The United States Senate has approved a bipartisan package of modest gun safety measures as the country’s Supreme Court broadly expanded gun rights by ruling that Americans have a constitutional right to carry handguns in public for self-defence.
The Senate’s action on Thursday and the Supreme Court ruling, which was pushed through by its conservative majority, illustrate the deep divide over firearms in the US, weeks after mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, killed more than 30 people, including 19 children.
The Senate bill, approved in a 65-33 vote, is the first significant gun control legislation to pass in three decades, in a country with the highest gun ownership per capita in the world and the highest number of mass shootings annually among wealthy nations.
Some 15 Republicans joined all 50 Democrats in voting for the bill.
“This bipartisan legislation will help protect Americans. Kids in schools and communities will be safer because of it,” President Joe Biden said following the vote. “The House of Representatives should promptly vote on this bipartisan bill and send it to my desk.”
The bill, which supporters say will save lives, is modest. Its most important restraint on gun ownership would tighten background checks for would-be gun purchasers convicted of domestic violence or significant crimes as juveniles.
Republicans refused to compromise on more sweeping gun control measures favoured by Democrats, including Biden, such as a ban on assault-style rifles or high-capacity magazines.
“This is not a cure-all for the ways gun violence affects our nation, but it is a long-overdue step in the right direction,” Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the floor ahead of the vote.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi applauded the bill’s passage and said in a statement that it would advance in the House on Friday, with a vote coming as soon as possible. House Republicans had instructed their members to vote against the bill, although since the chamber is controlled by Democrats their support was not needed for the bill’s passage. Biden will sign the bill into law.
The day proved bittersweet for advocates of curtailing gun violence. Underscoring the enduring potency of conservative cIout, the right-leaning Supreme Court struck down New York state’s limits on carrying concealed handguns outside the home.
The court found that the law, enacted in 1913, violated a person’s right to “keep and bear arms” under the US Constitution’s Second Amendment.
Democrats warned that the Supreme Court ruling on Thursday could have dire consequences for gun safety nationwide.
“The Supreme Court got the ruling wrong,” Senator Chris Murphy, the lead Democratic negotiator on the gun safety legislation, said in an interview.
“I’m deeply worried about the court’s willingness to take away from elected bodies the ability to protect our constituents and that has real grave implications for the safety of our country,” said Murphy, whose home state of Connecticut saw 26 people killed in a 2012 shooting at an elementary school.
Conservatives defend a broad reading of the Second Amendment, which they say limits most new restrictions on gun purchases.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, however, hailed the justices’ decision and Senate passage of the gun bill as “complementary victories that will make our country freer and safer at the same time”.
In a nod to the Second Amendment right to bear arms that drives many conservative voters, McConnell said, “The American people want their constitutional rights protected and their kids to be safe in school.” He said, “They want both of those things at once, and that is just what the bill before the Senate will have accomplished.”
He added, “It does not so much as touch the rights of the overwhelming majority of American gun owners, who are law-abiding citizens of sound mind.”
The Senate’s 80-page Bipartisan Safer Communities Act would encourage states to keep guns out of the hands of those deemed to be dangerous and tighten background checks for would-be gun buyers convicted of domestic violence or significant crimes as juveniles.
The bill provides funding to help states adopt “red flag” laws to keep firearms out of the hands of those deemed a danger to themselves or others. It would also fund alternative intervention measures in states where red flag laws are opposed and provide for enhanced school security.
It closes the “boyfriend loophole” by denying gun purchases to those convicted of abusing intimate partners in dating relationships, although if they have no further convictions or penalties they will be allowed to buy again.
It also allows states to add juvenile criminal and mental health records to national background check databases.
More than 20,800 people have been killed in gun violence in the US in 2022, including through homicide and suicide, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit research group.