WASHINGTON — The House voted Wednesday mostly along party lines to expand the right to carry concealed weapons, passing the National Rifle Association’s top legislative priority on the same day as a national vigil commemorating the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
The Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act would require each state to recognize concealed carry permits from every other state — as they would a driver’s license — regardless of different permitting standards. Residents of states that don't require permits to carry a concealed weapon would be able to carry their weapons in other states that allow concealed carry, as long as they abide by local laws.
The bill passed 231 to 198 with six Democrats voting in favor, and 14 Republicans opposing it. It will likely have a tougher time in the Senate, where it would need Democratic votes to pass.
“This vote marks a watershed moment for Second Amendment rights,” said Chris W. Cox, NRA lobbyist. “The Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act is the culmination of a 30-year movement recognizing the right of all law-abiding Americans to defend themselves, and their loved ones, including when they cross state lines.”
The NRA says the bill would eliminate a confusing patchwork of state concealed-carry laws and reciprocity agreements that can cause a law-abiding gun owner to unwittingly break the law while traveling out of state. During a House floor speech, Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., pointed to the case of a Pennsylvania woman who was arrested in New Jersey in 2013 after a traffic stop because she didn’t realize the state wouldn’t recognize her permit. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pardoned her two years later.
“This poor single mother, who's never had a brush with the law, spent almost 50 days in jail and was looking at 10 years in prison,” Hudson said. “Are you serious? We have to make sure that never happens again.”
Republicans said the bill will make people safer, highlighting instances in which armed citizens thwarted attackers.
“We know citizens who carry a concealed firearm are not only better prepared to act in their own self-defense but also in the defense of others,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Gun-control advocates say forcing states with strong permitting standards to honor permits from those with weaker ones will endanger public safety and make it harder for police to enforce gun laws. While every state and the District of Columbia allows the carrying of concealed weapons in some form, 38 states generally require a state-issued permit to carry in public and the remaining 12 generally allow gun owners to carry concealed weapons in public without a permit, according to Giffords Law Center. States currently determine which states' permits they will honor.
“This bill would eviscerate the core public safety determination that each states makes concerning the concealed carrying of guns in public based on the unique circumstances of each state and the desires by its citizens,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
The vote comes a week before the fifth anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in which 26 people died in Newtown, Conn., and follows two of the deadliest shootings in modern U.S. history. In October, a gunman killed 58 people and wounded more than 500 in Las Vegas. A month later, another gunman opened fire in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 25 people including a pregnant woman whose unborn baby also died.
Gun-violence survivors visiting Washington, D.C., for the fifth annual National Vigil for All Victims of Gun Violence called the bill an “outrage” during a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol.
“Shame on (House Speaker) Paul Ryan for allowing a vote on this dangerous NRA gun bill,” said Po Murray, chair of the Newtown Action Alliance.
The House combined the concealed carry bill with another measure to boost authorities' reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, NICS. The bill, called “Fix NICS,” is less controversial and came as a response to the Texas shooting. In that instance, the gunman's violent history would have precluded him from buying a gun but authorities failed to report it to the federal background check system.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, lead Senate sponsor of the “Fix NICS” bill, promoted the measure during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday morning, saying "it will save lives."
"And every day we let the current dysfunction in the background check system continue, lives are in jeopardy,” Cornyn said.
While “Fix NICS” has strong Senate support, the House’s decision to combine it with concealed carry weakens its chances in the Senate, Cornyn has said. Still, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a gun-control advocate, told gun violence survivors outside the Capitol it's a sign of progress that House leaders decided to “dress up” concealed carry with Fix NICS legislation.
“It is progress that they are trying to mask the NRA agenda,” said Murphy, who is working with Cornyn on the bill. “It is proof this movement is getting stronger.”
Other legislativemeasures proposed by gun-control advocates in the wake of the shootings, including the expansion of background checks or a ban on rapid-fire devices such as "bump stocks," remain stalled. But the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives announced Tuesday it would begin reviewing whether to regulate bump stocks, which use the recoil of a semiautomatic firearm to rapidly pull the trigger, mimicking fully automatic firing.
Republicans called for the ATF to review the devices and highlighted the Obama administration’s approval of their sale. But Democrats, and some Republicans, argue legislation is needed because the ATF already found it lacked the authority to ban the devices under current law.
Senate Judiciary Committee Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said during a Wednesday hearing that new laws affecting firearms and firearm accessories "must be narrowly tailored."
"As legislators, one of the most powerful tools we possess is in crafting new legislation," he said. "The problem with such a big hammer, however, is that often everything looks like a nail."