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H.R. 8 gun background check bill probably won’t pass, even after Uvalde

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/26/2022 Timothy Bella
People gather at Robb Elementary School, the scene of a mass shooting in Uvalde, Tex., on Wednesday. © Nuri Vallbona/Reuters People gather at Robb Elementary School, the scene of a mass shooting in Uvalde, Tex., on Wednesday.

Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr had a hard time thinking about basketball after at least 19 children and two teachers were killed in a mass shooting Tuesday at an elementary school in Texas. Outraged, he used this platform to plead with Senate Republicans to move forward on a years-long legislative effort that would require background checks on all gun sales: H.R. 8.

The bill, also known as the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021, was championed by Democrats after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting that left 26 dead nearly a decade ago and passed by the House in 2021. But it has since languished in the Senate for more than a year.

“There’s 50 senators, right now, who refuse to vote on H.R. 8,” Kerr said. Kerr — a longtime gun-control advocate whose father was shot to death in 1984 — had biting words for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his Republican colleagues: “There’s a reason they won’t vote on it: to hold on to power.”

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Now calls are mounting for H.R. 8’s passage amid public outrage over the deadliest mass shooting at an American school in nearly a decade. But legal and firearms experts are not optimistic the bill will become law, even after the tragedy in Uvalde, Tex.

“When similar legislation failed after Sandy Hook, despite sky-high popular support among the public, I think it left a lot of advocates pessimistic,” Jake Charles, executive director of the Center for Firearms Law at Duke University School of Law, told The Washington Post. “That doesn’t mean this time won’t be different, but I suspect that’s the concern.”

In a nod to the uphill battle ahead, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor Wednesday that the chamber would not quickly vote on either H.R. 8 or H.R. 1446, which would close what’s known as the “Charleston loophole” that allows some licensed gun sales to be completed before a background check is finished. While delaying a vote could give Democrats and Republicans more time to hash out a possible deal, Schumer expressed skepticism that the Senate would get the votes needed to pass the bill into law.

“My Republican colleagues can work with us now,” Schumer said. “I know this is a slim prospect, very slim, all too slim — we’ve been burned so many times before — but this is so important.”

After Texas tragedy, Schumer says Democrats will negotiate on guns

H.R. 8 would close a loophole that does not require background checks in transactions involving unlicensed and private sellers, such as purchases online or at gun shows. The bill is considered to be among the first major new firearm restrictions to advance in Congress in a generation.

“It’s a bill that we have to pass. It’s not an option to give up,” Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), a longtime supporter of the legislation who is sponsoring the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021 in the House, told The Post on Wednesday. “We’ve got 19 more reasons yesterday why it’s not an option to give up.”

In the Uvalde shooting’s aftermath, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has deflected criticism that the state’s lax gun laws put students at risk. At a news conference Wednesday, Abbott downplayed the shooter’s relatively easy access to firearms, pointing out that residents 18 and older have been legally allowed to buy long guns — a category that includes the style of gun used in the Uvalde shooting — for more than 60 years. The governor also speculated that the shooter, who authorities say legally purchased a pair of semiautomatic rifles recently, probably suffered from mental illness — although he said authorities found no mental health record.

Weakened gun laws put Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on the defensive

Thompson said the outline of H.R. 8 was first sketched in the days after the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn. After Congress proposed a bipartisan bill in 2013 that would have expanded background checks for gun buyers and banned assault weapons and high-capacity gun magazines, more than 50 senators, including some Republicans, signaled their support and gave observers hope that the measure could pass.

When it failed to get the necessary votes to pass, President Barack Obama lashed out at gun rights groups and senators who voted against the bill, saying its defeat in the spring of 2013 amounted to “a pretty shameful day for Washington.”

Proposals on background checks did not pass the House chamber again until Democrats regained control years later. In 2019, the House passed the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, which called for expanding federal background checks for gun purchases and transfer, by a vote of 240 to 190, with mostly Democrats and eight Republicans.

Yet the 2019 bill died in committee in the Senate, with Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), then the majority whip, noting at the time it was “very unlikely” that a House gun bill would get Senate consideration as long as Republicans were in control of the chamber. President Donald Trump made a veto threat if it did somehow get passed by the Senate.

“It went to the Senate where it languished,” Thompson said.

There was renewed optimism last year when Democrats regained slim control of the Senate to go along with their majority in the House. The Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021 passed the House last year by a vote of 227 to 203 — another largely Democrat-heavy vote with the support of eight Republicans. But this version of the background check bill has again gone without a vote, as it remains unlikely to pass.

If a vote were held today, Thompson said, “I’m assuming we’d have 50 votes.”

“The problem is you don’t have 10 Republican senators courageous enough to allow the bill to come up for the vote,” he said.

The Senate’s sponsor of the bill, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), expressed his anger on Tuesday and pleaded with his colleagues to find a way to put politics aside and work together to stop the carnage of mass shootings.

After Uvalde, angry Democrats assail GOP over resistance to gun laws

“What are we doing?” Murphy said, his voice raised. “… Why are we here if not to try and make sure fewer schools and fewer communities go through what Sandy Hook has gone through, what Uvalde is going through. … I am here on this floor to beg, to literally get down on my hands and knees and beg my colleagues: Find a path forward here. Work with us to find a way to pass laws that make this less likely.”

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So far, Republicans have not given any indication whether they will engage in a potential compromise on H.R. 8. McConnell called the Texas shooting the work of a “deranged young man” and asked for prayers on Wednesday but did not mention any possible legislative action. GOP senators like Thune suggested that a potential Republican response could be centered “around the issue of mental health,” while Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said they hoped lawmakers would look at legislation to improve school security.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said it would be wise for states to adopt red-flag laws — which would enable law enforcement, if given a court order, to seize guns from someone considered a danger to themselves or others. Romney also suggested he supported background checks.

“Background checks and updating our background check technology is something that I think is an appropriate federal responsibility,” he said in a statement.

Schumer is urging Americans who want H.R. 8 to pass to vote gun-control-resistant legislators out of office. But Eugene Volokh, a professor at the UCLA School of Law and an expert on constitutional law and gun-control laws, argued that voters and legislators might not think a background-check law would do much to help curb school shootings.

“I think most voters would say this background check bill is not really connected to mass shootings, other than being connected to the general subject of guns,” Volokh said. “While you can never say never on a compromise, there isn’t a real appetite on the left or the right to make compromise.”

For his part, Thompson said he’s grateful to see public figures outside politics turning attention to the issue. In addition to Kerr, another member of the Warriors — Damion Lee — told reporters that it’s currently “easier to get a gun than baby formula.”

“I’m furious. I’m heartbroken. I’m saddened. I’m frustrated,” Thompson said. “This is not rocket science.”

Mike DeBonis, Colby Itkowitz, Marianna Sotomayor, David Nakamura and Karin Brulliard contributed to this report.

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