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House panel advances bill to expand background checks for gun sales

The Hill logo The Hill 2/14/2019 Cristina Marcos
a close up of a gun: House panel advances bill to expand background checks for gun sales © Getty House panel advances bill to expand background checks for gun sales The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday advanced legislation that would require universal background checks for gun purchases in the latest sign that Democrats are prioritizing gun control in the first days of their majority.

Lawmakers on the panel voted along party lines to approve the bill, 23-15. Democrats hope to bring the measure to the floor for a vote in the coming weeks.

The committee vote came a day before the one-year anniversary of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which killed 17 people.

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), whose district includes Parkland, made an emotional plea during the committee markup for the bill's approval if it meant even one mass shooting could be prevented.

"It happened," Deutch said of the Parkland shooting. "Now, our responsibility is to do everything we can to make sure it never happens again."

Deutch wasn't the only lawmaker to become emotional at the markup, the first major gun control legislation advanced out of the House Judiciary Committee in decades.

Under the GOP majority, the House did pass multiple measures in response to gun violence, including enacting penalties against agencies that fail to report to the background check system and providing grants to schools for implementing security to prevent violence.

Freshman Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), who lost her son to gun violence, broke into tears after casting a vote in favor of the bill. "For my son Jordan Davis, I vote aye," she said.

Democrats first unveiled the bill last month, less than a week after taking control of the House majority, suggesting the issue has become a higher priority for the party in recent years.

The bill, sponsored by Reps. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) and Peter King (R-N.Y.), would expand the federal background check system to cover sales by unlicensed gun sellers, including sales at gun shows or online. Current law only requires licensed firearms dealers to conduct background checks before transferring a gun.

People seeking to transfer guns would have to visit a licensed firearms dealer to run a background check. But the legislation offers exemptions for gifts between family members as well as temporary transfers for use at a shooting range or hunting.

"It is time to close this dangerous loophole," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). "This is long-overdue legislation that will help address our national crisis of gun violence."

While the legislation is titled the "Bipartisan Background Checks Act," it does not currently have widespread support on both sides of the aisle. Nearly all Democrats have signed onto the bill, but only five Republicans are listed as cosponsors. Aside from King, the sole Republicans to endorse the legislation are Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.), Brian Mast (Fla.), Fred Upton (Mich.) and Chris Smith (N.J.).

But opponents argued that the universal background checks proposal wouldn't be effective in deterring future mass shootings.

"I'm sad the bill before us represents another missed opportunity to prevent this violence in our communities. It's disturbing that in a clamor to do something to combat mass violence, [Democrats] managed to craft a bill that does exactly nothing," said Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

Under the GOP majority, the House did pass multiple measures in response to gun violence, including enacting penalties against agencies that fail to report to the background check system and providing grants to schools for implementing security to prevent violence.

Republicans offered a series of amendments over the course of several hours to loosen the bill's exemptions and establish a "fusion center" within the FBI to combat mass violence that would analyze intelligence on violence, but all were rejected.

Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) questioned whether suicidal people who ask trusted confidants to take possession of their guns out of precaution would be in legal jeopardy under the legislation.

"Do we want to create a deterrent to that kind of activity?" Johnson asked.

The legislation does have an exemption for temporary transfers that are "necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm, if the possession by the transferee lasts only as long as immediately necessary to prevent the imminent death or great bodily harm."

The National Rifle Association (NRA) previously endorsed requiring background checks for gun show sales in 1999 in the aftermath of the shooting at Columbine High School. But the NRA has since reversed course to oppose expanding the background check system.

The NRA called the legislation a "broadside against lawful firearm ownership in America, setting cruel traps for common and innocent firearm-related conduct" and ineffective at deterring criminals who "by definition, do not obey the law."

The bill's odds of passage in the Senate are low. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) opposed a background check bill that the upper chamber considered in 2013 and has offered no sign of wanting to bring up the latest background checks expansion measure.

The House Judiciary Committee also approved a bill later Wednesday that would close the so-called "Charleston loophole" that allow a gun sale to go forward if a background check isn't completed within three days. It would instead extend the review period to 10 days and allow a purchaser to request a review if the background check isn't completed by then. If an additional 10 days pass without a response, then the gun purchase can go forward.

Authored by House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the legislation is designed in response to Dylann Roof, the gunman who opened fire in the 2015 shooting at a historically black church in Charleston. Flaws in communication between local law enforcement and a federal background check system examiner allowed Roof to purchase the gun after waiting the required three business days.

The federal background check system examiner didn't see an incident report showing that Roof previously admitted to possessing drugs, which would have resulted in a denial of the gun sale.

- Updated 9:15 p.m.

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