House passes bills to expand and strengthen gun background checks

  • Sally Abrahamsen, of Pompano Beach, Fla., right, holds a Glock 42 pistol while shopping for a gun at the National Armory gun store and gun range, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016, in Pompano Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

WASHINGTON — The House on Thursday approved a pair of bills that would expand and strengthen background checks for gun purchasers, as Democrats pushed past Republican opposition to advance major gun safety measures after decades of congressional inaction.

In votes that fell largely along party lines, the House passed legislation that would require background checks for all gun buyers and extend the time given to the FBI to vet buyers flagged by the national instant check system.

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Despite being widely popular with voters, the measures face what is expected to be insurmountable opposition in the Senate, where Republicans have resisted imposing any limits on guns, including stricter background-check requirements.

The House voted 227-203 to approve the universal background check measure. The vote was 219-210 to pass a second one giving federal law enforcement more time to vet gun purchasers.

Both pieces of legislation are aimed at addressing gaps in existing gun laws.

The measure passed Thursday would require purchasers shopping for firearms online or at gun shows to have their backgrounds vetted before they could receive a weapon. They are not currently required to do so, although in-person purchasers, who make up the majority of such transactions, are.

The second bill addresses what is known as the “Charleston loophole,” which restricts to three days the time period for the FBI to conduct a background check, allowing many purchasers to evade them. The provision allowed Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine people in 2015 at a historically Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, to buy a handgun even though he should have been barred from purchasing the weapon. The bill would extend the amount of time the FBI has to complete a check for an additional week, to 10 days.

“Let’s not add more names to this registry of grief,” Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat, said, reading from a lengthy list of recent mass shootings and noting that they had sharply fallen in the past year. “Let’s not rely on a pandemic to do what we ought to have done so long ago. Let’s pass these bills and reduce gun violence the right way.”

Democrats first passed the legislation in 2019, shortly after they recaptured control of the House, making it a centerpiece of their agenda as they sought to capitalize on an outpouring of student activism in favor of stricter gun safety measures after a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in 2018. Polling then and now, conducted by multiple firms, shows that over 80% of voters support the legislation.

Last month, President Joe Biden called on Congress to enact the bills in a statement commemorating the three-year anniversary of the Parkland shooting.

“This administration will not wait for the next mass shooting to heed that call,” he said.

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Still, the bills approved Thursday will join a growing stack of liberal legislation that is widely popular with voters but appears destined to languish in the 50-50 Senate, where Democrats must win the support of 10 Republicans to pass most major measures. It is part of a concerted strategy to increase pressure on Democrats resistant to eliminating the legislative filibuster while forcing Republicans to take difficult votes before the 2022 midterm elections.

“We are not going away until this legislation passes,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. “We will meet the challenge to the conscience of the country, when it comes to the gun violence crisis in our country.”

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