The House on Wednesday endorsed some of the most aggressive gun-control measures taken up on Capitol Hill in years — including raising the minimum age for the purchase of most semiautomatic rifles to 21 and banning high-capacity ammunition magazines — as Washington seeks to mount a tough response to recent high-profile mass shootings.
The 223-to-204 vote took place just hours after a House committee heard searing testimony from a young survivor of the May 24 shooting in Uvalde, Tex., as well as the parents of a victim and a pediatrician who responded to the tragedy that left 19 elementary-schoolers and two teachers dead.
Five Republicans joined most Democrats in backing the legislation. Two Democrats voted no.
“Somewhere out there, there is a mom listening to our testimony, thinking, ‘I can’t even imagine their pain,’ not knowing that our reality will one day be hers, unless we act now,” said Kimberly Rubio, the mother of 10-year-old Lexi Rubio, who was killed in the attack.
The House vote, however, will amount to little more than a political messaging exercise because of firm Republican opposition to substantial new gun restrictions. That has left hopes for a bipartisan deal that could be signed into law in the hands of a small group of senators who are exploring much more modest changes to federal gun laws. Those talks continued Wednesday in hopes of sealing a deal in the coming days.
Still, Democrats said this week’s House votes were necessary to show Americans that more can be done to prevent not only mass-casualty incidents such as the killings last month in Buffalo and Uvalde, but the hundreds of less deadly mass shootings and everyday incidents of gun violence that have long scourged America.
“Even if our Senate colleagues do not take up these exact bills, I will tell you what this process we are going through will absolutely do and why our efforts here are worthwhile: This process will unequivocally show where each and every one of us stand in the wake of this unspeakable tragedy,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), adding that the votes would send a clear message to the Senate negotiators.
Republicans attacked the bills as an unserious, partisan effort that would infringe on Americans’ constitutional rights. At a news conference Wednesday, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) called them an effort “to destroy the Second Amendment.”
The bill under consideration Wednesday, Jordan said, “in short, tells Americans, law-abiding American citizens, when they can buy a firearm, what kind of firearm they can get, and where and how they have to store it in their own darn home — a direct attack on Second Amendment rights.”
Besides the minimum-age measure and the ban on high-capacity magazines, the House legislation passed Wednesday includes proposals that would crack down on gun trafficking, create new safe-storage requirements for gun owners, and codify executive orders that ban untraceable “ghost guns” as well as “bump stock” devices that allow a semiautomatic rifle to mimic machine-gun fire.
Of the five House Republicans voting for the bill — Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.), Anthony Gonzalez (Ohio), Chris Jacobs (N.Y.), Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) and Fred Upton (Mich.) — only Fitzpatrick is seeking reelection. Among Democrats, Reps. Jared Golden (Maine) and Kurt Schrader (Ore.) voted no; Schrader lost his campaign for renomination last month.
House lawmakers will vote Thursday on a separate bill dealing with red-flag laws that could allow authorities to keep guns out of the hands of people judged to represent a threat to themselves or their communities. The bill combines legislation from Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.) that would create a federal grant program to encourage states to adopt their own red-flag laws with a measure from Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.) that would allow federal courts to issue red-flag orders, which are formally known as “extreme risk protection orders.”
The House last year passed two bills dealing with federal background checks — one that would expand their applicability to all commercial sales, including gun shows and internet transactions, and another that would extend the time frame for completing a check. Neither has come to a vote in the Senate because of GOP opposition.
The Senate is exploring a narrower package that could include legislation encouraging states to create red-flag systems, a modest expansion of background checks to incorporate juvenile records, as well as funding for mental health programs and school security improvements.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the lead GOP negotiator, cited “steady progress” Wednesday, but he declined to say when a deal might be reached and counseled against “artificial deadlines.” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has signaled a desire to accelerate the talks, lest the recent shootings fade from public attention.
“But I sense a feeling of urgency and a desire actually to get things done,” Cornyn said. “Around here, if you know people have the will, there is a way, and I believe there is a collective bipartisan will.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Wednesday she was “prayerful” about the Senate talks and suggested that her chamber stood ready to pass whatever package the negotiators could agree upon.
“Hopefully, we can make some advancement, because for all of us who have met again and again and again with the survivors of gun violence — some coming time and again to check up on what’s happening, others new to that horrible club that none of us wants to be a member of — they just want something to happen,” she said.
Each of the adults from Uvalde who testified Wednesday to the House Oversight and Reform Committee asked Congress to take action, as did Zeneta Everhart, the mother of a young man wounded in the Buffalo shooting.
The hearing featured a videotaped account of the Uvalde shooting from survivor Miah Cerrillo, 11, who described wiping her dead classmate’s blood on herself to fool the shooter into believing she was dead. She asked for “security” and said, “I don’t want it to happen again.”
Asked by an interviewer if she thought it would happen again, she nodded.
“I wish something would change not only for our kids, but every single kid in the world, because schools are not safe anymore,” Miah’s father, Miguel Cerrillo, then told the panel. “Something needs to really change.”
Rubio, the mother whose 10-year-old was killed, was more direct, calling on Congress to raise the minimum age for assault weapon purchases, repeal gunmakers’ immunity from product liability lawsuits, and approve red-flag laws and stronger background checks. So was the pediatrician, Roy Guerrero, who described young bodies “pulverized by bullets fired at them, decapitated, whose flesh had been ripped apart.”
“Keeping [children] safe from bacteria and brittle bones, I can do, but making sure our children are safe from guns, that’s the job of our politicians and leaders,” he said. “In this case, you are the doctors and our country is the patient. We are lying on the operating table riddled with bullets, like the children of Robb Elementary and so many other schools. We are bleeding out and you are not there.”
The testimony came as the Justice Department on Wednesday outlined the review it will conduct of the Uvalde massacre. Officials said the assessment conducted by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services will examine policies, training, communications and tactics, as well as the post-incident response, but will not be a criminal investigation.
“Nothing can undo the pain that has been inflicted on the loved ones of the victims, the survivors and the entire community of Uvalde,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said. “But the Justice Department can and will use its expertise and independence to assess what happened and provide guidance moving forward.”
As the hearing concluded, Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) said her panel intended to continue an investigation focused on the firearms industry — “to get to the bottom of how much these companies are profiting from selling weapons of war and how they are marketing these weapons to civilians.”
Maloney said the committee has already gotten “troubling” written responses from gun manufacturers and said she intended to call their executives to testify.
“It is clear they are reaping enormous profits from assault weapons that are used in mass shootings of innocent civilians,” she said.
Inside the room and elsewhere around the Capitol on Wednesday, Republicans offered sympathies to the victims but no indication that they intended to change their views on gun rights. Rep. Andrew S. Clyde (R-Ga.), a gun-store owner, said at the hearing that the tragedies “highlight the need for additional school security” and condemned Democrats for seeking to restrict firearms.
“While every loss of life is a tragedy, no one should weaponize or politicize these abhorrent acts to punish law-abiding citizens,” he said.
Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), a leading gun rights supporter among House Republicans, promoted legislation at a news conference Wednesday that would put billions of federal dollars into school security programs but not touch gun laws. GOP leaders forced a vote on Hudson’s bill Wednesday as an alternative to the Democratic gun bill; it failed along party lines.
Hudson accused Democrats of “exploiting these tragedies to advance their radical gun-control agenda” and criticized Pelosi and other leaders for inviting victims to testify and call for measures that cannot pass Congress.
“The bills on the floor this week would have done nothing to stop any of these tragedies, and they will never become law,” he said. “They’re exploiting the pain of these people, these children, these parents to advance their radical interests, and I say shame on them.”
During floor debate, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) called on officials to “quit advertising our schools as soft targets … and that these kids are sitting ducks,” encouraging legislation that would put more armed personnel inside schools. And he dismissed the minimum-age provision as “immoral.”
“We’re telling 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds … You can go die for your country, we expect you to defend us, but we’re not going to give you the tools to defend yourself and your family,” he said.
While those hard-line voices dominated the floor debate Wednesday, another group of House Republicans stood on the sideline waiting alongside Democrats to see if the Senate could produce a passable bill.
“Depends what’s in it, obviously,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), a moderate. “But … John Cornyn, I trust him, I think he’s a good man and he’s going to give it a sincere, good-faith effort to protect the Second Amendment. … We want to do better.”
Devlin Barrett and Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.