Bipartisan lawmakers launch uphill battle to expand background checks
A bipartisan pair of lawmakers introduced legislation on Wednesday designed to keep firearms from the hands of violent people — a wildly popular idea that has virtually no chance of moving in the GOP-controlled House.
Sponsored by Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), the bill would require background checks for essentially all gun purchases, marking a broad expansion of a screening system that currently exempts an array of private sellers.
“This bill is very straight-forward; it’s not complicated. And it just closes the loopholes,” Fitzpatrick told reporters just outside the Capitol. “Eighty-five percent of the public supports this, it should be easy.”
If history is any indication, it won’t be.
The powerful gun lobby, while once pushing for universal background checks, has shifted gears over the last two decades to oppose the screening expansion as an infringement on Second Amendment rights. And Republicans on Capitol Hill have adopted that argument in successfully blocking the proposal from becoming law over those years.
Under Democratic control, the House passed the background check bill in both of the last two Congresses, but it failed to overcome a GOP filibuster in the Senate. With Republicans taking over the lower chamber this year, it likely won’t get even that far.
“We will not eliminate gun violence or prevent mass shootings by making it harder for law-abiding citizens to exercise their right of self-defense,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), who was himself a victim of gun violence in 2017, said after voting against the bill last year.
Fitzpatrick, a co-chairman of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus and a former FBI agent, acknowledged that he has his work cut out in convincing his fellow Republicans to get on board.
“That’s part of my job, is making this bipartisan,” he said. “It’s not just appearing at press conferences, but it’s to work my conference.”
Supporters of expanded background checks have plenty of company, as public opinion polls consistently reveal the idea to be enormously popular. A Gallup survey last year found that 92 percent of voters support it — a figure that’s fluctuated little in recent years.
Yet surveys also reveal that voters do not prioritize gun reforms when they go to the polls, a dynamic that’s acted to shield Republican opponents from any significant political backlash.
Thompson emphasized another statistic — much more bleak — that gun reformers hope will cause background check opponents to reconsider: Firearms are now the single greatest cause of death among children.
“Things are changing,” said Thompson, a gun-owning veteran of the Vietnam War. “It is more urgent today than it was yesterday.”
The bill arrives amid a spate of mass shootings around the country, including one in southern California where 11 people were fatally shot, and another in northern California where seven people were killed. All told, there have been more than three dozen mass shootings in the first month of 2023 alone.
“It’s only a matter of time before this becomes law,” Fitzpatrick said. “We just want to make sure that it’s sooner rather than later. Because every day that passes by that this is not the law of the land … more lives are put at risk unnecessarily.”
Under current law, licensed gun dealers are required to run potential buyers through an FBI database — the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) — to screen out felons, undocumented immigrants, spousal abusers, the severely mentally ill or anyone in a category that would bar them from buying or owning weapons. But unlicensed gun sellers — like those frequently operating at gun shows or on the internet — are not required to conduct the same screenings.
That distinction, according to gun reform advocates, creates an enormous loophole that poses a constant threat to public safety.
“The Brady background check system has been proven to work — we are stopping millions of individuals who would do harm from having access to these weapons,” Christian Heyne, vice president of policy and programs at Brady, which advocates for tougher gun laws, said Wednesday. “But we can’t do it unless we require it across the board.”
Fitzpatrick said the next step in the process will be to gather co-sponsors for the bill, and then he plans to huddle with GOP leaders to make a pitch for bringing it up for a vote.
“It’s going to be at the top of my list of asks of leadership, to just give it a floor vote,” he said. “Let democracy take hold.”
Last year, Congress took the rare step of adopting new gun reforms, including provisions to boost mental health funding, encourage states to adopt red-flag laws and expand background checks for buyers under age 21. Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the leading Republican on the bill, joined Biden in hailing the package for its life-saving potential. But the backlash from gun rights groups was severe.
“It was a great piece of legislation, I’m glad it passed. But Cornyn went through hell, and he shouldn’t have because he was doing his job,” said Fitzpatrick, acknowledging the political risks for Republicans who endorse tougher gun laws.
He also conceded that Republicans have been the sole impediment to enacting a background check bill — with exceptions.
“Not this one,” Fitzpatrick said.
“I can only speak for myself,” he added, “but I’ve got to work on my colleagues.”
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