House Dems make gun control action an early priority

House Democrats unveiled legislation on Tuesday to require universal background checks for gun purchases as one of their first moves in a newly empowered majority.

The bill’s introduction came eight years to the day after the deadly shooting rampage that nearly killed former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who since then has become one of the nation’s most prominent advocates for tougher gun laws.

Democrats touted the bill as a significant shift from eight years of GOP rule in the House, a period when the nation experienced the most deadly incidents of gun violence in its history but saw zero action on the issue from the lower chamber.

The new background check bill is designated “H.R. 8” in an implicit rebuke of House Republicans.

“So many times after we've had a tragedy... we would vote on the floor and have a moment of silence. And that's it. Silence, no action,”Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiWhy Omar’s views are dangerous Pelosi asks members to support resolution against emergency declaration Overnight Defense: Graham clashed with Pentagon chief over Syria | Talk grows that Trump will fire Coats | Coast Guard officer accused of domestic terrorism plot MORE (D-Calif.) said in discussing the new bill.

Now, Pelosi said, “we say, enough is enough.”

While its all-but-certain passage in the House would mark the first major congressional action on gun control in years, the bill is unlikely to pass the GOP-controlled Senate and become law.

The universal background checks measure also represents the lowest-hanging fruit for gun reform advocates, who have pushed for additional and more controversial gun control measures, like banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

“Today we're just celebrating background checks,” said Charlie Mirsky, 18, a lobbyist for March for Our Lives, the group founded by survivors of last year’s shooting at a Parkland, Fla. high school. But, he added, “Americans across the country should be expecting more in the next couple months.”

Still, the decision by Democratic leaders to make gun control a priority in the new House majority’s first days in office shows how much the party has changed on the issue.

In 2007, House Democrats spent the first days of their majority voting on bills to raise the minimum wage; adopt national security proposals from the 9/11 Commission; offer student loan relief; grant funding for stem cell research; and lower prescription drug costs.

Gun control was viewed as a third rail that could put vulnerable lawmakers in a tough spot. Indeed, when some Democrats requested a hearing on background checks in 2010, they were refused.

But legislation to expand background checks for gun sales now has virtually universal backing in the Democratic Caucus, even among more moderate members. That shift is a reflection of overwhelming public support for the issue, which has only grown as a string of deadly mass shootings has grabbed headlines in recent years, sparked a national outcry and created a new army of advocates clamoring for tougher gun restrictions, including students affected by mass shootings at schools.

Some newly elected Democrats in competitive districts even actively ran on gun control, like Rep. Lucy McBathLucia (Lucy) Kay McBathObama, Steph Curry team up to tell young men of color: 'You matter' How gun control activists learned from the NRA Dem whose son was killed in shooting: Gun violence is the real national emergency, ‘not a wall’ MORE (D-Ga.), who became an activist after losing her son to gun violence. McBath won a suburban Atlanta district President TrumpDonald John TrumpJustice Department preparing for Mueller report as soon as next week: reports Smollett lawyers declare 'Empire' star innocent Pelosi asks members to support resolution against emergency declaration MORE narrowly carried in 2016.

"This bill is further proof that gun safety is no longer the third rail of American politics,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety.  

Sponsored by Reps. Mike ThompsonCharles (Mike) Michael ThompsonHouse panel advances bill to expand background checks for gun sales Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by America's 340B Hospitals — Utah tests Trump on Medicaid expansion | Dems roll out Medicare buy-in proposal | Medicare for all could get hearing next month | Doctors group faces political risks on guns Key doctors group faces political risks on guns MORE (D-Calif.) and Peter King (R-N.Y.), the legislation would expand the federal background checks that precede commercial gun sales. Aside from King, four Republicans have endorsed the background check bill: Reps. Chris SmithChristopher (Chris) Henry SmithHouse Dems release 2020 GOP 'retirements to watch' for Dems escalate gun fight a year after Parkland House panel advances bill to expand background checks for gun sales MORE (N.J.), Fred UptonFrederick (Fred) Stephen UptonThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Sanders set to shake up 2020 race House Dems release 2020 GOP 'retirements to watch' for Bill Clinton jokes no one would skip Dingell's funeral: 'Only time' we could get the last word MORE (Mich.), Brian MastBrian Jeffrey MastDems escalate gun fight a year after Parkland House panel advances bill to expand background checks for gun sales House Dems unveil initial GOP targets in 2020 MORE (Fla.) and Brian FitzpatrickBrian K. FitzpatrickDems escalate gun fight a year after Parkland House panel advances bill to expand background checks for gun sales Overnight Energy: Court rules for Trump in environmental case over border wall | House bill would stop Alaska refuge drilling | Ads target Dems over Green New Deal MORE (Pa.).

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, illegal immigrants, spousal abusers, the severely mentally ill, or another category that would bar them from buying or owning weapons. But unlicensed gun sellers — including those operating at gun shows or on the internet — are not required to conduct the same screenings.Gun reforms advocates say that creates an enormous loophole that poses a constant threat to public safety.

“By closing these loopholes and expanding background checks we will make our communities safer,” McBath said Tuesday. “Quite simply, background checks save lives.”

The gun lobby has stood in the way of an expansion of background check laws.

Although the National Rifle Association (NRA) endorsed the idea in 1999, following the deadly mass shooting at a high school in Colorado, the group has reversed course more recently to oppose any such expansion as an infringement on constitutional rights — a message echoed by many Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Richard HudsonRichard Lane HudsonAssault weapons ban push tests Dem support House Dems make gun control action an early priority House GOP returns to Washington after sobering midterm losses MORE (R-N.C.) this week hammered the Democrats as “hypocritical” for pushing legislation he says “would have done nothing to prevent the horrific attack on Rep. Giffords and only serve to punish law-abiding citizens.”

“This legislation does nothing to prevent gun violence, yet threatens the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens,” Hudson said.

It remains to be seen how the Senate will respond when the House sends the bill to the upper chamber. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFox News has covered Ocasio-Cortez more than any 2020 Dem besides Warren: analysis Durbin after reading Green New Deal: 'What in the heck is this?' Dems think they're beating Trump in emergency declaration battle MORE (R-Ky.) opposed a background check bill brought to the Senate floor in 2013 and has shown no inclination to support tougher gun laws.

Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyOvernight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general WH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns Top GOP candidate drops out of Ohio Senate race MORE (R-Pa.) expressed hope in an op-ed for the Allentown Morning Call that House passage of a background checks bill would “boost momentum” for his own proposal to cover all commercial gun sales.

“A silver lining of Democratic control of the House is that they may pass background check legislation,” Toomey wrote. “Congress should finally come together and enact our bill.”

Toomey's bipartisan measure with Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinGabbard cites ‘concerns’ about ‘vagueness’ of Green New Deal Democrats brush off GOP 'trolling' over Green New Deal Senate confirms Trump pick William Barr as new attorney general MORE (D-W.Va.) fell five votes short of passage of the Senate in 2013 in the face of opposition from the National Rifle Association.

Giffords expressed hope that the shifting tides in Congress will lead to a different outcome on gun control issues.

“Stopping gun violence takes courage, the courage to do what’s right. … Now is the time to come together and be responsible,” Giffords said, surrounded by fellow survivors of gun violence at an event in the Capitol unveiling the legislation.

“The nation is counting on you.”