A House panel advanced a GOP measure Wednesday that would greatly expand the ability of Americans to carry concealed weapons across state lines, while also moving on a bipartisan basis to close loopholes in the federal background check system for gun buyers.
The two bills are the first firearms-related legislation to advance on Capitol Hill since mass shooters in Las Vegas and Texas killed a combined 84 people. The House Judiciary Committee approved the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act on a 19-11 party-line vote, then passed the Fix NICS Act on a 17-6 bipartisan vote.
The National Rifle Association this week called the concealed-carry bill, which requires states to honor permits issued elsewhere, its "highest legislative priority in Congress." The group says mandatory reciprocity would prevent "abuses" in states with strict firearms laws and allow gun owners "to exercise their rights nationwide with peace of mind."
"Your fundamental right to keep and bear arms should not end at the state line," the group said in urging its members to contact their representatives and call for its passage.
But groups that support increased gun controls decry the bill, arguing that it will undermine the ability of individual jurisdictions to set their own standards for who can carry a gun. Many states have existing reciprocity agreements, typically with states that have similar licensing standards.
John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, called the bill a "ploy to weaken state gun laws and allow untrained people and people with dangerous histories to carry hidden, loaded handguns across the country" in a statement released before the committee vote.
Under the bill, a person holding any state concealed-carry permit and a photo ID would be able to legally carry a weapon in any other state that allows concealed carry. He or she would still be obligated to follow state or local laws governing where or what type of concealed weapons may be carried.
But standards for the issuance of concealed-carry permits vary from state to state, and opponents of the bill argue that the bill would in effect force states to accept lower standards than they have set for themselves. Some states, for instance, require gun safety classes or prohibit the issuance of permits to people convicted of stalking and domestic-related misdemeanors, while others do not.
The bill could come to the House floor before the end of the year, said its sponsor, Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.). "I've been telling leadership since July we've had the votes, and it's just been a matter of scheduling," he said Wednesday.
The bill's prospects in the Senate are less clear. It would take a 60-vote supermajority to advance the controversial legislation, and Republicans have a majority of only 52. A Senate reciprocity bill authored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) has not received committee consideration.
In the aftermath of the Oct. 1 Las Vegas shooting, lawmakers expressed openness to a new gun restriction — cracking down on the use of "bump stocks" that can be attached to semiautomatic rifles to mimic the rapid fire of illicit machine guns. The shooter in that incident, Stephen Paddock, used the devices to spray fire from a high-rise hotel room on a concert crowd below.
But the NRA suggested that the matter was better handled administratively by the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives, and a bipartisan effort to ban bump stocks has stalled.
The Nov. 5 shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., has prompted the bipartisan push for the gun-related bill that advanced Wednesday — one tightening the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, also known as NICS.
The Texas assailant, Devin P. Kelley, should have been barred from purchasing the murder weapon because he was court-martialed in 2012 for assaulting his wife and child while enlisted in the Air Force. The Air Force, however, never entered the disqualifying offense into the federal system.
The Fix NICS Act is meant to ensure that federal and state authorities swiftly and accurately submit records to the database. Democrats hailed the bill as a rare step forward for gun safety, but Republicans cast it as an effort to better enforce existing laws.
The House bill includes a provision asking the Justice Department to prepare a report "that specifies the number of times that a bump stock has been used in the commission of a crime in the United States" but does not propose any restriction on those devices.
A Senate version of the Fix NICS Act does not mention bump stocks; the Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing on regulating them for Dec. 6.
Democrats spent several hours attacking the concealed-carry bill Wednesday at the committee meeting before it received a vote, offering amendments that would exclude persons convicted of violent misdemeanors or domestic offenses, as well as one that would set a national minimum age for the interstate recognition of concealed carry permits. All were defeated on party-line votes.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said the Hudson bill "shakes the underpinnings of public firearms safety laws."
"This bill would overrule restrictions on the concealed carrying of firearms that states have carefully crafted to make this practice safer, based on the needs and circumstances in each state," Nadler said. "Suffice it to say that public safety would suffer if we were to unwisely adopt this legislation."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said the bill was in keeping with recent Supreme Court decisions establishing an individual right to own and carry arms.
"We know that citizens who carry a concealed handgun are not only better prepared to act in their own self-defense, but also in the defense of others," Goodlatte said. "This bill is about the simple proposition that law abiding Americans should be able to exercise their right to self-defense even when they cross out of their state's borders. That is their constitutional right."
Hudson, in an interview, said his bill would allow weapons permits to be treated the same way that driver's licenses or marriage licenses are — that states would grant mutual recognition to documents issued by other states.
"All we're saying is, Article IV, Section 1 of the Constitution says each state should give full faith and credit to the laws of every other state, and the Congress has the responsibility to determine how those documents are recognized," he said. "You've got a lot of Americans who are put into jeopardy every day because they cross invisible lines. It's important that we protect law-abiding citizens who are trying to do the right things."
Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.