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House Democrats’ sweeping gun control package could be even bigger

Lawmakers have a chance to send an aggressive message about the measures they support.

Students participate in a school walk-out and protest in front of City Hall to condemn gun violence, in Los Angeles, California on May 31, 2022.
Ringo Chiu/AFP/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

As the Senate tries to find a compromise on gun control legislation, the House is moving ahead with its own package on the issue, starting with an emergency markup this week.

Although lawmakers are currently on recess, the House Judiciary Committee returned Thursday for an urgent session focused on multiple bills intended to address the age limit for purchasing guns, the sale of large-capacity magazines, and firearm storage. During the markup, committee members approved the package, setting it up for a floor vote as soon as next week.

This legislation — which will inevitably be blocked in the Senate — is an acknowledgment of the importance of this issue, and a way for Democrats to show voters that they are trying to take action in the wake of recent mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, Uvalde, Texas, and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

As part of this week’s meeting, Democrats considered eight bills, which they’ve dubbed the Protect Our Kids Package. This legislation is in addition to votes the House will take on a federal red-flag law sponsored by Rep. Lucy McBath (D-GA), which enables law enforcement to confiscate weapons from an individual who’s seen as a threat to themselves or others, as well as a markup it will conduct on an assault weapons ban. House Democrats also previously voted on two bills that would strengthen background checks for guns.

The House actions are occurring in parallel with bipartisan talks in the Senate that are expected to result in a much narrower bill, if any at all. Earlier this week, Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Thom Tillis (R-NC), and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) met via Zoom to continue discussions about a possible deal that’s likely to center on “red flag laws” or background checks. President Joe Biden has also encouraged Congress to act and will continue to do so in a Thursday speech. Thus far, the lawmakers have yet to reach a concrete agreement, however.

The House’s expedited consideration of the gun control bills is notable, though it doesn’t include certain provisions shown to be effective at reducing gun violence in several states, such as legislation requiring gun licensing. Since these bills aren’t expected to pass the Senate, going further in this package would allow Democrats to contrast themselves even more with Republicans — and send a stronger message about the reforms the party’s willing to consider.

The gun control bills Democrats are considering — and what they would do

Democrats marked up eight bills that limit gun access to younger people and require safer storage practices. Several of these measures have been shown by researchers at the state level to reduce gun violence, and would be significant if passed.

“I do think this would have a meaningful impact on reducing gun deaths,” says Kerri Raissian, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut whose work has focused on gun violence prevention.

Democrats’ gun control package includes the following bills:

  • The Raise the Age Act: This bill raises the age to purchase certain semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21. Currently, individuals already have to be 21 to buy a handgun from a federally licensed dealer, though there’s no such rule for semi-automatic rifles. Increasing the age limit for gun purchases could be effective because a major proportion of gun violence is perpetrated by people under the age of 25, who are responsible for almost 50 percent of homicides, according to FBI data.

In multiple mass shootings this year, including in Uvalde and Buffalo, the perpetrator was 18 or younger.

  • Prevent Gun Trafficking Act: Unlicensed gun sellers are presently able to sell large numbers of guns, which could be distributed across state lines, including from places with lax gun control laws to places with strong ones. This law would make trafficking guns across state lines a criminal offense.
  • The Untraceable Firearms Act: The Biden administration has already sought to regulate “ghost guns,” or guns that people are able to build at home using a kit. Those who purchase and assemble guns in this way haven’t had to abide by the same federal restrictions as those who buy more traditional guns from licensed sellers.

This legislation would codify the administration’s regulations and require those buying ghost guns to undergo a background check, and require ghost guns to have serial numbers so they’re easier to trace.

  • Ethan’s Law, the Safe Guns, Safe Kids Act, and the Kimberly Vaughn Firearm Safety Act: These bills would require safe storage of firearms in a home where a minor might be able to access it; those who do not abide by this law would face criminal penalties and the seizure of their gun.
  • Closing the Bump Stock Loophole Act: Former President Donald Trump banned bump stocks — an accessory that attaches to rifles which enables faster shooting — and this bill would codify that executive action, so that it would be enshrined into law and more difficult to undo. A bump stock was used in a 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas.
  • The Keep Americans Safe Act: Large-capacity magazines are seen as contributing heavily to mass shootings since it enables an individual to shoot multiple rounds of ammunition very quickly. This provision would ban the sale of large-capacity magazines and make it tougher to obtain the tools that have been used in these shootings.

“If you can’t get your hands on large-capacity magazines, you’d be less able to shoot as many people,” says Columbia doctoral student Paul Reeping, who’s studied gun violence prevention.

At this point, it’s still unclear whether these bills will get a vote as a package or as individual bills, given the concerns some members of the conference have about specific provisions.

But many Democratic representatives have emphasized that voting on these bills will help voters clearly understand where they stand ahead of the midterms.

“The American people are demanding for us to act. They gave us the majority in 2018 because we promised to act,” more than 100 lawmakers wrote in a letter to Democratic leadership last week. “We must not squander this opportunity to show the American people that the Democratic-led House is serious about saving lives and stopping gun violence.”

Democrats could still think bigger

The House’s expedited consideration of the gun control bills would likely help reduce gun violence if the bills became law, but as German Lopez previously explained for Vox, the policies that could have the most impact are ones that reduce the number of guns that people have. These include proposals like gun licensing, which would curb the number of guns that are sold because it makes it more difficult to obtain them.

“These laws, which currently are in place in nine states for handguns, are associated with reductions in firearm homicide including mass shootings,” says Cassandra Crifasi, a researcher at Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. Gun licensing programs, like the one established in Connecticut, require people to undergo a background check and gun safety training. Since the implementation of the licensing law, Connecticut saw its firearm homicide rate decline by 40 percent.

Since none of the House bills are expected to pass the Senate, it would make sense for the chamber’s Democrats to introduce more expansive legislation that addresses the number of guns in circulation. Doing so would make a stronger point about what the party’s willing to consider.

A big reason they might be limiting what they pursue, however, is the political constraints they face within their own conference. As the Washington Post reported, House Democrats could see moderate members defect on gun control legislation.

In the past, Reps. Jared Golden (D-ME) and Ron Kind (D-MI) are among those who’ve voted against background check bills in the House, while a handful of others have done the same on past legislation. Since Republicans are widely poised to oppose any gun control measures, Democratic unity is important for these votes. There’s current uncertainty about whether there are enough Democratic votes for an assault weapons ban as well.

A House Judiciary spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the policies under consideration.

Gun violence experts note that legislation addressing the connection between domestic violence and gun violence would also be helpful. Advocates have long pushed for lawmakers to close what’s known as the “boyfriend loophole” in the Violence Against Women Act: Currently, a person could be barred form owning a firearm if they face a domestic violence conviction, but only if they are married to, lived with, or share a child with the victim. Democrats have repeatedly attempted to close this loophole, but faced pushback from Republicans.

With the Senate unlikely to consider more sweeping proposals, House Democrats have a chance to use their platform to be more aggressive on guns. Their decision not to do so is a reminder of the degree to which political reality limits the gun control conversation — even among Democrats.