House committee weighs mandatory background checks for gun sales
WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee spent hours debating a measure Wednesday that would require background checks for all gun sales and most gun transfers within the United States, the most significant gun-control legislation to be brought before Congress in years.
The committee spent more than eight hours debating the bill and appeared poised to take the discourse well into Wednesday night. The measure was among the first actions taken by the newly elected Democratic majority, which pledged to make gun control a top issue. The bill also has the support of at least five Republicans, a rare feat, given that the issue often has cleaved along party lines.
Wednesday’s debate comes as Democrats embark on their most aggressive push to enact gun-control laws after years of congressional inaction. The House is slated to vote on several bills in the first 100 days of the legislative session and had its first hearing on a gun-control bill since 2007. It is taking numerous actions this week around the anniversary of the mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school that killed 17 people on Feb. 14, 2018.
“I ask that we work together not as Democrats and Republicans, but as Americans, to end this silence with action to make all of our communities safer from gun violence,” said Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., who represents Parkland and held a moment of silence on the House floor Wednesday to honor the victims. “I ask that this moment of silence not be in vain.”
The Judiciary Committee hearing became a rancorous partisan battle over whether to expand background checks. Republicans offered amendments to the legislation that were voted down by the committee, including one that would make background checks free and another that would allow transfers of firearms to victims of domestic violence without a background check.
At one point, the discussion turned into a debate on immigration and border security surrounding an amendment that would require notifying Immigration and Customs Enforcement when an undocumented person tried to buy a gun, with Republicans accusing Democrats of not wanting to secure the southern border. Republicans moved to adjourn the hearing in the ninth hour, a motion that was voted down.
“I’m afraid what we are engaged in here is an exercise in obfuscation and confusion that is meant to mask the fact that the Republicans are not in favor of … the universal background check legislation,” said Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga. “They want to hold this up as long as possible and score political points and try to confuse people and scare folks.”
In a video posted on the National Rifle Association’s Twitter account, Rep. Douglas Collins, R-Ga., a member of the Judiciary Committee present at the hearing, called the bill a “fraud” that “simply wants to get at your constitutional rights.”
Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla., sat near a cup that said, “The Second Amendment is my gun permit.”
Members in the House and Senate introduced a separate bill on Wednesday that would ban high-capacity gun magazines that are capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition.
“Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of Parkland,” Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., one of the bill’s sponsors, said in an interview Wednesday. It reminds us once again that high-capacity magazines are about high-capacity killing. You don’t need 30, 60 or 90 rounds to go hunting or defend yourself.”
Menendez said the bill has 31 co-sponsors in the Senate, all Democrats, underscoring the difficulty it could have on its way through Congress.
“My hope is that Republicans will join us,” he said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., tweeted that passing the bill is “the least we can do to make perpetrators of gun violence less lethal & keep our children, coworkers, & neighbors safe.”
Deutch read a letter from Patricia Oliver, whose son Joaquin was killed during the Parkland shooting. Oliver asked how many people in the chamber offered thoughts and prayers after the shooting – and then asked if they would now do something.
“It is within your power to enact common-sense gun laws,” Oliver’s letter said. “I implore you to think about the kids. Think about how you would feel if it was your son, your daughter, your grandson, your granddaughter, because it could be.”
The bills come after many Democrats were elected to the House after they made gun control a centerpiece issue, arguing for restrictions on firearms and universal background checks.
Many in the gun-control movement saw the Parkland shooting, and a wave of student activism that followed, as an inflection point in the nation’s gun debate. Numerous states have passed gun legislation, including Florida, which has long been a laboratory for the NRA, and Vermont, which had some of the nation’s most lax gun regulations.
In the past year, eight states have passed laws that enable law enforcement and family members to petition a court to take guns away from people who are a risk to themselves or others, known as red flag laws.