Congressional lawmakers on Tuesday revived an effort to enact significant gun safety laws for the first time in more than 25 years by introducing bills to establish a universal background check system that has broad support from the public.
The bills introduced Tuesday in the House and Senate would extend current federal background check requirements to transactions conducted by unlicensed and private sellers.
The gun safety group Giffords estimates that 22 percent of U.S. gun owners purchased their last firearm without completing a background check. Polling shows that more than 90 percent of Americans support a universal background check system.
The measures are what gun safety advocates predicted would be a first step in pursuing new gun laws now that Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress. In recent years, gun safety bills stalled even when they had bipartisan public support, in part because Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not bring them up for votes when he led the Senate from 2015 to 2021.
Critics of the National Rifle Association (NRA) say the powerful gun rights lobbying organization, which has nearly exclusively financed Republican candidates in recent election cycles, is one reason party leaders have been hesitant to hold votes on gun legislation.
Rep. Mike Thompson, a California Democrat who chairs a congressional gun violence prevention task force, on Tuesday reintroduced bipartisan House legislation that would require background checks for all firearm sales. The House first passed the bill in 2019, one year after a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, left 17 dead.
Thompson’s Democratic cosponsors are Reps. Jerrold Nadler of New York, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, Robin Kelly of Illinois and Lucy McBath of Georgia. Republican cosponsors are Reps. Fred Upton of Michigan, Christopher Smith of New Jersey and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania.
“Time and time again, we have seen that the American people want universal background checks, in fact public polling shows that the majority of people, Democrats, Republicans and independents, support this,” Thompson said in a statement.
In the Senate, the bill was reintroduced by Democrat Chris Murphy from Connecticut, where in 2012 a mass shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School killed 26 others, including 20 young children. Murphy was joined by 43 other senators — 42 Democrats and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with them.
The Senate is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, and the measure would have to pick up bipartisan support to pass that chamber given that most legislation must clear a 60-vote threshold.
“This Congress we will finally bring common sense gun reforms up for a vote in the House and the Senate, and the single most popular and effective proposal we can consider is universal background checks,” Murphy said in a video about the effort.
When the House passed background checks legislation in 2019, it ran aground in the then Republican-controlled Senate, where McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, did not bring it up for a vote.
“Now, with Senate Democrats in the Majority, we have the opportunity to act on this overwhelmingly popular, lifesaving legislation to protect American communities,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement on the bill’s introduction.
Advocates for new gun safety laws have hoped that with President Joe Biden in the White House, and Democrats controlling the House and Senate, there is an opportunity for action. The NRA is also grappling with multiple crises: New York’s attorney general is investigating whether its leaders misappropriated more than $60 million for personal use, and the NRA filed for bankruptcy in January. Its remaining officials insist the organization remains solvent, and it plans to reincorporate in Texas.
“This is the moment,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, a grassroots organization started in late 2012 that now has nearly 6 million supporters.
“We have a trifecta and they have a mandate to act on this. We have a grassroots army to support them and the NRA is weaker than they’ve ever been,” she added.
Already this week, Rep. Jim Clyburn, a key Biden ally from South Carolina, reintroduced a bill that would close the so-called “Charleston loophole” that allows firearm purchases to move forward after three business days, even if a background check has not been completed. It is named for the 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine died after the gunman was able to purchase a firearm when the three-day window expired.
Last month, to mark the third anniversary of the Parkland shooting, Biden called for the passage of “common sense” gun safety laws. He cited a background checks bill among his top priorities.
The last major law passed to curb gun violence was the Federal Assault Weapons Ban enacted by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1994. But even that had a 10-year sunset provision that has since expired. Several attempts to renew it, including by President Barack Obama in 2013 after Sandy Hook, all derailed in a Republican-controlled Senate.
Groups pushing for gun safety measures told The 19th earlier this year that a background checks bill would probably be the starting point early in the Biden administration because it has broader bipartisan support than other measures. Roughly 90 percent of Americans have said in recent years that they support universal background checks for gun sales. President Donald Trump acknowledged in 2019 that there was a “great appetite” for such a proposal after mass shootings in Ohio and Texas, as did McConnell, though he did not go on to bring it up for a vote.
A “red flag” bill giving courts the power to temporarily confiscate firearms from individuals deemed at risk or anti-gun trafficking legislation could be taken up next, the advocates said.
Biden advisers Susan Rice and Cedric Richmond met last month with gun safety groups that included Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action, Giffords and Brady to discuss background checks, the proliferation of so-called “ghost” guns (homemade firearms or those with serial numbers removed) and violence intervention programs, the White House said.
Biden has also pledged to work with Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which he worked on as a senator in the 1990s. In 2019, the House approved a VAWA provision to close the so-called “boyfriend loophole” that allows current and former unmarried partners convicted of abuse and stalking to continue to purchase firearms. That effort also stalled in the Senate. Democratic House leaders said this week they will be taking up VAWA reauthorization later this month.