The House passed a wide-ranging gun control bill Wednesday in response to recent mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, that would raise the age limit for purchasing a semi-automatic rifle and prohibit the sale of ammunition magazines with a capacity of more than 15 rounds.
The legislation passed by a mostly party-line vote of 223-204. It has almost no chance of becoming law as the Senate pursues negotiations focused on improving mental health programs, bolstering school security and enhancing background checks. But the House bill does allow Democratic lawmakers a chance to frame for voters in November where they stand on policies that polls show are widely supported.
"We can't save every life, but my God, shouldn't we try? America we hear you and today in the House we are taking the action you are demanding," said Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas. "Take note of who is with you and who is not."
The push comes after a House committee heard wrenching testimony from recent shooting victims and family members, including from 11-year-old girl Miah Cerrillo, who covered herself with a dead classmate's blood to avoid being shot at the Uvalde elementary school.
The seemingly never-ending cycle of mass shootings in the United States has rarely stirred Congress to act. But the shooting of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde has revived efforts in a way that has lawmakers from both parties talking about the need to respond.
"It's sickening, it's sickening that our children are forced to live in this constant fear," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Pelosi said the House vote would "make history by making progress." But it's unclear where the House measure will go after Wednesday's vote, given that Republicans were adamant in their opposition.
"The answer is not to destroy the Second Amendment, but that is exactly where the Democrats want to go," said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.
The work to find common ground is mostly taking place in the Senate, where support from 10 Republicans will be needed to get a bill signed into law. Nearly a dozen Democratic and Republican senators met privately for an hour Wednesday in hopes of reaching a framework for compromise legislation by week's end. Participants said more conversations were needed about a plan that is expected to propose modest steps.
In a measure of the political peril that efforts to curb guns pose for Republicans, five of the six lead Senate GOP negotiators do not face reelection until 2026. They are Sens. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, John Cornyn of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. The sixth, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, is retiring in January. It's also notable that none of the six is seeking the Republican presidential nomination.
While Cornyn has said the talks are serious, he has not joined the chorus of Democrats saying the outlines of a deal could be reached by the end of this week. He told reporters Wednesday that he considers having an agreement before Congress begins a recess in late June to be "an aspirational goal."
The House bill stitches together a variety of proposal Democrats had introduced before the recent shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde. The suspects in the shootings at the Uvalde, elementary school and Buffalo supermarket were both just 18, authorities say, when they bought the semi-automatic weapons used in the attacks. The bill would increase the minimum age to buy such weapons to 21.
"A person under 21 cannot buy a Budweiser. We should not let a person under 21 buy an AR-15 weapon of war," said Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif.
Republicans have noted that a U.S. appeals court ruling last month found California's ban on the sale of semiautomatic weapons to adults under 21 was unconstitutional.
"This is unconstitutional and it's immoral. Why is it immoral? Because we're telling 18, 19 and 20-year-olds to register for the draft. You can go die for your country. We expect you to defend us, but we're not going to give you the tools to defend yourself and your family," said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky.
The House bill also includes incentives designed to increase the use of safe gun storage devises and creates penalties for violating safe storage requirements, providing for a fine and imprisonment of up to five years if a gun is not properly stored and is subsequently used by a minor to injure or kill themselves or another individual.
It also builds on the Biden administration's executive action banning fast-action "bump-stock" devices and "ghost guns" that are assembled without serial numbers.
The House is also expected to approve a bill Thursday that would allow families, police and others to ask federal courts to order the removal of firearms from people who are believed to be at extreme risk of harming themselves or others.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia currently have such "red flag laws." Under the House bill, a judge could issue an order to temporarily remove and store the firearms until a hearing can be held no longer than two weeks later to determine whether the firearms should be returned or kept for a specific period.