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House passes slate of bills to restrict access to guns and ammunition; it faces long odds in Senate

Senate negotiators are trying to craft a much narrower bill.
A worker restocks AR-15 guns at a gun store in Utah in 2020.George Frey / AFP via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The House on Wednesday passed a series of new gun measures, including a measure to raise the minimum age to buy semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21, in response to a horrific spate of mass shootings across the country.

The legislative package passed in a 223-204 vote, with five Republicans joining all but two Democrats in support. It now heads to the evenly split Senate, which is not expected to take up the legislation as negotiators seek to craft a much narrower measure designed to win enough bipartisan support to overcome a GOP filibuster.

Democratic Reps. Jared Golden of Maine and Kurt Schrader of Oregon opposed the bill. The five Republicans who bucked their party were Chris Jacobs of New York, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois.

The Protecting Our Kids Act, written by Democrats, is an attempt to offer the party's vision for gun laws and to pressure Republican lawmakers who are resistant to tougher limits in response to a wave of mass shootings.

“Why? Why would someone be against raising the age so that teenagers do not have AK-47s?” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Wednesday at an event with advocates seeking to reduce gun violence. “Yes, they say mental health issues. Yes, we want to address mental health issues. Other countries have mental health issues. They don’t have a gun violence epidemic.”

House Republican leaders had sent an email to GOP offices pressuring members to vote “no” on the bill, derisively labeling it the “Unconstitutional Gun Restrictions Act.”

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said Congress should try to address the root cause of the problem and not impose gun restrictions, arguing that lawmakers did not ban airplanes after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“Airplanes were used that day as the weapon to kill thousands of people and to inflict terror on our country. There wasn’t a conversation about banning airplanes,” Scalise told reporters.

The Protecting Our Kids Act would ban large-capacity ammunition feeding devices and toughen penalties for gun trafficking and “straw purchases.” It also would establish residential gun storage rules, with criminal penalties for violations. In addition, it would require registration for bump stock-type devices and modify the definition of a "ghost gun" that is subject to regulation.

Republicans face some pressure to back tougher laws after recent shootings — including the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas — shocked the nation. A recent CBS News poll found that U.S. adults prefer stricter gun laws over less strict measures by a 5-to-1 ratio.

In the poll, 77 percent of respondents said the minimum age to buy semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 should be 21, if not older.

"The slaughter of children is not a partisan issue," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters.

Dim prospects in Senate

The legislative package is all but guaranteed to fail in the 50-50 Senate, where Republicans have effective veto power over gun legislation because of the filibuster. Separate negotiations are taking place on a slimmer bill that is unlikely to include raising the rifle purchasing age, a key provision of the House bill.

The chief Republican negotiator, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, is resistant to increasing the minimum age as he seeks a deal that can win about half the 50-member GOP caucus.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who is part of the negotiating group, said that raising the minimum age to buy semi-automatic weapons was not on the table but that “it may come up in future discussions."

Still, there are numerous signs of movement in the Senate after semi-automatic rifles were used in the recent shootings in Uvalde and in Buffalo, New York.

Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, came out for raising the age to 21 this week. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said raising the age "makes a lot of sense." And Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she is open to the idea.

“It’s certainly alarming that so many of the mass killers have been between age 18 and 21,” she said.

Some Republicans in conservative states also face calls to act.

"Wyoming is a very Second Amendment-supporting state, so I've heard many people calling in saying, 'Leave our gun rights in place.' By the same token, I've heard a lot of calls, also, from people who are saying, 'Try to find something you can do to work on this,'" Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming said.

But asked whether she would support raising the age to buy certain firearms, Lummis responded: "I would not support that."

CORRECTION (June 9, 2022, 07:52 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the title of Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md. He is the House Majority Leader, not the House Majority Whip.