Ex-congresswoman Gabby Giffords attacks the bill, which passed by 231 to 197 and removes states’ power to control who can carry concealed, loaded handguns
On the day of an annual vigil in Washington DC that honors the victims of American gun violence, congressional Republicans passed a Trump-endorsed bill that would eviscerate local gun restrictions, removing states’ power to control who is allowed to carry a concealed, loaded handgun in their streets.
The bill passed the House of Representatives by a margin of 231-197. Fourteen Republicans voted against while six Democrats voted for it.
Former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who survived being shot in the head in a 2011 mass shooting, called the vote “unthinkable”.
“The House of Representatives passed a bill that would let almost anyone carry loaded, concealed firearms almost anywhere in the United States,” Giffords said in an email to gun control supporters.
Officials in New York and Los Angeles warn that the legislation would allow an unknown numbers of tourists – perhaps hundreds of thousands each year – to carry concealed handguns into America’s densest urban areas, including Times Square and the New York City subway. Big city police chiefs across the county have spoken out against the bill, calling it a law enforcement nightmare.
The bill, which is the National Rifle Association’s “number one legislative priority” has prompted a renewed battle over states’ rights, with Democrats for once arguing against the power of the federal government, and Republicans hoping to use that federal power to undermine local control.
“It’s so transparently hypocritical. Republicans spend all day talking about states’ rights, except when it comes to guns. When it comes to guns, they want to take away states’ ability to make decisions for themselves,” Senator Chris Murphy, a leading gun control advocate who represents Newtown, Connecticut, said on Tuesday, in advance of the vote.
The NRA called the vote a “watershed moment”, one more step in what the group’s chief lobbyist, Chris Cox, described as a “30-year movement” to ensure that Americans can carry their self-defense weapons across state lines.
Despite an easy victory in the House, the bill faces a much more uphill battle in the Senate, where it would need 60 votes to pass. “Right now, there’s no indication that the Senate Republicans want to take this legislation up. In fact, the opposite,” Murphy said. “My suspicion is there are not 60 votes for a national concealed weapons bill [in the Senate],” he said.
Americans have a constitutional right to own guns in their home for self-defense. But America's 50 states have dramatically different laws when it comes to carrying guns in public, which all states allow in some form.
Twelve conservative states now generally do not require any permit or training for an adult to carry a loaded handgun in public, a policy called "constitutional carry."
In contrast, seven more liberal states issue permits sparingly and require citizens to demonstrate a justifiable need for carrying a concealed weapon. These tougher laws mean that few residents of cities Los Angeles or New York are given permits to carry concealed guns.
There is also wide variation in training requirements – from states that require applicants to demonstrate actual proficiency in firing a gun, to Virginia, which requires only an online safety training course.
Under current law, states do not have to recognize carry permits issued by other states, creating a confusing patchwork of regulations on whether gun owners from one state can carry their concealed weapon in another state. For years, the NRA has been trying to pass a federal law to require every state to recognize every other state's gun-carrying permits – which would make it as easy to carry a concealed gun across the country as it is to drive a car. Donald Trump has endorsed the legislation.
Law enforcement officials from the nation's largest cities say this legislation would be a public safety disaster, gutting the tough restrictions in states like New York and California to and forcing them to recognize gun carry permits from all states, no matter how weak those state's laws.
The NRA-backed legislation would force all states to recognize gun-carrying permits from any other state, including the dozen states that generally do not require any training or permit to carry a gun, a policy called “constitutional carry”.
West Virginia’s choice to allow “constitutional carry” of concealed handguns “might be fine for West Virginia, but it’s not fine for New York City”, said Cy Vance, Manhattan’s district attorney. “I wouldn’t presume to tell West Virginia, as a New Yorker, what West Virginia’s laws should be with regard to gun possession. Can you imagine how mad they’d be?”
Donald Trump endorsed the legislation during his campaign last year. Its passage came the same day that gun violence survivors, including residents of Newtown, Connecticut, were visiting congressional offices to ask politicians, once again, to take some action on gun control.
Nearly five years after the 2012 Newtown school shooting, which left 26 children and educators dead, Congress has yet to pass any gun control laws.
It’s not (just) about the money. So far this year, the NRA has spent $4.1m on lobbying – more than the $3.1m it spent in all of 2016. But for comparison, the dairy industry has spent $4.4m in the same period, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). The National Association of Realtors, one of the biggest spenders, has paid out $32.2m lobbying on housing issues.
The NRA has plenty of cash to spend. It bet big on the 2016 US elections, pouring $14.4m into supporting 44 candidates who won and $34.4m opposing 19 candidates who lost, according to CRP.
But “the real source of its power, I believe, comes from voters,” said Adam Winkler, a UCLA professor of constitutional law.
The 145-year-old organization claims 5 million active members, that number is disputed, but whatever its actual size, membership is a powerful tool, said Robert Spitzer, a professor at the State University of New York at Cortland.
“They have a very powerful ability to mobilize a grassroots support and to engage in politics when most Americans can barely be bothered to vote,” he said. “And because so few Americans do those things, if you get a bunch of people in a locality who are all prepared to go out to a meeting they can have a big effect." Read more
“We have nothing but heartache and compassion for the victims of Sandy Hook, but concealed carry reciprocity has nothing to do with this tragedy,” said Tatum Gibson, a spokeswoman for Richard Hudson, the North Carolina Republican congressman who introduced the legislation, said in a statement when asked about the timing of the vote.
“I don’t know that putting the NRA’s agenda on the floor of the House is the right way to mark five years since Sandy Hook,” Murphy told the Guardian. “It is heartbreaking to think as we come up to the fifth anniversary of Newtown, Republicans in the House are pushing through a bill to make our country less safe.”
At the same time, Murphy argued, the political maneuvering over the bill could be seen as a sign of the growing strength of the gun control movement.
Before the House vote, Republicans combined the controversial NRA-backed “Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act” with a modest measure to make sure the military and other federal agencies are reporting records to the nation’s gun background check system. The Sutherland Springs mass shooting last month revealed that the air force had failed to submit to the background checks system dozens of records that should have disqualified dangerous people from gun ownership, including the domestic violence conviction of the man who went on to murder 26 people at a small Baptist church in Texas.
“It says something really interesting about the vulnerability that Republicans feel on guns today,” Murphy said. “Republicans are increasingly worried about the optics of pushing the NRA agenda, and that’s why they’re trying to add on some anti-gun violence legislation.”
Republicans’ attempt to tear down local restrictions on gun carrying comes just weeks after two of America’s deadliest mass shootings, at a country music concert in Las Vegas and a tiny church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The move highlights the stark divide in Americans’ opinions on guns, with some conservatives seeing increased civilian gun carrying as a way to prevent or lessen the toll of mass shootings, even as many other Americans are trying to fight against America’s gun-carrying culture and get guns off the street.
Under current law, states have dramatically different standards for who is allowed to carry a concealed, loaded weapon. A handful of more liberal states give law enforcement officials discretion when granting a carry permit and some require that applicants demonstrate a specific need for self-defense. But the majority of states make it easy for citizens to get a carry license. While some states require that permit holders demonstrate proficiency with a gun at a firing range, others only require some kind of gun safety course. In Virginia, applicants don’t even need to leave the house: it’s possible to get a concealed carry license after taking a gun safety course online.
Many states currently recognize each other’s carry permits, in the same way states recognize each other’s driver’s licenses, but some states pick and choose which licenses they will honor, and a few states, including New York, recognize no outside permits at all.
Gun rights advocates say the current patchwork of state laws governing gun carrying is confusing for law-abiding gun owners, and that American states and cities with the toughest gun control laws are violating Americans’ constitutional right to carry firearms for self-defense.
The House speaker, Paul Ryan, hailed the bill’s passage in a statement saying “the truth is that concealed carry laws save lives”.
Opponents of the legislation say the right way to fix the confusion over differing regulations is to create a uniform national standard for training and eligibility, not simply force the states with the toughest gun control regulations to allow the most untrained, unvetted gun carriers to walk their streets.
Adam Winkler, a gun law expert at the University of California Los Angeles, said the legislation the House is currently considering would also allow local residents in cites with tough restrictions to do an end run around local laws, and get their permit to carry a gun from another state with weaker laws. One of the proposed Democratic amendments to the bill would close that loophole.
An estimated three million Americans report carrying a loaded handgun on a daily basis, and an estimated nine million report doing so on a monthly basis, according to a recent study based on a survey conducted by Harvard and Northeastern researchers.