Scrambling to respond to a recent spate of bloody gun massacres, U.S. lawmakers passed the most significant federal gun restrictions in decades on Friday, following years of false starts and failures to tighten gun laws.
Following Senate passage late Thursday, the House passed the bipartisan bill that takes steps to restrict gun access for the youngest buyers, domestic violence offenders and others who could pose a risk to their communities. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act also would fund school safety and mental health programs.
The House approved it by a 234-193 margin, as 14 Republicans joined all Democrats. The legislation heads to President Joe Biden, who is expected to quickly sign it into law.
Democrats hoped the legislation would further rein in gun violence after lone gunmen massacred Black shoppers at a Buffalo grocery store and children at a Texas elementary school last month. The victory for gun-safety advocates this week also came with a setback, as the Supreme Court struck down a New York law that restricted the ability to carry a concealed weapon. The ruling imperils similar laws around the country.
Democrats nonetheless cheered the legislation’s passage as a landmark event after they won support from Republicans including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who has long fought efforts to restrict gun ownership after previous mass shootings that rocked the country.
“Tonight, after 28 years of inaction, bipartisan members of Congress came together to heed the call of families across the country and passed legislation to address the scourge of gun violence in our communities,” Biden said in a statement Thursday night after the Senate approved the bill. “Families in Uvalde and Buffalo — and too many tragic shootings before — have demanded action. And tonight, we acted.”
The bill passed Friday would enhance background checks for 18- to 21-year-old gun buyers. The ease of access to firearms for young adults came under increased scrutiny after 18-year-olds armed with assault-style rifles carried out both the Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas shootings. Democrats hoped to ban those types of weapons for people under 21.
The legislation also aims to close the so-called boyfriend loophole and restrict gun ownership for domestic violence offenders who are not married to their partners. It would also set up grants for states to encourage red-flag laws, which allow police or relatives and acquaintances to petition courts to order the removal of a gun if the individual is deemed dangerous.
It would also fund school safety and youth mental health programs. Republican gun-rights supporters have argued those issues, rather than the prevalence of firearms, have fueled the U.S. gun violence epidemic. Democrats have also long lamented the underfunding of mental-health programs.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who led passage of a far more sweeping gun bill this month, acted quickly to pass the legislation despite her concerns about its scope.
“Every day, gun violence steals lives and scars communities — and this crisis demands urgent action,” she said in a statement Thursday. “While we must do more, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act is a step forward that will help protect our children and save lives.”
The original proposal would have banned assault-style rifles for people under 21 and barred certain high-capacity magazines, among other steps. It had little chance of getting through the Senate, where Democrats have to win over 10 Republicans to garner the 60 votes needed to break a legislative filibuster, and was ultimately scaled back.
Talks led by Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, ultimately led to a breakthrough. Murphy, who represented Newtown, Conn., in the U.S. House during the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in 2012, has long pushed for new gun restrictions.
Fifteen Republicans including McConnell voted for the bill in the Senate. The Republican Senate leader on Thursday framed the legislation as a middle ground between protecting schools and ensuring gun ownership rights.
“The legislation before us would make our communities and schools safer without laying one finger on the Second Amendment for law-abiding citizens. Its key provisions are hugely popular with the American people,” he said.