The House of Representatives on Wednesday passed significant gun control legislation for the first time in more than two decades, a move that Democrats hope will intensify a pressure campaign for a vote in the Senate.
The universal background check bill, H.R. 8, requires background checks on all firearm sales in the country. Currently, only licensed gun dealers must perform background checks for anyone seeking to purchase a firearm. Most unlicensed sellers do not; H.R. 8 would make that illegal. There are exemptions to the law like “gifts to family members and transfers for hunting, target shooting, and self-defense,” according to the House Judiciary Committee website.
The measure passed 240-190. Eight Republicans voted for the bill, and two Democrats, Jared Golden of Maine and Collin Peterson of Minnesota, voted against it.
The bill will move to the Senate, where it is unlikely to pass in the Republican-majority chamber as legislation often needs 60 or more votes to advance.
The bill, sponsored by a bipartisan duo of Reps. Mike Thompson, a California Democrat, and Peter King, a New York Republican, remains an outlier right now in the House since it has bipartisan support. Most of the legislation related to gun control has been sponsored by Democrats.
Four other Republicans co-sponsored the bill: Brian Mast of Florida, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Chris Smith of New Jersey and Fred Upton of Michigan. King told CNN on Tuesday that he may get a few more Republican colleagues to vote for the measure, but “no more than a handful.”
At a 25-year anniversary party for the gun control group the Brady Campaign on Tuesday evening, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressed confidence that the universal background checks bill would pass the House of Representatives. At the event, Pelosi also recalled her efforts with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in the 1990s on gun control as “hard,” but a “triumph that saved millions of lives.”
“Tomorrow we’re going to send him the background check legislation,” Pelosi said to her Senate colleague with a wide smile.
Schumer predicted that the country is on the “precipice of great change” on the issue of gun safety.
“We have a Democratic House that will not flinch. We have a Senate Democratic minority that will not flinch. Most of all, we have a public who is aroused and strong.”
Democrats, including Pelosi, have made this a top policy priority in the new Congress, staging public hearings on the topic which had not been held for years in Congress. The legislation also has the backing of a multitude of outside groups, including the former congresswoman and gun control advocate Gabby Giffords, the Brady Campaign, Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action.
“Today’s historic gun safety victory in Congress is a testament to courage,” Giffords said in a statement after the passage of the bill. “When the days were darkest, when it looked like the gun lobby’s money and influence would forever silence any debate in Washington about stronger gun laws, courage shone through.”
Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat who represents the district where the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting occurred last year, called the passage “a really incredible moment to be on the House floor as we passed the first piece of gun legislation in decades.”
On Tuesday, King urged his Senate colleagues to consider the bill.
“I would think that they should let it come to a vote,” he said, adding that the average American supports the universal background checks bill.
“This is not going to affect more than probably less than 1% of the American people and the ones it will affect either suffer from mental illness or are criminals. So to me, it’s a phony issue being raised by some of the gun groups,” he said.
King understands that public opinion is on his side on this issue. A recent Quinnipiac poll conducted in January found that 92% of Americans support requiring background checks for all gun buyers. Of that 92%, Republicans supported the idea of background checks 89% of the time and Democrats supported it 95%.
Despite pressure from the House, Senate Republicans are unlikely to take up the legislation, according to a member of Senate leadership.
Majority Whip John Thune — the second ranking Republican in the chamber — told CNN on Tuesday that it’s “unlikely” that the Senate will take up the bill for debate soon.
Thune pointed to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System modernization bill that the Senate approved last year. That legislation — which was sponsored by Republican John Cornyn and Democrat Chris Murphy — improved reporting to the national background check system. In the simplest terms, the bill didn’t strengthen background checks but instead incentivized state and federal authorities to report more data to the database.
“I think that we’ve dealt with that issue here,” he said of last year’s efforts.
Another sign of coordinated efforts around the vote: Gun control group Everytown is dumping $400,000 into advertisement purchasing and sponsorships with media outlets and targeted ads on Facebook asking people to contact their representative about the bill, according to a spokesperson for the group.
This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.