But amid loud applause in the House, Democrats and gun-control advocates celebrated Wednesday’s vote as the first significant congressional movement on tightening access to firearms since the 1990s. The outline of the bill approved by the House was first sketched in the days after the 2012 killing of elementary school students and staff members in Newtown, Conn., only to fail a key Senate test vote months later.
The politics of gun control have since shifted after a string of mass shootings and a Democratic pivot toward suburban voters frustrated by congressional inaction. Last year’s midterms put Democrats in control of the House after candidates in many swing districts ran on supporting new gun laws.
“We have been partaking in a grisly ritual: We have a mass shooting, we have a moment of silence, and then there has been inaction,” Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.), the vice chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus, said Tuesday. “This signifies the end of that.”
The bill would amend federal gun laws to require background checks for all gun sales and most gun transfers. Federally licensed dealers are required to run background checks on people who buy guns, but private sellers who are not federally licensed are not. Under the bill, private parties would have to seek out a federal licensee to facilitate a gun deal.
In a setback for Democratic leaders, Republicans successfully used a floor maneuver to amend the bill — requiring the notification of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement if an undocumented immigrant seeks to buy a gun. Twenty-six Democrats joined Republicans to support the amendment.
“It’s a surprise, but it’s not to eclipse a tremendous victory today,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said.
Eight Republicans supported the overall measure Wednesday, a showing that the bill’s proponents said reflected the bipartisan viability of the legislation. But many more GOP lawmakers — and Trump — opposed the bill, saying it represented an unwarranted burden on constitutional rights.
“The extensive regulation required by H.R. 8 is incompatible with the Second Amendment’s guarantee of an individual right to keep arms,” said the White House memo outlining the Trump administration’s objections. The National Rifle Association and other gun rights advocates also oppose the bill.
Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), speaking on the House floor Tuesday, called the bill a “partisan show” that would not have prevented the mass shootings in Newtown, Las Vegas or San Bernardino, Calif., or the Tucson shooting that seriously wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).
“So what is this bill actually going to do?” asked Hudson, a leading gun rights proponent. “It’s going to turn a law-abiding American into a criminal when you loan your shotgun to your buddy to go dove hunting. It’s going to make it illegal for a victim of stalking to borrow a gun from a neighbor for protection. . . . Meanwhile, criminals are going to continue to get their firearms, whether it’s through theft or the black market or on the street.”
Gun-control advocates point to public support for expanded background checks and the increasing unpopularity of congressional inaction on the issue.
“The American public understand that that sort of Swiss-cheese system makes no sense,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a group founded and funded by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. “They want to protect their families, and they keenly want to protect their children and make sure that guns don’t get into the wrong hands.”
Feinblatt said the midterm results and the quick action by House Democrats under Pelosi — after a majority from 2007 to 2011, also under Pelosi, where no gun legislation moved through the chamber — showed the politics of the issue have changed drastically: “I think it’s fair to say that the myth that this is the third rail of American politics has been buried.”
Speaking on the House floor Wednesday, Pelosi said: “We’re grateful, again, to the young people, parents, survivors across America who have told their stories, marched for their lives and demanded change. This bill delivers that change: ensuring that people who are a danger to themselves and others cannot purchase a gun and perpetuate violence in our communities.”
A separate measure set for a final vote Thursday aims to close what gun-control advocates call the “Charleston loophole” — a reference to the 2015 killings of a pastor and churchgoers in a South Carolina church. The gunman was able to purchase the weapons after a three-day federal background check failed to turn up a prior conviction. The bill would extend the window for completing a background check to 10 business days.
House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) said Wednesday that he invited Jennifer Pinckney, the widow of the slain pastor, to be present for the bill’s passage Thursday. He also credited new members with bringing fresh energy to the issue — including Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), who immersed herself in gun-control advocacy after her son was killed in a 2012 shooting.
“To bring these new people into this Congress with these new experiences, I think, has helped changed the dynamics within our caucus quite a bit,” Clyburn said.
But little has changed in the Senate since similar background-check legislation failed under Democratic control in 2013. In fact, prospects appear more bleak.
Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said Wednesday that it was “very unlikely” the House gun bills would get Senate consideration, and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), who worked on gun-control legislation in 2013, said “progress is very limited” on building GOP support.
“I’m still trying to find a way to get there,” he said. “I can’t point to you how.”
Seung Min Kim and Erica Werner contributed to this report.