passed on a 234-to-193 vote, would enhance background checks for younger buyers and fund a flurry of new mental health programs, though it falls well short of the more sweeping gun-control measures that Biden has 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.”
During an emotional televised address earlier this month, as the nation was reeling from horrific mass shootings in New York, Texas and Oklahoma, Biden urged Congress to ban assault weapons and limit high-capacity magazines. Knowing that he was short of the needed votes for a ban, he called on lawmakers to, at a minimum, raise the age to legally purchase an assault weapon from 18 to 21. But the political dynamics in the evenly divided Senate made this an onerous task. Most Republican senators were firmly opposed to any gun control proposals. 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.”
In the House, 14 Republicans joined every Democrat in supporting the bill. The vote comes exactly a month after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Tex., the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. That massacre occurred just 10 days after a racially-motivated mass shooting at a Buffalo, N.Y. supermarket. This year, there have already been 279 mass shootings, defined as incidents where four or more people are shot or killed, not including the shooter, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
“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.”
The bill enhances background checks, but only for prospective gun buyers under the age of 21, requiring for the first time that authorities search juvenile criminal and mental health records over a 10-day period. Under current law, anyone 18 or older can buy rifles and shotguns, including the military-style semi-automatic rifles used in numerous recent mass shootings, as well as the ammunition for both. The more thorough background check process would expire after a decade, just as the assault weapons ban did in 2004.
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. Negotiators agreed to allow dating partners convicted of a misdemeanor to regain the right to purchase a gun after five years if they were first-time offenders and not found guilty of any other violent misdemeanor or offense.
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.
In addition, the legislation sets aside billions of dollars, largely in grants, to address mental health and school security. 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 federal spending would be offset through a one-year delay of a Medicare drug-rebate provision, according to the bill summary, with federal savings estimated to be roughly $21 billion.
Republican Reps. Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader from California, and Steve Scalise, the minority whip from Louisiana, urged their colleagues to vote down 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.”
Meanwhile, the bill drew the support of various other groups including the Fraternal Order of Police, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the 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. Steny Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland and the majority leader, credited those Republicans who were willing to withstand the potential political fallout in 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.”