House lawmakers have passed two bills aimed at strengthening the nation's gun laws, including a bill that would require background checks on all gun sales and transfers.
The top Senate Democrat vowed to bring up legislation expanding background checks up for a vote, but it does not have the 60 votes needed in the chamber to advance.
With Democrats in full control of Congress, lawmakers hope that the legislation will find more support. Democrat-led efforts to pass tougher gun control laws have repeatedly failed since the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
"The gun violence crisis in America is a challenge to the conscience of our country — one that demands that we act," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.
The House also voted to approve legislation that would close the so-called "Charleston loophole," which made it possible for Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine people at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, to purchase a handgun even though he should have been barred from purchasing one. The measure lengthens the review period for background checks from three days to up to 20.
"The Charleston loophole was exploited more than ever before in 2020, putting thousands of guns into the hands of people who are legally prohibited from possessing them," said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action. "We could have addressed this deadly loophole years ago, but then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stood with the NRA to block this bill from ever getting a vote on the Senate floor. Fortunately, there's a new majority in the Senate — and we look forward to working with that majority to pass this bill into law."
The National Rifle Association denounced the House action on Thursday and argued Congress instead should be approving gun rights measures.
"These bills are a transparent attempt by gun control advocates in Congress to restrict the rights of law-abiding Americans under the guise of addressing the violent criminal culture in America," Jason Ouimet, head of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, said in a written statement.
While both pieces of legislation had Republican co-sponsors, both passed with little GOP support.
Speaking on the House floor on Thursday, North Carolina Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx characterized the gun-related bills as "attempts by the federal government to exert more force over law-abiding citizens who want to protect themselves and their families."
Similar legislation passed the House in 2019, after youth-led activism after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., united Democrats around the issue of gun control. However, it stalled in the Senate.
Senate Democrats have already introduced their own version of both gun bills, but it is unclear whether there will be enough support among Republicans to move any new gun control legislation. They would need 60 votes to do so. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said this week that the background checks legislation will "be on the floor of the Senate and we will see where everybody stands."
"A vote is what we need," Schumer added. "Not thoughts and prayers."
Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, a sponsor of the Senate legislation, said that while gun control legislation "has a reputation of being controversial, but it is only controversial inside the Beltway."
"Outside of Washington, Republicans, Democrats, gun owners, non-gun owners, NRA members, non-NRA members agree. We should tighten our gun laws to make sure that criminals and people with histories of serious mental illness cannot buy guns," Murphy said. "This is a unifying issue."
Advocates for gun control measures vow to make the issue a factor in the 2022 midterms and say the issue of gun violence remains an urgent problem.
"Between now and 2022, Brady PAC will make sure every voter knows and doesn't forget who did and did not vote for this lifesaving piece of legislation that 90% of Americans support," Brian Lemek, executive director of the Brady PAC, the political arm of the gun violence prevention group, told NPR.
Biden administration officials have held listening sessions with advocates to discuss the issue. And during the 2020 campaign, Biden vowed action.
A previous version of this story incorrectly said the Charleston, S.C., mass shooting took place in 2019. Actually, the shooting occurred in 2015.