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Democratic House Passes Universal Background Checks On Gun Sales, Sends To Republican Senate

File photo by Lisa Dunn
Guns and America/WAMU
The House of Representatives side of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. The House voted on major gun legislation for the first time in decades.

This story has been updated to include the passage of HR 2112, the Enganced Background Checks Act of 2019.

Almost 25 years to the day after the Brady Bill first mandated background checks for some gun sales, Democrats and a handful of Republicans in the United States House of Representatives voted to require background checks on all gun sales.

Before Wednesday, the House had not voted on major gun legislation since 1994, when it passed the 10-year ban on assault weapons.

It’s unlikely the Senate will even take up the new universal background check bill. And President Donald Trump has threatened to veto the legislation, despite advocating for “Comprehensive Background Checks” last year after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida.

But that didn’t stop either side from lobbying for support this week.

House Republicans tweeted links to a series of op-eds and guest columns published in states such as Colorado and Florida. The National Rifle Association, in a message urging members to voice opposition to their congressional representatives, dismissed the legislation as “designed to score political points.”

Democrats, meanwhile, rallied Tuesday outside the U.S. Capitol.

Several of the legislation’s 232 co-sponsors spoke, including Democrat Jason Crow, whose Colorado district includes Columbine High School the city of Aurora, both sites of mass shootings.

“Citizenship comes with duties to our fellow citizens,” Crow said, after describing himself as a hunter and former Army ranger. “One of those duties that we owe to each other is to ensure that our fellow citizens can live without fear and safely pursue their dreams.”

On Wednesday, Democrat Sharice Davids advocated for the bill in a brief speech on the House floor.

"Like most Kansans, I respect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens," she said. "But also like most Kansans, I'm tired of politicians doing nothing to stop senseless killings."

Davids also pushed for an amendment to the bill which would make it easier for domestic violence victims to forego required background checks in emergency situations. 

"We can't forget the needs of those at risk of domestic violence to protect themselves from abuse," she said. 

The bill had five Republican co-sponsors, mostly representatives from suburban districts on the East Coast, and picked up three additional votes to total eight Republican supporters.

On the Democratic side, two members voted against the bill for a final tally of 240-190.

Votes from the Kansas and Missouri Congressional delegations fell along party lines.

Targeting the so-called ‘Gun Show Loophole’

Fourteen states, including Connecticut, Colorado and Oregon, and the District of Columbia, already require background checks before every gun purchase through either universal background checks or a permitting system.

In the unlikely event that the current legislation does become law, private gun sales would go through the same background check already required whenever someone purchases a firearm from a gun store, pawn shop or retailer such as Walmart. Commonly referred to as the “gunshow loophole,” this is a wobbly term that might more accurately be called the “private sale exception.

People who want to buy and sell guns privately — two strangers at a gun show, for example — could still do so, but the gun must first be transferred to a licensed gun dealer to perform a background check. This is already common practice when an out-of-state resident buys a gun online: The seller ships the gun directly to a local gun dealer, who then completes the background check before handing the weapon over to the buyer.

Gun dealers typically charge about $25 to run the background check and process associated paperwork.

Under the new legislation, a background check would still not be required in certain circumstances:

  • A gun given as a loan or gift between close family members (spouses, domestic partners, parents and children, siblings, aunts or uncles and their nieces or nephews, grandparents or grandchildren). As currently written, cousins or in-laws are not included in this exemption.
  • When someone temporarily needs a gun to “prevent imminent death or great bodily harm” including harm from domestic violence. The gun must be returned to its owner once the threat has passed. This exemption also applies when someone suffering a mental health crisis wants to temporarily transfer their own gun to someone else for safekeeping.
  • When someone temporarily uses the gun at a shooting range, or for hunting, trapping or fishing.

There are also provisions to allow for the transfer of firearms after the owner dies, or between people such as police and military using the guns within the confines of their job.
David Kopel, a researcher and University of Denver law professor who generally opposes gun regulations, examined potential repercussions of the bill.

In what Kopel describes as “a clever trick,” the bill, House Resolution 8, would make it impossible for people aged 18-20 to buy a handgun. Federal law already prohibits gun dealers from selling or delivering handguns to people younger than 21. Since the new legislation would force private sales to go through dealers, those young adults would effectively be banned from purchasing handguns.

The legislation does not prohibit a family member from gifting a handgun to someone aged 18-20.

Kopel also argues the bill’s self-defense exemption could endanger domestic violence victims. In such a case where a woman’s former partner has threatened her, for example, “an attack might come in the next hour, or the next month,” Kopel writes. “Because the attack is uncertain — and is certainly not ‘immediate’ — the woman cannot borrow a handgun from a neighbor for her defense.”

Closing the ‘Charleston Loophole’

The House also passed a related bill that would close what some people have called the “Charleston loophole,” which references the 2015 shooting in which a white man shot and killed nine black people during a prayer service inside a church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Bbecause of the way the FBI’s background check system operates, the man was able to buy a handgun before the shooting despite a drug conviction that should have prevented the purchase. The system typically returns results within about 15 minutes, but can be delayed hours or even days. Currently, if the check is not completed within three days, the sale is allowed to go through.

Because the FBI was unable to obtain a record of his conviction within 3 days, the Charleston shooter was able to complete his firearm purchase.

The bill, House Resolution 1112, would extend that timeframe to 10 business days.

It also alters the definition of people who would fail a background check due to mental illness from those "adjudicated as a mental defective" to people "adjudicated with mental illness, severe developmental disability, or severe emotional instability."

Gun advocates generally oppose the bill, which they say amounts to a two-week waiting period, though the bill does not create a mandatory waiting period.

After passage of both bills in the House, attention turns to the Senate. With Republicans in control, it's unlikely either bill will get a vote.

“Everyone who had brought us to this point can then focus their attention on the Senate and make sure the will of the people is heard,” Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA) said at a press conference Tuesday.

Do background checks actually reduce gun violence?

Studies have generally found some evidence that universal background checks help reduce gun violence, but the research is less than compelling. Recent research found that over 10 years, universal background checks had no effect on gun homicide or suicide rates in the state of California.

In 2018, the RAND Corporation released a major analysis of 13 gun policies. The study did not involve original research, but rather evaluated existing research to figure out whether there’s any consensus on the effectiveness of various gun policies.

The analysis found “moderate evidence” that universal background checks reduce firearm suicides, which account for roughly 60 percent of gun deaths in the U.S. There is also “moderate evidence” that the existing dealer background checks reduce firearm homicides. Researchers found that current research on the effect of private-seller background checks — the kind which would be implemented under the proposed legislation — is inconclusive.

Chris Haxel is a reporter for KCUR 89.3. Email him at chaxel@kcur.org, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisHaxelGuns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.

As a reporter covering military and veterans’ affairs, I tell the stories of current and former service members and their families. I hold the government, elected officials and others responsible when they break their promises. And I explore how Americans can best uphold our commitments to those who serve.
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