Legislation affecting guns is one of the nation’s most partisan, politicized issues, as evidenced by the two bills adopted by the House but that will face opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a tiny majority.
The first measure, according to Reuters, passed the Democratic-led House 227-203. The bill would expand background checks to those purchasing weapons over the internet, at gun shows and through certain private transactions. Eight Republicans joined the Democrats in backing the bill.
The second bill, passed 219-210 with two Republicans supporting it, would give authorities 10 business days for federal background checks to be completed before a gun sale can be licensed. Currently, such sales can proceed if the government cannot complete complicated background checks of prospective buyers within three days.
Biden said he accomplished an assault weapons ban “as a senator. It brought down mass shootings, we can do it again. We can ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in this country once again.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration is not ruling out executive actions to enact gun control.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has vowed to bring the bills onto the Senate floor. He said the Senate “must confront a devastating truth” after a lack of congressional action on the issue for almost three decades.
“This Senate will be different,” said Schumer, D-New York. “The Senate is going to debate and address the epidemic of gun violence in this country.”
While a Senate vote on new gun control would be the first in several years, Democrats do not have the votes to pass any significant reform. They are not even united themselves, as Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, told reporters Tuesday he opposes the House legislation on background checks.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, who has aggressively pushed for expanded gun control since the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that killed 20 children and six educators, expressed optimism about the chances for new laws with Biden in the White House and Democrats controlling the House and the Senate. He called it “the dawn of a new era.”
But Senate Democrats do not currently have deep enough support among Republicans to pass new gun control legislation, as they would need 60 votes to do so. Congress has been unable to find a successful compromise on guns in decades, making it one of the most intractable issues in American politics.
The gun debate also highlights a larger difficulty for Senate Democrats as they try to move forward on gun legislation and other policy priorities of the Biden White House. With the filibuster in place, forcing a 60-vote threshold for most legislation, House-passed bills on issues such as gun control and voting rights are effectively nonstarters unless Democrats secure significant GOP support.
Some Republicans hinted that they would be open to negotiations, though it was unclear if there were any real bipartisan discussions. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said he was opposed to the House legislation, but “I’m certainly open to the discussion.”
Manchin and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who have worked together for years to find compromise on background checks, both said they were opposed to the House legislation. A similar version Manchin and Toomey proposed just after the Sandy Hook shootings included a broader set of exemptions than the House bill.
Toomey said he would like to find legislation that could pass, but “that probably would require something that’s a little bit different. So, we’ll see if we can figure out how to thread that needle.”
Manchin did not say whether he would restart negotiations, only that “we’re going to try to do the responsible, reasonable thing.”
Schumer and Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, a leading advocate for gun control, said they would meet this week to discuss a path forward. Schumer has not said when he will bring the House legislation up for a vote.
Democrats say they feel the environment around gun legislation has evolved, especially since that last major push in 2013. They point to troubles at the National Rifle Association, the long-powerful advocacy group that poured tens of millions of dollars into electing Donald Trump in 2016. The organization has been weakened by infighting as well as legal tangles over its finances.
Democrats are hoping there is a gradual political shift among voters as well. A Pew Research Center poll in September 2019 showed a wide majority of Americans, 88%, supported making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks, which is what the House-passed bill would do. Ninety-three percent of Democrats and 82% of Republicans were in favor of the policy.
In Tuesday’s hearing, which was scheduled before the Colorado shooting, Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz said every time there is a shooting, the Senate engages in “ridiculous theater,” with Democrats proposing laws that he said could take guns away from law-abiding citizens. Republicans have argued that background checks would not stop most mass shootings and would prevent some lawful gun owners from purchasing firearms.
“We already know this pattern is predictable, over and over and over again,” Cruz said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.