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House Democrats target private gun sellers with bipartisan background checks bill

Universal background checks bill indicates gun law reform will remain near top of Democratic agenda

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks during the event to introduce the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019 in the Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks during the event to introduce the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019 in the Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats introduced bipartisan legislation Tuesday that would require all gun sellers, including private vendors, to conduct background checks on potential buyers, indicating the issue will be a top item on the Democratic agenda during the 116th Congress.

Under current law, only federally licensed vendors must conduct background checks. Private sellers who do not have licenses do not fall under the same compliance mandate.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and California Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson, chairman of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, unveiled the bill Tuesday as H.R. 8 — a low number that shows it’s a priority for Democratic leaders. 

“Our Democratic Majority will press relentlessly for bipartisan progress to end the epidemic of gun violence on our streets, in our schools and in our places of worship,” Pelosi said in a statement this week. “Enough is enough.”

Pelosi introducing gun violence bill: ‘Enough is enough’

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Democrats have waited a long time to get gun legislation to the House floor for a vote, Thompson said. Until last week, Republicans had controlled the chamber since 2011.

“Today is a new day. Today we have a new speaker, and today we have a new majority,” Thompson said at the press conference Tuesday.

Five Democrats and five Republicans signed on as original co-sponsors of the bill. GOP Reps. Brian Mast of Florida, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Peter T. King of New York, Fred Upton of Michigan, and Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey joined Democrats Jerrold Nadler of New York, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, Robin Kelly of Illinois, Lucy McBath of Georgia, and Thompson.

At least one key Republican indicated Tuesday that most of the House GOP will not support the measure.

Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday that the Democrats’ universal background checks bill is “not a solution” to mass shootings and other criminal violence that has plagued the U.S. in recent decades.

“Recent shootings reflect failures not of existing policy — background checks are already in place and working across the board — but failures in its implementation,” the Georgia Republican said in a statement.

In March 2018, President Donald Trump signed into law the bipartisan Fix NICS Act, bolstering resources for the federal background check system. But that law, supported by majorities of Republicans and Democrats in both chambers, did not address private gun sales, such as those at gun shows, which remain free from federal regulation.

Still, Collins argued that the Democrats’ bill unveiled Tuesday showed they are “less interested in adopting solutions to prevent mass violence than in promoting gun control,” he said.

Joining Thompson and Pelosi onstage at the press conference for the bill Tuesday were more than a dozen prominent gun safety activists, including Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg; McBath, whose son died from gunshot wounds, and former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot on Jan. 8, 2011, near Tucson, Arizona, in an assassination attempt.

Pelosi assigned the bill number H.R. 8 in part to commemorate the eight-year anniversary of that shooting, which killed six people and grievously injured Giffords and 12 others, including former Rep. Ron Barber, who was her district director at the time.

Even if the bill passes the House, it will likely face stiff opposition in the GOP-controlled Senate, where a companion bill introduced Tuesday exclusively by Democrats will need 60 votes to make it down Pennsylvania Avenue to the president’s desk.

But such a low assignment number in the House suggests Pelosi will bring the bill to the floor for a vote soon, possibly within the first 100 days of the new Congress.

“We will hold hearings, we will have a vote, and this legislation will finally pass the House,” Thompson said Tuesday. “The American people have been demanding we take action, and this new Congress will deliver.”

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