Gun bills make history in House, face uncertainty in Senate
WASHINGTON — Connecticut’s Democratic members of the House contributed Thursday to passage of the second of two landmark gun bills, votes that were virtually unthinkable last year when Republican leaders bottled up efforts to bring such measures to the floor.
But the dramatic turnaround on gun safety legislation faces a rough and arguably impassable road to full enactment. Senate approval is unlikely for the two bills, which saw the light of day only after Democrats took over the House on Election Day 2018 in a wave of indignation against President Donald Trump.
And even though Trump once called for “strengthening” background checks and told Republicans “there’s nothing to be afraid of” regarding blowback from the National Rifle Association, the Trump administration is threatening vetoes of both proposals.
Getting the two through the Senate will be a “heavy lift,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said earlier this week during a national town hall meeting with gun-violence-prevention advocates. “You’re going to have to convince a lot of hard hearts in the Senate to listen to those affected by this epidemic, and the data, which tells you universal background checks work.”
On Wednesday, the House passed a bill that would for the first time require background checks on private transactions, which are distinct from sales by federally licensed firearms dealers that have required checks with the FBI since the 1993 enactment of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act.
The second bill, the Enhanced Background Check Act of 2019, passed the House by a vote of 228-198 on Thursday. It would end the so-called “Charleston Loophole,” which enabled mass-shooter Dylann Roof to buy a gun and kill nine worshippers at a church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.
Under the Brady law, the FBI has three days to complete a background check. If it is not done in time, the purchase is automatically approved, and the buyer takes possession of the firearm — even if the FBI ultimately disqualifies it. Roof had been arrested for drugs, and drug use or addiction is grounds for barring a gun purchase.
The Enhanced Background Check Act would extend the three days to 10 days. After that, a buyer would have to petition the FBI to get the check done, setting the clock ticking another 10 days.
The bills now go to the Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., so far has not tipped his hand. With 22 Republican senators facing re-election in 2020, McConnell may well decline to bring the two bills up for votes in the Senate.
“Republicans have to be looking over shoulders on this issue,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “It’s obvious the math (on the gun issue) has changed, and Republicans are on the defensive.”
Several Republican Senate incumbents up in 2020 may be vulnerable, although the common wisdom in Washington is the Senate likely will stay in GOP hands, absent another political tsunami like 2018.
Among the vulnerable are Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who represents a state that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Sen. Cory Gardener, R-Colo., whose state has suffered two major mass shootings: Columbine High School in 1999 and the movie theater in Aurora in 2012. The combined death total was 25.
The Democratic victory in the House was also fueled by voters appalled over repeated mass shootings, including the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown that took the lives of 20 children and six adult school staff members in 2012. Exhibit A was the election of Rep. Lucy McBath in a Georgia district once represented by arch-conservatives Newt Gingrich and former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.
McBath’s son, Jordan Davis, was shot to death in 2012 in Florida by a man who complained the music emanating from a car in which Davis was a passenger was too loud. The shooter, Michael Dunn, claimed self-defense under Florida’s “stand your ground” law. A jury rejected the defense and Dunn is serving a life term.
The NRA and statewide gun-rights organizations like the Connecticut Citizens Defense League oppose both measures as unwarranted intrusions into Second Amendment rights.
“A very small percentage of gun sales or transfers are ever done privately by individuals,” said league president Scott Wilson. “Those transfers are typically done between parties well known to each other, such as between family members or close friends.”
In the wake of Sandy Hook, Connecticut has turned into a beacon for the gun-safety movement. On Capitol Hill, Murphy, Blumenthal and the all-Democratic delegation in the House have formed a moral center of gravity for those who believe more laws and loophole-closings are necessary to bring down gun violence, which claimed close to 40,000 lives nationwide in 2017.
“For far too long, Congress has failed our communities by remaining silent on this issue,” said Rep. Jahana Hayes, whose district includes Newtown. “America is ready for common-sense background-check legislation. I owe it to my community, I owe it to my state, I owe it to the people of Newtown, Connecticut.”
For Connecticut lawmakers and advocates alike, the House votes this week represented moments to savor — even if neither ultimately becomes law.
“There is definitely reason to celebrate,” Blumenthal said. “It’s an historic step. whether any of it passes the Senate or not. It’s a harbinger of the votes that will come inevitably in the Senate, this session or the next.”