WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday night approved a package of gun violence prevention measures proposed by Democrats after a string of mass shootings in Oklahoma, Texas and New York.
The committee advanced the legislation in a 25-19 vote that broke down along party lines. The House is scheduled to vote on the package next week.
The Protecting Our Kids Act would create new federal offenses for gun trafficking and "straw purchases" and raise the legal age to buy a semi-automatic rifle from 18 to 21. It would also provide incentives for states to pass red flag laws, which would allow authorities to confiscate guns from people deemed to be risks to themselves or others.
The package includes many of the measures President Joe Biden called for in a prime-time address Thursday from the White House.
“I’ll never give up. If Congress fails, I believe this time a majority of American people won’t give up, either,” Biden said. “I believe the majority of you will act to turn outrage to make sure this issue is central to your vote. Enough, enough, enough."
Democrats are trying to harness momentum for changes to the country’s gun laws after a string of mass shootings. Some moderate Republicans have expressed openness to certain proposals, although most conservative lawmakers oppose the package, signaling that it is unlikely to pass the Senate.
But congressional Democrats also face some internal pushback against their approach.
Reps. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania sent a letter Thursday with 19 other House Democrats asking House leadership to “immediately” take stand-alone votes on each of the eight bills in the package to garner “the maximum chance of passing gun violence prevention legislation in the Senate and into law.”
Thursday’s committee meeting was held during Congress’ weeklong recess, with members back home in their districts participating virtually and others appearing in person.
The marathon debate became tense at times, particularly when GOP members twice displayed guns during the virtual hearing.
Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla., who participated via Zoom, showed several guns and argued that Democratic proposals would limit the kinds of firearms Americans could carry, including certain handguns he owns.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, told Steube she hoped the guns were "not loaded," to which he replied: "I'm in my house. I can do whatever I want with my guns."
Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, later showed guns from his own collection.
Democrats spoke passionately about the need for Congress to take concrete action that they argue would prevent more gun violence. They also criticized Republicans who have blocked legislative action for years.
Committee Chair Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., opened the meeting by quoting the Talmud.
"In the days since the shooting at Tops Friendly Markets store in Buffalo, New York, and in the long, sad nights since the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, I have turned to a particular teaching in the Talmud: 'Whoever kills one life kills the world entire, and whoever saves one life saves the world entire,'" Nadler said.
He challenged Republicans who have repeatedly argued that Democrats are politicizing mass shootings to enact new policies. Emphasizing the urgency of the matter, Nadler noted how much time has passed since major mass shootings without substantive action by Congress — 23 years since the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, 15 years since the shooting at Virginia Tech, seven years since the shooting at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and four years since the shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.
Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa., said she was "stunned" by her GOP colleagues’ comments. "Where is the outrage over the slaughter of 19 fourth graders and their two teachers?" she said, raising her voice in frustration. "One of the children recounted how she took the blood of her dead friend lying near her and smeared herself with that blood to pretend to be dead."
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., questioned whether Republicans were there for the children who were killed last week or for the gunman.
"If you were here for the kids, you would do all you could to protect the next school shooting that’s about to happen," he said. "But if you’re here for the killers, you would do everything to make it easier for the next school shooting to happen."
Swalwell responded to the committee's ranking member, Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who said Democrats are trying to dramatically change the country. "If trying to make sure that no more kids are put in the ground with a Superman coffin means dramatically change the country — guilty," he said in reference to a coffin made for one of the children killed last week.
Democrats tried to appeal to Republicans by repeatedly noting former President Donald Trump’s support of red flag laws.
In 2019, Trump said the Parkland gunman a year earlier had “many red flags against him” and complained that little had been done to stop him.
“We must make sure those judged to pose a grave risk to public safety do not have access to firearms and that if they do those firearms can be taken through rapid due process,” Trump said at the time.
Republicans argued Thursday that the Democratic legislative package would do nothing to prevent more mass shootings and repeated their argument that guns are not the issue that needs to be addressed. They said the effort by Democrats was part of a broader plan to dismantle the Second Amendment.
"What this bill does is it tells law-abiding citizens when you can get a gun, what kind of gun you can get, what accessories you can get for your gun and where and how you have to store it in your own darn home. That's what this bill does. This is an assault," Jordan said. "This is just the beginning. Their goal, plain and simple, is to get rid of the Second Amendment."
Democrats have reiterated that their goal is not to take away Second Amendment protections.
Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, offered an amendment that would seek to "harden schools" or expand resources for districts to hire more school safety officers by reaching out to retired police officers or former military service members.
Nadler and other Democrats, however, said the GOP proposal was misguided and did not address the core issue of guns.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., whose state has had numerous mass shootings in recent years, such as the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and the Parkland school shooting, rejected the Democratic package.
"Maybe we ought to focus on the circumstances that cause these people to commit these shootings," he said. "Maybe we ought to get rid of the gun-free zones that are causing this scourge of violence, and maybe we ought to really put the victims first not through virtue signaling, but through pensive, thoughtful legislation."
Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Wis., said Democrats always have a "knee-jerk reaction to punish law-abiding citizens for the sins of the few."
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Wednesday at an event in San Francisco that the full House will vote on the legislative package next week. She also said Democrats plan to consider some version of an "assault weapons" ban.
Once the initial package advances, "we will be having a hearing and marking up the assault weapons ban following all of that," she said.
Biden also called for an assault weapons ban Thursday.
President Bill Clinton signed the first assault weapons ban into law in 1994; it expired in 2004. Republican opposition has prevented Congress from re-enacting it.
The prospects for the new package are not much better. It will face an uphill battle in the Senate, where Democrats will need at least 10 Republicans to join them to overcome a filibuster.
A bipartisan group of senators, however, has agreed on the outlines of gun violence prevention legislation. The negotiations began almost immediately after the mass shooting in Uvalde last week, in which 19 children and two teachers were killed.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Wednesday, "We are making rapid progress toward a commonsense package that could garner support from both Republicans and Democrats."