The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congress moves to act on gun control amid partisan debate about background checks

This file photo from November 2016 shows guns for sale at a gun shop in Merrimack, N.H.
This file photo from November 2016 shows guns for sale at a gun shop in Merrimack, N.H. (Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images)

The House Judiciary Committee passed a measure Wednesday that would require background checks for all gun sales and most gun transfers within the United States, the most significant gun-control legislation to advance this far in Congress in years.

The committee spent more than nine hours debating the bill before voting 21 to 14 to advance it Wednesday night. Next, it will face a vote on the House floor. The measure was among the first actions taken by the newly elected Democratic majority, which pledged to make gun control a top issue. The bill also has the support of at least five Republicans, a rare feat given the issue often has cleaved along party lines.

The committee also voted 23 to 15 to advance a bill that would close a loophole in the current background-check law that allows a gun purchase if a check is not completed in three days.

The House Judiciary Committee passed gun control legislation on Feb. 13, on the eve of the anniversary of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. (Video: Reuters)

Wednesday’s debate comes as Democrats embark on their most aggressive push to enact gun-control laws after years of congressional inaction. The House is slated to vote on several bills in the first 100 days of the legislative session and had its first hearing on a gun-control bill since 2007. It is taking numerous actions this week around the anniversary of the mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school that killed 17 students and staff on Feb. 14, 2018.

“I ask that we work together not as Democrats and Republicans, but as Americans, to end this silence with action to make all of our communities safer from gun violence,” said Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), who represents Parkland and held a moment of silence on the House floor Wednesday to honor the victims. “I ask that this moment of silence not be in vain.”

The Judiciary Committee hearing became a rancorous partisan battle over whether to expand background checks. Republicans offered amendments to the legislation that were voted down by the committee, including one that would make background checks free and another that would allow transfers of firearms to victims of domestic violence without a background check.

Parkland students report on the shooting they survived and the classmates they lost. (Video: Whitney Shefte, Alice Li/The Washington Post)

At one point, the discussion turned into a debate on immigration and border security surrounding an amendment that would require notifying Immigration and Customs Enforcement when an undocumented person tried to buy a gun, with Republicans accusing Democrats of not wanting to secure the southern border. Republicans moved to adjourn the hearing in the ninth hour, a motion that was voted down.

“I’m afraid what we are engaged in here is an exercise in obfuscation and confusion that is meant to mask the fact that the Republicans are not in favor of . . . the universal background check legislation,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) “They want to hold this up as long as possible and score political points and try to confuse people and scare folks.”

In a video posted on the National Rifle Association’s Twitter account, Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.), a member of the Judiciary Committee present at the hearing, called the bill a “fraud” that “simply wants to get at your constitutional rights.”

Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.) sat near a cup that said, “The Second Amendment is my gun permit.”

Members in the House and Senate introduced a separate bill on Wednesday that would ban high-capacity gun magazines that are capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

“Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of Parkland. It reminds us once again that high-capacity magazines are about high-capacity killing,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), one of the bill’s sponsors, said in an interview Wednesday. “You don’t need 30, 60 or 90 rounds to go hunting or defend yourself.”

Suburban Democrats campaign on gun-control policies as NRA spending plummets

Menendez said the bill has 31 co-sponsors in the Senate, all Democrats, underscoring the difficulty it could have passing.

“My hope is that Republicans will join us,” he said.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) tweeted that passing the bill is “the least we can do to make perpetrators of gun violence less lethal & keep our children, coworkers, & neighbors safe.”

Deutch read a letter from Patricia Oliver, whose son Joaquin was killed during the Parkland shooting. Oliver asked how many people in the chamber offered thoughts and prayers after the shooting — and then asked if they would now do something.

“It is within your power to enact common-sense gun laws,” Oliver’s letter said. “I implore you to think about the kids. Think about how you would feel if it was your son, your daughter, your grandson, your granddaughter, because it could be.”

The bills come after many Democrats were elected to the House following making gun control a centerpiece issue, arguing for restrictions on firearms and universal background checks.

Many in the gun-control movement saw the Parkland shooting, and a wave of student activism that followed, as an inflection point in the nation’s gun debate. Numerous states have passed legislation strengthening gun laws, including Florida, which has long been a laboratory for the NRA, and Vermont, which had some of the nation’s most lax gun regulations.

In the past year, eight states have passed laws that enable law enforcement and family members to petition a court to take guns away from people who are a risk to themselves or others, known as red flag laws.