WASHINGTON — The Democratic-controlled House on Wednesday approved a measure requiring federal background checks for all firearms sales and transfers, the first major gun control legislation considered by Congress in nearly 25 years.
Democrats called the 240-190 vote a major step to end the gun lobby’s grip on Washington and begin to address an epidemic of gun violence that kills thousands of Americans every year, including 17 people shot and killed at a Florida high school last year.
The bill is the first of two the House is voting on this week as Democrats move to tighten gun laws following eight years of Republican control. The other bill would extend the review period for background checks from three to 10 days.
Both bills face dim prospects in the Republican-controlled Senate and veto threats from President Donald Trump, who said they would impose unreasonable requirements on gun owners.
Just eight Republicans joined 232 Democrats to support the bill, while only two Democrats voted against it.
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The White House said in a veto message that the background-checks bill could block someone from borrowing a firearm for self-defence or allowing a neighbour to take care of a gun while travelling.
Democrats called those arguments misleading and said gun owners have a responsibility to ensure firearms are properly handled. The bill includes exceptions allowing temporary transfers to prevent imminent harm or for use at a target range.
The long-delayed bill would merely close loopholes to ensure that background checks are extended to private and online sales that often go undetected, Democrats said.
“People who are felons or are dangerously mentally ill shouldn’t have guns,” regardless of whether they buy them from a federally licensed dealer or their next-door neighbour, said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., a key sponsor who has pushed for expanded background checks since the 2012 killing of 20 elementary school students in Newtown, Connecticut.
“For six-and-a-half years, we had no cooperation from the past majority” in the House, Thompson said. “We couldn’t get a hearing on the bill. We couldn’t get a vote. Today, we’re here to tell you it’s a new day. With this (Democratic) majority, we have made a commitment to address the issue of gun violence.”
While Republicans mostly opposed the bill, the GOP scored a procedural victory when the House accepted a Republican amendment requiring that gun sellers notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement when an illegal immigrant tries to buy a gun. Twenty-six Democrats joined with Republicans to support the amendment, offered by Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi downplayed the GOP proposal, saying, “We won a big victory — get the message.”
Pelosi, D-Calif., called the House vote “historic” and hailed the bill as “a long-overdue, commonsense action to end the epidemic of gun violence in America.”
To demonstrate her support for the bill, Pelosi wore an orange dress while other Democrats wore orange ties or scarves, the colour used by the movement against gun violence.
Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa., said she hopes the symbolism will soon become obsolete.
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“I long for the day when orange scarves are a fashion statement, not a cry for help,” said Dean, who was wearing a bright orange scarf.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., who was gravely wounded in a 2017 shooting at a congressional baseball practice, said stricter background checks would not have prevented his shooting or other tragedies.
“What it would do is make criminals out of law-abiding citizens,” Scalise said. “If you go hunting with a friend and your friend wants to borrow your rifle, you better bring your attorney with you because depending on what you do with that gun you may be a felon if you loan it to him.”
Democrats said the bill includes exceptions allowing temporary transfers for anyone who feels threatened by a domestic partner or other person. The bill also allows a gun owner to loan their weapon and for use at a target range.
“There is no reason to continue to make it easy for people who are legally prohibited from possessing firearms to acquire them by circumventing the background check process,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. The background checks bill would “close this dangerous loophole and save lives,” Nadler said.
Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel, said the bill “foolishly presumes criminals who flout existing laws will suddenly submit themselves to background checks.”
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Democrats and other bill supporters are “delusional” if they think “a criminal trading cocaine to another criminal for a firearm will reconsider due to” the background checks bill, he said.
But Kris Brown, president of Brady, a gun control group formerly known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said the bill will save lives.
Brown called the House vote “a monumental step forward for gun violence prevention in our country” and hailed Thompson and other lawmakers who pushed for the measure.
“On to the Senate!” she said.
Associated Press writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.