Dems vow passage of background check bill

Far from dead, legislation expanding background checks before gun sales still has a chance of passing this Congress, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate said Wednesday.

While the background check issue has been dormant on Capitol Hill since the Senate shot down such a proposal earlier in the year, Democrats argue that enough pressure on House GOP leaders would return the topic to prominence – and force a floor vote – before next year's mid-term elections.

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Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the combination of public outrage at mass shootings and an animated advocacy front has created conditions like those that catalyzed the enactment of stricter gun laws roughly 20 years ago.

"We have the same conditions now that we had back then, which we didn't really have even five years ago," Schumer said during a press conference in the Capitol commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. 

"So we're going to pass this law," he added. "We are going to finish the job and pass background checks and then move on and do other things we have to do to get guns off the streets and stop gun violence."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) echoed that message, pressing GOP leaders to take up the background check bill and arguing that a majority of House lawmakers would support it if they did. House passage, Pelosi continued, would then increase the odds of the bill clearing the Senate.

"I believe if the bill were taken up in the House that it would pass. And when it passes the House, some senators … would no longer have the excuse, 'It's no use my risking my political career because it's not going anyplace in the House,' " Pelosi said. "Let's turn that around, pass it in the House and just put the pressure on to take up the bill. Why not?"

They might not want to hold their breath. Despite a long series of high-profile mass shootings in recent years, GOP leaders have shown no interest in tougher gun laws. On top of that, only 14 legislative days remain scheduled in the House this year, and next year's mid-term elections will only raise the hurdles higher for contentious legislation like tougher gun laws.

Rep. Mike Thompson (Calif.), who heads the Democrats' gun-violence prevention task force, acknowledged Wednesday that it will be difficult to get a vote while the Republicans control the House. 

If Pelosi were still Speaker, he said, "we wouldn't be here today, we'd be over at the White House at the bill-signing ceremony." 

Sponsored by Thompson and Peter King (R-N.Y.), the background check bill would require private sellers operating at gun shows and online to screen potential buyers to weed out felons, spousal abusers, illegal immigrants and other categories of prohibited buyer. Under current federal law, only licensed gun dealers are required to conduct those screenings.

An identical bill, sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), was shot down by the upper chamber in April after winning 55 supporters – five shy of the number needed to defeat a GOP filibuster. 

Although the National Rifle Association (NRA) had endorsed universal background checks after the 1999 shooting massacre at Columbine High School, the gun lobbying group now opposes an expansion of such screenings. Along with most Republicans, the group contends the change would shift new burdens on gun owners and threaten Second Amendment rights.

Thompson, a hunter and Vietnam veteran, is quick to reject those arguments.

"The Second Amendment does not give criminals, the dangerously mentally ill, domestic abusers the right to own and buy and use a firearm," Thompson said. 

The Thompson-King bill has 185 co-sponsors, including three Republicans, but Pelosi said there are "at least 30 more" House lawmakers who would support the measure if it came up for a vote.

"A large number of Republicans have assured Mr. Thompson and others of us that they will be there if the bill comes to the floor," Pelosi said.

Supporters of expanded background checks are quick to point out that public opinion polls show overwhelming support for the legislation.

"Ninety percent of the American people believe in background checks. It's not a courageous vote to make," Thompson said. "Will it solve every issue? No. But it is, in fact, our first line of defense. … It's the one thing government can do."

Pelosi noted that the last time major gun reforms were passed it cost many supporters their careers in Congress. But it was worth the sacrifice, she argued, to keep guns out of dangerous hands.

"Nobody's political career is more important than protecting the American people," she said. "Who among us is of such value that we would not say, 'I'll take a risk so that our kids don't have to take a risk.' "