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House Passes Sweeping Gun Bill

U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson (left), D-Calif., joined by shooting survivor and former Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona, holds a news conference about his proposed gun background check legislation, on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson (left), D-Calif., joined by shooting survivor and former Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona, holds a news conference about his proposed gun background check legislation, on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

Updated at 6:35 p.m. ET

The House passed what advocates call the most significant gun control measure in more than two decades on Wednesday when it approved the first of two bills aimed at broadening the federal background check system for firearms purchases.

The vote on the first bill, dubbed the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, passed largely along party lines 240 to 190 with Democrats who control the House cheering as they carried the legislation across the finish line.

A second bill, expected to be taken up Thursday, would extend the period federal authorities have to complete a background check before a gun sale can go through. Under current law, if a check isn't finalized in three business days, the transaction can automatically proceed.

House Democrats hope the swift passage of the companion bills will put pressure on the Senate to act. The National Rifle Association opposes the legislation, and it faces major headwinds in the Republican-controlled Senate. In the unlikely event the Senate approves the measure, the White House has already signaled the President would veto the bill, should it reach his desk.

As its name suggests, the first bill did garner modest GOP support, even attracting five Republican co-sponsors. Yet, in the end, only eight Republicans crossed party lines to support the bill.

In a statement John Feinblatt, president of the anti-gun violence group Everytown for Gun Safety, praised lawmakers for "stepping up."

"We applaud Speaker Pelosi and the bipartisan coalition of House members who supported this bill for stepping up and doing their part to close the giant — and deadly — loopholes in America's background checks law."

Chris Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action, issued a statement, calling the background check bill "extreme," adding it will "make criminals out of law-abiding Americans."

"Criminals, on the other hand, will continue to get their firearms the way they always have – through the black market, theft, and straw purchases. Forcing more government paperwork and additional fees on good people trying to exercise a constitutional right will do nothing to make Americans safer," Cox said.

The legislation mandates background checks be performed on all gun sales, including firearm purchases made privately, whether it be online or at gun shows. Under current law, only licensed gun dealers are required to conduct a background check for someone seeking to obtain a gun.

There are exceptions.

The background check does not apply to transfers between close relatives. A firearm could also be loaned to someone using it at a shooting range or for the purposes of hunting and trapping, unless there's a reason to suspect the gun will be used in a crime or the person receiving the gun is prohibited from possessing the gun under state or federal law.

A temporary transfer of a gun can also take place in situations where it's "necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm."

At a press conference ahead of its passage, the bill's sponsor, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., called it a "historic time," adding that expanded background checks would "help save lives." He also highlighted the difficulty of getting a gun control vote during the previous eight years, when the chamber was controlled by a Republican majority.

"We were not able to get a single hearing or have a single vote in the House under the last majority. It's a new day," Thompson said.

He was joined by former congresswoman turned gun control advocate Gabby Giffords who nearly died from injuries sustained when a gunman opened fire at a constituent meeting in Tucson, Ariz., in 2011.

She said stopping gun violence takes "courage."

"I've seen great courage when my life was on the line. Now is the time to come together, be responsible. Democrats, Republicans, everyone," Giffords said.

Critics of the bill, including many Republicans, say the background check legislation would have done nothing to stop many of the recent mass shootings, including the one in Parkland, Fla., where 17 students and faculty were killed at a high school. They also argue that if passed into law, the bill would prevent law-abiding citizens from having access to firearms.

Just before the bill's final passage, a handful of Democrats broke ranks and joined Republicans in getting an amendment added. It requires federal immigration officials to be contacted in the event someone in the U.S. illegally tries to buy a gun.

One prominent opponent of the background bills is Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the House minority whip. He was severely injured during a shooting at a congressional baseball practice in Virginia in 2017. He appeared in a video tweeted out by the NRA on Wednesday ahead of the vote.

"I'm proud to work with the NRA to oppose these gun control bills they are bringing to the Capitol – HR 8 and HR 1112," Scalise said referring to the official names of the Bipartisan Background Checks Act and the one that advocates say would close the "Charleston loophole."

"Both of these bills will strongly infringe upon the rights of law-abiding citizens to buy and ultimately share their own guns," he said.

HR 1112, sponsored by House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., would give the FBI more time to complete a background check.

Supporters say because of the flaws in the current system, a white supremacist in 2015 was able to buy a gun and kill nine churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., despite having a drug arrest that should have prevented him from getting the gun.

Public opinion polls show a large majority of Americans support background checks for gun buyers.

A Quinnipiac poll last month found 92 percent of respondents supported background checks for all buyers.

The poll found strong support even when factoring in the political affiliation of poll respondents: 95 percent of Democrats, 94 percent of independents and 89 percent of Republicans were in favor of background checks.

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Brakkton Booker is a National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC.