WASHINGTON: The US House of Commons voted Wednesday to require background checks for all gun purchasers, including those at gun shows and on the internet — the first significant gun control bill to clear the chamber in a quarter of a century.
The 240-190 vote is the first of two gun control measures expected to be put to House lawmakers this week, a turning point in gun legislation after 25 years when the National Rifle Association dominated the chamber. Last year’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, prompted a wave of student-led activism that pressed Democrats to unite around gun control, and the activists cheered when the measure cleared the 218-vote threshold for passage.
The Democratic victory was tempered, however, after Republicans prevailed in adding a provision that would require the FBI to alert Immigration and Customs Enforcement if an unauthorised immigrant tried to obtain a firearm. Twenty-six Democrats, primarily from moderate or Republican-leaning districts, broke party lines to support the measure.
But Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and other Democrats insisted that would ultimately have little import.
“Finally, we have done more than thoughts and prayers. Finally, we have taken a vote to expand background checks and help save lives,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., who leads the congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force.
“For six long years, we worked on this issue, and the previous majority would not even let us have a hearing, let alone a vote to expand background checks,” Thompson said. “Today is a new day, and the show of support on both sides of the aisle for this important legislation is humbling.”
More than 100 student activists, gun violence survivors and advocates — clad in a sea of orange scarves, ties and blazers to denote their support for the legislation — looked on from the House gallery as lawmakers advanced Thompson’s legislation, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act. It seeks to close loopholes that allow individuals to buy firearms on the internet or at gun shows without having to pass a background check.
“We’ve been working toward this legislation for over a year now,” said Laura Kirk, 18, and a founder of a Students Demand Action high school chapter in Virginia. “It’s incredible to see our work translate into tangible results.”
The Democrat-led House is expected to pass legislation Thursday that would extend the amount of time the FBI has to conduct background checks of gun purchasers, to 10 business days from three. It is an attempt to close the so-called Charleston loophole, which allowed Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine people in 2015 at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, to buy a handgun even though he should have been barred from purchasing the weapon.
It is “unlikely” that either measure will be taken up in the Republican-controlled Senate, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Republican, said Tuesday. House Republicans have flatly condemned both pieces of legislation, arguing the measures would be ineffective and infringe on law-abiding citizens’ rights.
The House bill that was approved Wednesday “is taking the fears and concerns of a nation over gun violence and perpetrating a fraud on them,” said Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee. “The reality is nothing in this bill would have stopped Parkland, or stopped any of the other violence we have seen.”
Gunmen at the center of a number of high-profile mass shootings passed background checks and legally purchased the firearms they used. But gun control activists have praised both background check measures as a critical first step in a broader drive to reduce gun violence.
“America’s current background check system is like having two types of security lines at the airport: one for people who are willing to be screened, and one you can waltz right through carrying whatever you want,” said John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety. “We applaud the House for moving so quickly.”
Once divided on the issue, House Democrats returned to the majority, promising meaningful action on gun control, with aid from advocacy groups backing candidates who made the issue central to their campaigns. Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, spent around $100 million (Dh367.3 million) in the midterms last year to elect gun control supporters, according to Everytown.
The group will continue its push this week with $400,000 in digital ads urging lawmakers to support the legislation as it tries to break through the Senate.
One of the new freshman Democrats supported by Bloomberg, Rep. Lucy McBath of Georgia, had a 17-year-old son, Jordan, killed by gun violence.
“Turning her grief and her tragedy into action and courage, to run for Congress, to stand on this floor and share her personal story with us — that takes real courage,” Pelosi said from the House floor, adding that the statistics of gun violence victims “spell out the story, but it is the human, personal stories that change minds.”
Wednesday’s vote, Pelosi said, sends “a clear message to the families of those who have lost their loved ones to gun violence, that we have crossed a threshold here today to reduce gun violence in our country.”
The Republican measure attached to the bill would present a problem if a version of the gun bill cleared the Senate. The measure has angered liberals in the House, who would like to see it removed in House-Senate negotiations.
— New York Times News Service