The House passed legislation Friday to revive a ban on semiautomatic guns, the first vote of its kind in years and a direct response to the firearms often used in the crush of mass shootings ripping through communities nationwide.
Once banned in the U.S., the high-powered firearms are now widely seen as the weapon of choice among young men responsible for many of the most devastating mass shootings. But Congress allowed the restrictions first put in place in 1994 on the manufacture and sales of the weapons to expire a decade later, unable to muster the political support to counter the powerful gun lobby and reinstate the weapons ban.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed the vote toward passage in the Democratic-run House, saying the earlier ban "saved lives."
President Joe Biden hailed the House vote, saying, “The majority of the American people agree with this commonsense action.” He urged the Senate to “move quickly to get this bill to my desk.”
However, it is likely to stall in the 50-50 Senate. The House legislation was shunned by Republicans, who dismissed it as an election-year strategy by Democrats. Almost all Republicans voted against the bill, which passed 217-213.
The bill comes amid intensifying concerns about gun violence and after a spate of high-profile shootings: the supermarket shooting in Buffalo, New York; the massacre of schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas; and the July Fourth shootings of revelers in Highland Park, Illinois.
Voters seem to be taking such election-year votes seriously as Congress splits along party lines and lawmakers are forced to go on the record with their views. A recent vote to protect same-sex marriage from potential Supreme Court legal challenges won a surprising amount of bipartisan support.
Bill has president's backing
President Joe Biden, who was instrumental in helping secure the first semiautomatic weapons ban as a senator in 1994, encouraged passage, promising to sign the bill if it reached his desk. In a statement before the vote, his administration said, "We know an assault weapons and large-capacity-magazine ban will save lives."
The Biden administration said that for the 10 years the ban was in place, mass shootings declined. "When the ban expired in 2004, mass shootings tripled," the statement said.
Republicans stood firmly against limits on ownership of the high-powered firearms during an at times emotional debate ahead of voting.
"It's a gun grab, pure and simple," said Representative Guy Reschenthaler of Pennsylvania.
Said Georgia Representative Andrew Clyde, "An armed America is a safe and free America."
Democrats argued that the ban on the weapons makes sense, portraying Republicans as extreme and out of step with Americans.
Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts said the weapons ban is not about taking away Americans' Second Amendment rights but ensuring that children also have the right "to not get shot in school."
Pelosi displayed a poster of a gun company's advertisement for children's weapons, smaller versions that resemble the popular AR-15 rifles and are marketed with cartoonlike characters. "Disgusting," she said.
The bill would make it unlawful to import, sell or manufacture a long list of semiautomatic weapons. Representative Jerry Nadler of New York, chairman of the chamber's Judiciary Committee, said it would exempt those already in possession.
Reps. Chris Jacobs of New York and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania were the only Republicans to vote for the measure. The Democratic lawmakers voting no were Reps. Kurt Schrader of Oregon, Henry Cuellar of Texas, Jared Golden of Maine, Ron Kind of Wisconsin and Vicente Gonzalez of Texas.
For nearly two decades, since the previous ban expired Democrats had been reluctant to revisit the issue and confront the gun lobby. But voter opinions appear to be shifting and Democrats dared to act before the fall election. The outcome will provide information for voters of where the candidates stand on the issue.
Jason Quimet, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement following the vote that “barely a month after” the Supreme Court expanded gun rights “gun control advocates in Congress are spearheading an assault upon the freedoms and civil liberties of law-abiding Americans.”
He said the bill potentially bans more than 24 million firearms “in blatant opposition to the Supreme Court's rulings” that have established gun ownership as an individual right and expanded on it.
Democrats pick battle
For the nearly two decades since the previous ban expired, Democrats had been reluctant to revisit the issue and confront the gun lobby. But voter opinions appear to be shifting, and Democrats dared to act before the fall election. The outcome will provide information for voters about where the candidates stand on the issue.
Democrats had tried to link the weapons ban to a broader package of public safety measures that would have increased federal funding for law enforcement. It's something centrist Democrats in tough reelection campaigns wanted to shield them from their Republican opponents' political attacks that they are soft on crime.
Pelosi said the House would revisit the public safety bills in August, when lawmakers are expected to return briefly to Washington to handle other remaining legislation, including Biden's priority inflation-fighting package of health care and climate change strategies making its way in the Senate.
Congress passed a modest gun violence prevention package just last month in the aftermath of the tragic shooting of 19 schoolchildren and two teachers in Uvalde. That bipartisan bill was the first of its kind after years of failed efforts to confront the gun lobby, including after a similar 2012 mass tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
That law provides for expanded background checks on young adults buying firearms, allowing authorities to access certain juvenile records. It also closes the so-called boyfriend loophole by denying gun purchases to those convicted of domestic abuse outside marriage.
The new law also frees up federal funding to the states, including for "red flag" laws that enable authorities to remove guns from those who would harm themselves or others.
But even that modest effort at halting gun violence came at time of grave uncertainty in the U.S. over restrictions on firearms as the more conservative Supreme Court is tackling gun rights and other issues.
Biden signed the measure two days after the Supreme Court's ruling striking down a New York law that restricted people's ability to carry concealed weapons.