The House passed legislation Friday that would ban assault weapons for the first time since 2004, in a sign that Democrats intend to pursue more aggressive gun violence prevention measures after a spate of mass shootings.
The bill passed in a largely party-line vote of 217-213, with two Republicans voting for the measure and five Democrats opposing it.
The level of GOP opposition indicates the bill is unlikely to advance in the evenly split Senate, where it would require the support of at least 10 Republicans to defeat a guaranteed filibuster. It’s also not clear if the measure has the support of all 50 Senate Democrats.
The legislation, authored by Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., would criminalize the knowing sale, manufacture, transfer, possession or importation of many types of semi-automatic weapons and large-capacity ammunition feeding devices.
President Joe Biden praised House Democrats for passing the bill and urged the Senate to follow suit.
"When guns are the number one killer of children in America, when more children die from guns than active-duty police and active-duty military combined, we have to act," he said in a statement. "Today, House Democrats acted by unifying to pass an assault weapons ban to keep weapons of war off our streets, save lives in this country, and reduce crime in our communities."
He added that the Senate should "move quickly to get this bill to my desk, and I will not stop fighting until it does."
During floor debate before Friday's vote, House Democrats argued an assault weapons ban was needed because of the number of recent shootings where gunmen have used assault-style weapons.
"Our nation has watched in unspeakable horror as assault weapons have been used in massacre after massacre in communities across the country," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. "We know that an assault weapons ban can work because it has worked before."
Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee asked: “How many more mass shootings must we endure? When will we learn?”
The Judiciary Committee advanced the measure last week on a party-line vote of 25 to 18.
House Republicans on Friday insisted the legislation was unconstitutional and that Democrats want to confiscate firearms.
"Today, they’re coming for your guns,” Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee. "They want to take all guns from all people."
This bill “will make communities, I think, less safe,” he added.
The assault weapons ban would not apply to some types of firearms, including antiques, rifles and shotguns explicitly identified by make and model, and guns that are manually operated in a variety of ways.
Former President Bill Clinton signed into law a 10-year assault weapons ban in 1994. It expired in 2004. Several studies, including one published in 2019 in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, have shown that mass shooting deaths were reduced during the years the ban was in effect.
Senate Republicans have not been open to any additional gun measures after passing bipartisan legislation last month aimed at enhancing background checks to include juvenile records and providing grants to states to enact “red flag” laws.
The five House Democrats who voted against the assault weapons ban were Reps. Henry Cuellar and Vicente Gonzalez of Texas, Kurt Schrader of Oregon, Jared Golden of Maine and Ron Kind of Wisconsin.
The two Republicans who crossed the aisle to support the bill were Reps. Chris Jacobs of New York and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania. Jacobs' district includes Buffalo, where a white gunman has been charged with killing 10 Black people in a racist mass shooting at a supermarket in May.
In a brief interview with NBC News after the vote, Jacobs said that while he doesn't expect the Senate to pass the bill, he hopes it "begins the dialogue towards something."
"I'm not being unrealistic that this is going to pass. The Senate doesn't seem inclined at this point in time to do it," he said.
The cause of tougher gun laws has gained traction in Congress and in U.S. public opinion surveys after the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas. The push for gun limits also represents a desire for Democrats to turn the tables on the GOP on the issue of crime heading into the November midterm elections.
The House had planned to vote on the assault weapons ban earlier this week alongside legislation to provide funding for local police departments. But members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other progressives balked at the latter measures, calling for more accountability measures in exchange for funding. They struck a deal to move forward solely on the assault weapons ban Friday.
Pelosi said the House would continue to work on the police funding legislation for future consideration.
Rep. Joyce Beatty, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, told reporters she was proud of the CBC's leadership in striking Friday's deal and grateful to Pelosi for listening to their concerns. She described the assault weapons vote as "step one" in addressing violence and policing.
"We have people from Uvalde and Parkland who are here today with those children, asking us to make sure that we do an assault ban. ... Now, are we done? No, we’re not done. We will come back and we will look at the guardrails that we’re putting in," she said, referring to the 2018 mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Friday's vote comes days after the House Oversight Committee held a contentious hearing in which Democrats pressed gun manufacturers to take responsibility for their role in the gun violence epidemic and took a look at what they termed "disturbing sales tactics" to get young men to buy assault weapons.