Fulfilling a promise made to survivors of gun violence in 2018, the Democratic majority in the US House of Representatives voted at the end of February to pass The Bipartisan Background Checks Act, the first significant gun control legislation to pass either Congressional chamber in decades.
The bill in its current form will not pass the Republican-controlled Senate, and the prospects for any sort of gun control in the upper chamber are thin, at best.
However, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act – and its nearly unanimous support among the Democrats’ diverse, ideologically fractured caucus – represents a striking example of how the politics of gun control have changed. Where once Democrats were scared of touching what they perceived to be a cultural third rail, even when controlling the federal government, they’ve now made clear that they believe gun control to be a winning issue with the vast majority of voters.
What’s In The Bipartisan Background Checks Act?
The Bipartisan Background Checks Act closes what gun control advocates believe are “loopholes” in the federal background checks system. Specifically, it would require background checks for firearms purchased at gun shows and over the internet.
In addition, the bill prevents non-licensed dealers from transferring firearms to another person.
The BBCA does allow a handful of exceptions, including the gifting of a gun from a family member. And freshman Democrat Kendra Horn, who won a shocking upset victory in her conservative Oklahoma district, successfully introduced an amendment creating an exception for individuals who face a threat of domestic violence.
The day after passing the BBCA, the House also passed The Enhanced Background Checks Act. Sponsored by James Clyburn of South Carolina, the bill seeks to close the so-called “Charleston Loophole” by expanding the amount of time federal investigators have to conduct a background check on gun purchasers. Currently, firearms dealers have to wait three days for a federal background check. If the check isn’t completed within those three days, the dealer can complete the sale.
The EBCA would extend that timeframe to 10 days. Gun control activists have said that Dylan Roof, who killed nine people at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, would have been prevented from buying the weapon he used in the attack if federal investigators had more time to look into his record.
Obstacles in the Senate
As with other ambitious legislation passed by the Democratic House, the gun control bills face insurmountable obstacles in the Senate. Republican leaders have already said the bills will not receive a vote in the upper chamber. Even if the bills were brought up for a vote, they would fail to clear the 60-vote threshold for breaking a filibuster. While some Senate Republicans like Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado, who both face difficult re-election fights next year in blue states, could support one of the bills, there’s no scenario where the bills find 60 votes.
In a rare move, the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, held a hearing in late March to discuss so-called red flag laws, which allow law enforcement officials and (in some states) relatives to request an order from a judge restricting a dangerous individual’s access to guns. New York passed such a law in March.
However, no one believes a federal red flag bill is likely to emerge from the Republican-controlled Senate.
A Political Shift
The final vote in the House on the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, cast with more than 100 student activists looking on from the chamber’s gallery, was 240-190. While House passage of the bill was a foregone conclusion – the bill had enough co-sponsors alone to guarantee success – the near-total unanimity in the Democratic caucus was noteworthy.
Only two Democrats voted against the bill – Jared Golden of Maine and Collin Peterson of Minnesota. Both represent rural districts that voted for Donald Trump in 2016.
Democrats, including those elected in the 2018 midterms to represent historically Republican-oriented suburban districts, clearly see the bills as political winners. Polls have consistently found that more than 90 percent of Americans support universal background checks.
This represents a stark change from the way Democrats used to view the gun control issue. Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress from 2007 to 2011 and possessed unified control of the entire federal government from 2009-2011. During that time they advanced no significant gun control legislation, fearing it would be political suicide for lawmakers.
But the politics of guns have changed in the wake of a wave of deadly mass shooting incidents. Democrats have made clear they intend to campaign on the issue in the 2020 elections.