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House Judiciary panel advances background check bill

Democrats are using new majority to press gun control legislation

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., introduced the background checks bill that the House Judiciary Committee approved Wednesday night. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., introduced the background checks bill that the House Judiciary Committee approved Wednesday night. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A sharply divided House Judiciary Committee approved legislation Wednesday to bolster background checks for gun sales, the opening barrage in Democrats’ push to use their new majority to press gun control legislation they have backed for years.

To do so, Democrats needed to defeat numerous efforts from Republicans to amend the bill. It was one of two measures considered during a marathon meeting, highlighting not only the political hurdles to enacting the legislation but also how Democrats believe it could make a difference with voters in 2020.

The main bill was approved, 23-15, along party lines, sending it to the House floor. It would expand required background checks to all firearm sales, aimed at covering sales at gun shows, online or in other private settings. The second bill, which would extend the time firearms dealers must wait for a response from the background check system before making a sale, among other provisions, was approved by a vote of 21-14 late Wednesday night. 

Over the day, Republicans offered more than a dozen amendments to gut the background checks bill, tweak provisions or add language to allow transfer of guns in certain circumstances. Near the end, Ohio GOP Rep. Jim Jordan said there were 90 more amendments Republicans wanted to introduce.

Republicans contested whether votes on those amendments had started prematurely, repeated parliamentary inquiries and even made a motion to end the markup. Democrats accused Republicans of trying to frustrate and delay, and vowed to vote on the bill even if it took until midnight.

Also watch: House holds a moment of silence remembering the victims of Parkland

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Eventually, Chairman Jerrold Nadler forced a vote 10 hours after the meeting had started. It was on the eve of the anniversary of the day a gunman opened fire and killed 17 students and staff in a Parkland, Florida, high school.

During the vote, several Democratic members went to hug Georgia Rep. Lucy McBath, whose son was killed in gun violence, as she wiped away tears. Democratic Reps. Mary Gay Scanlon and Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania also had tears in their eyes during the vote.

A political win

Democrats are expected to have enough support to pass both measures in the House, but Senate Republicans are likely to let the legislation stall.

Rep. Mike Thompson, who introduced the background check bill, said a bipartisan vote on the bill could prompt Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to consider it on the floor or risk political fallout.

“It’s going to help Democrats in the Senate gain more seats,” the California Democrat said of the possibility the bill stalls in the Senate. “We already know it works here. All 40 [House] seats that were flipped, gun violence prevention was a concern of those voters.”

Democrats repeatedly underscored that popularity during the markup. Nadler cited a study that found one in five gun owners had acquired their most recent gun without a background check, meaning, “we do not know if they were felons, fugitives, or domestic abusers” or if a court had “determined that they were seriously mentally ill,” he said.

“Citizens across the country have been organizing and demanding action, and there is now overwhelming public support for universal background checks,” Nadler said.

The Pew Research Center found in October that 91 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of Republicans favor background checks for private gun sales and sales at gun shows.

Republicans, however, say the bills would only criminalize gun transfers between law-abiding citizens and burden them when buying or trading guns, and would not solve the gun violence problems it seeks to address. They also say enforcing the bill would take a federal registry, which they oppose.

House Judiciary ranking member Doug Collins said the bills would not prevent criminals from acquiring firearms.

“Criminals primarily get their firearms via theft or straw purchases,” the Georgia Republican said. “Both of those are already illegal, so we don’t need more restrictive laws, we need more enforcement.”

Correction, Thursday 9:52 p.m. | An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that the House Judiciary Committee approved the second bill to bolster background checks for gun sales Wednesday night on a voice vote

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