Gun votes in House mark historic turnaround
WASHINGTON — The coalition of Connecticut lawmakers and gun-safety advocates may never have dreamed they would see the day when the House of Representatives approves legislation to tighten up gun-buyer background checks and close loopholes.
But that day has arrived. On Wednesday, the Democratic-controlled House is poised to pass the Bipartisan Background Check Act of 2019. The bill is comparable to post-Newtown legislation that the Senate, then under Democratic rule, narrowly rejected in 2013.
And on Thursday, the House is likely to push through the Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2019, which would end the so-called “Charleston loophole” that mass-shooter Dylann Roof exploited to buy the gun he used to kill nine African-American parishioners at a Charleston, S.C., church in 2015.
Passage of the twin bills represents a sharp contrast to the House under Republican control, when then-House Speaker Paul Ryan refused to bring any gun legislation to the floor. A 25-hour sit-in by Democrats including Rep. John Larson of Hartford and then-Rep. Elizabeth Esty did not convince Ryan to change course.
The new measures may not see the light of day in the GOP-controlled Senate. And the Trump administration has threatened vetoes — even though President Donald Trump once urged lawmakers to be “very, very powerful on background checks; don’t be shy.”
But advocates and lawmakers aren’t letting details spoil the historic turnaround the votes represent.
“We knew this day would come when the American people would demand action on gun-violence prevention,” said Po Murray, co-founder of Newtown Action Alliance formed in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting where shooter Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adult staff members. “The majority of Americans will no longer tolerate gun violence and will vote on this issue. That’s what happened in 2018.”
Although resentment of Trump fueled Democratic election success in 2018, guns played a role in the outcome in races in several states. Chief among them was the victory of Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., in a district once represented by GOP mastermind Newt Gingrich.
McBath lost her African-American teenage son when a white man complained about loud music emanating from a car that the son, Jordan Davis, was sitting in. He drew a gun and opened fire.
The background-check bill requires checks for all gun transactions, even at gun shows where they are exempt under current law. The bill contains fewer exceptions than the 2013 measure that fell six votes short of overcoming a Senate filibuster.
But it does exempt transactions between family members and temporary loans of guns on an emergency basis to prevent death or injury.
The Enhanced Background check bill is aimed at lengthening the time allowed for a background check to be completed. Under current law, a buyer may take possession of a gun if a check is not finished within 72 hours.
Roof, the South Carolina shooter, obtained a gun after the FBI encountered delays in determining whether he met legal criteria for buying or owning a gun. It was only after he walked out with the handgun that the FBI determined that Roof had admitted to drug possession after police arrested him — a disqualification for gun ownership under federal law.
The bill to be voted on in the House on Thursday would allow 10 days for completion of the background check, in place of three. After 10 days, a prospective owner would have to file a petition for expedited review. The petition would give the FBI an additional 10 days to complete the check.
“This is basic low-hanging fruit we’re talking about,” said Jeremy Stein, executive director of CT Against Gun Violence. “Obviously we want these bills to pass in the House, but I’m not going to hold my breath.”
The National Rifle Association and local gun-rights advocates say the new laws would do little more than infringe on the Second-Amendment rights of lawful gun owners.
“There are laws already on the books that prohibit sales to individuals who are prohibited from possessing firearms,” said Scott Wilson, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League. “Yet some individuals continue to break our existing laws. It is obvious that more laws are not going to stop a determined criminal from stealing or purchasing firearms in illegal fashion.”
Members of the state’s Democratic congressional delegation have said they believe the 2018 election results weakened the NRA and its allies. But the gun-rights side still holds sway in many red states and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is unlikely to change his posture of opposing new gun laws.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us to make inaction as uncomfortable as possible for Sen. McConnell, but more so for the Republican senators who are up for election in 2020 and 2022,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who along with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., has been a leader of Senate Democrats on the gun issue. “We’re going to need to train all of the focus of the massive anti-gun violence movement on 10 or 15 senators and make their life pretty miserable if they don’t put pressure on McConnell to bring this up for a vote.”