WASHINGTON - A key House committee on Wednesday approved a Republican bill to expand gun owners' rights - the first gun legislation since mass shootings in Las Vegas and Texas killed more than 80 people.
On a party-line vote, the Judiciary Committee backed a bill that would allow gun owners with a state-issued concealed carry permit to carry a handgun in any state that allows concealed weapons. Republicans said the reciprocity measure would allow gun owners to travel freely between states without worrying about conflicting state laws or civil suits.
The bill was approved 19-11 and now goes to the House floor.
The Judiciary panel also approved legislation to strengthen the FBI database of prohibited gun buyers after the Air Force failed to report the criminal history of the gunman who slaughtered more than two dozen people at a Texas church.
The Air Force has acknowledged that the Texas shooter, Devin P. Kelley, should have had his name and domestic violence conviction submitted to the National Criminal Information Center database. The Air Force has discovered ``several dozen'' other such reporting omissions since the Nov. 5 shooting.
Democrats said the bill making it easier to carry concealed weapons across state lines - a top priority of the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups - would endanger public safety by overriding states with strict gun laws, forcing them to comply with states that have far looser laws on guns.
"You want to wipe out our state law'' that places tight restrictions on who can carry a concealed weapon, Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland told Republicans.
The GOP bill "lowers everybody's standards to the lowest in the union,'' Raskin said. "It is the agenda of the NRA, but it should not be the agenda of Congress.''
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., said the bill would override his state's law barring people under 21 from getting concealed carry permits, while other Democrats noted that restrictions on drunken drivers and convicted stalkers could be overridden.
But Rep. John Rutherford, R-Fla., said the bill would increase public safety by allowing more law-abiding citizens to carry guns, regardless of where they live or travel.
"I don't believe my right to defend myself should end at the state line,'' Rutherford said. "My constitutional rights do not end at the Florida line.''
Rutherford and other Republicans said a "good guy with a gun'' is often the best way to counter a gun-wielding criminal. They cited the June shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., who was seriously wounded at a congressional baseball game practice. Capitol police on Scalise's security detail fired back at the gunman, saving the lives of other lawmakers.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., called the argument misleading, noting that police are trained to respond to an active shooter, while most civilians are not.
"Let's be honest: We are endangering public safety to cozy up to one of the biggest interest groups in the U.S. - the NRA,'' Lofgren said.
Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia said Democrats were misconstruing the legislation.
"This bill will not arm criminals,'' he said. "Nothing in this bill would allow (a convicted criminal) to purchase or possess a firearm, let alone carry one in a concealed fashion.''
Numerous police and law enforcement groups oppose the bill, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
Despite calls by Democrats for tighter gun control, Congress has taken no steps on guns in the weeks following the Oct. 1 shooting in Las Vegas that killed 58 people and the Nov. 5 shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a group that supports stricter gun laws, called the GOP bill the wrong response to the Las Vegas and Texas shootings.
"After two of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, Americans expect Congress to work in a bipartisan way to strengthen - not weaken - our gun laws,'' he said.
The bill on background checks would require that federal agencies certify twice a year that they have submitted required records to the federal database. It also rewards states that comply by providing them with federal grant preferences. The measure was approved 17-6 and now goes to the House floor.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., has co-sponsored a companion bill in the Senate with Texas Republican John Cornyn. Murphy, a leading advocate of stricter gun control, said the measure is based on a simple idea: "If we can't agree on new laws, let's at least make sure that the laws that are on the books today work and are being enforced.''