The House has passed legislation to revive a ban on semi-automatic 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 US, the high-powered firearms are now widely blamed 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 had “saved lives”.
The House legislation is shunned by Republicans, who dismissed it as an election-year strategy by Democrats. Almost all Republicans voted against the bill, which passed 217-213. It will probably stall in the 50-50 Senate.
The bill comes at a time of intensifying concerns about gun violence and shootings – the supermarket shooting in Buffalo, New York; massacre of school children in Uvalde, Texas; and the Fourth of July shooting 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 marriages from potential supreme court legal challenges won a surprising amount of bipartisan support.
Joe Biden, who was instrumental in helping secure the first semi-automatic 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 for 10 years while 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 Guy Reschenthaler of Pennsylvania.
Said Andrew Clyde of Georgia: “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.
Jim McGovern of Massachusetts said the weapons ban was not about taking away Americans’ second amendment rights but ensuring that children also had the right “to not get shot in school”.
National gun violence prevention organizations are describing the House’s actions as a promising step toward getting future restrictions passed at the federal level.
“Just a few years ago this would have been unthinkable,” said Trevon Bosley, a board member of March for Our Lives. The organization was born after a young gunman shot and killed 17 students and staff of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
“This bill won’t save lives yet, but it does send a powerful message to the millions of young people who are growing up fighting for our lives: change is possible.”
The bill would make it unlawful to import, sell or manufacture a long list of semi-automatic weapons. Jerry Nadler, chair of the judiciary committee, said it exempts those already in possession.
Since the previous ban expired nearly two decades ago, 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 also make candidates’ stance on gun legislation clear ahead of the midterm elections.
Congress passed a modest gun violence prevention package just last month in the aftermath of the tragic shooting of 19 school children 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 for those convicted of domestic abuse outside of marriages.
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 US 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.
Abené Clayton contributed reporting