The Democrat-led House on Wednesday broke a years-long stalemate over gun control legislation, approving a bill to expand background checks to nearly all firearms sales and transfers.
The measure is unlikely to survive the Senate, but House Democrats said at least they made good on vows to aggressively push the issue in the wake of a spate of high-profile mass shootings.
“Can we guarantee that this will work to make every person safe? It cannot. It will not,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said in a floor speech. “But I rise in strong support of doing something, and in this case doing something that 90 percent of America supports.”
The legislation passed 240-190, with eight Republicans voting yes and two Democrats voting no.
Republicans said that while well-intentioned, the legislation wouldn’t have prevented recent massacres where shooters had legally acquired their firearms or where the National Instant Criminal Background Check System — NICS — failed to flag someone.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, who survived a shooting at a congressional baseball practice in June 2017, said Democrats weren’t interested in hearing his testimony on the issue.
“Every day on average in this country, guns are used by good people to defend themselves against bad people, and it’s going to make it harder for them to get access to these guns,” the Louisiana Republican said.
Under current law, a dozen categories of people, ranging from those with criminal convictions to those with mental health problems to illegal immigrants, are barred from buying firearms.
But only federally licensed gun dealers are required to run potential buyers through NICS. Democrats said felons and terrorists are potentially slipping through the cracks by buying guns online and at private gun shows.
Republicans did score a victory during Wednesday’s action, tacking on an amendment requiring NICS to notify the Department of Homeland Security any time an illegal immigrant tries to buy a gun. Deportation officers would then be able to decide whether to try to pick the person up.
Illegal immigrants attempted to buy guns more than 3,000 times both in 2016 and 2017.
Democratic leaders opposed the amendment, complaining the illegal immigration aspect was an attempt to “muck this up with a gimmick.”
But enough Democrats joined with Republicans to approve the notifications.
Still, gun control advocates hailed the broader vote as historic, after they had been stymied on major federal gun legislation since the 1990s.
Congress voted to set up NICS in 1993 and passed a ban on military-style “assault” weapons in 1994. That ban lapsed a decade later, though the background checks have remained in effect and draw strong bipartisan support in public polls.
“Americans finally have a majority in the House of Representatives that is listening to them,” said former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was gravely wounded at a constituent event in January 2011 and has since become a prominent advocate of gun control.
After years of being outspent and outmanned by gun-rights groups, Democrats say the politics of the issue are fundamentally shifting in their favor after the February 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students and educators at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were killed.
But Sen. John Kennedy, Louisiana Republican, said there was little chance the GOP-controlled Senate would take up the legislation.
“What’s less than none? If there’s something less than none, that’s the chance,” Mr. Kennedy said.
The White House has said President Trump’s advisers would recommend that he veto the bill if it makes it to his desk.
Even facing those hurdles, the House is set to vote this week on another gun bill from House Majority Whip James Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat. It would extend the amount of time a dealer has to wait to hear back from the FBI on whether a would-be purchaser is barred from having a gun before proceeding with a sale.
Mr. Clyburn’s bill is intended to close the “Charleston loophole.” That’s a reference to gunman Dylann Roof, who shot and killed nine black parishioners at a South Carolina church in 2015.
The FBI said a communication breakdown allowed Roof to buy a gun shortly before the shooting despite a prior drug-related arrest.