WASHINGTON — Responding to a string of mass shootings, a divided House passed a ban on assault weapons on Friday, moving over the near-unanimous opposition of Republicans to reinstate a prohibition that expired nearly two decades ago.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi described the measure, which passed 217 to 213, as a “crucial step in our ongoing fight against the deadly epidemic of gun violence in our nation.” Only two Republicans, Representatives Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Chris Jacobs of New York, joined Democrats in supporting the bill.
Five Democrats voted against the measure: Representatives Henry Cuellar of Texas, Jared Golden of Maine, Ron Kind of Wisconsin, Vicente Gonzalez of Texas and Kurt Schrader of Oregon.
The legislation would make it illegal to sell, manufacture, transfer, possess or import assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition feeding devices. It stands no chance of passing in the evenly divided Senate, where such a sweeping gun control measure would not be able to win over the 10 Republicans it would need to overcome a filibuster.
Still, the vote provided a way for Democrats to demonstrate to voters months before the midterm elections that they were trying to address the epidemic of gun violence in America. The action in the House came after a spate of mass shootings, including one in Uvalde, Texas, where a gunman wielding an AR-15-style weapon killed 19 elementary school students and two teachers.
Gun Violence and Gun Control in America
In a statement on Friday evening, President Biden applauded the House’s passage of the assault weapons ban.
“The majority of the American people agree with this common-sense action,” he said, adding that “there can be no greater responsibility than to do all we can to ensure the safety of our families, our children, our homes, our communities and our nation.”
The vote also gave Democrats another opportunity to draw a sharp distinction with Republicans. This month, the House passed legislation to ensure access to contraception nationwide, as well as major protections for abortion and same-sex marriage. While Democratic senators are hopeful that they will be able to pass the same-sex marriage legislation, almost all Republicans in Congress are united in opposition to the contraception and abortion bills.
The debate on assault weapons on Friday came about a month after the enactment of bipartisan gun safety legislation, a compromise measure to toughen background checks for prospective buyers younger than 21 that aimed to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.
That measure omitted stricter gun controls that Democrats have long demanded and most Republicans have opposed as infringements on the right to bear arms.
“Weapons of war are designed for war,” Representative Lloyd Doggett, Democrat of Texas, said on Friday, lamenting that such firearms are “easier for a teenager to get than to buy a beer.”
He dismissed the recently enacted law as a “weak, modest measure.”
Republicans argued that AR-15-style weapons are popular sporting rifles that law-abiding citizens use for self-defense and hunting. And they dismissed the assault weapons bill as an attempt by liberals to trample on gun rights while doing nothing to address the root causes of crime.
“Let’s call this for what it is: It’s a gun grab, pure and simple,” said Representative Guy Reschenthaler, Republican of Pennsylvania. “This bill is not about public safety. Rather, this is the most severe restriction on the Second Amendment since the passage of the assault weapons ban of 1994.”
While the vote on Friday united Democrats, the assault weapons ban generated an intense internal debate that exposed divisions over the issue of law enforcement and crime, a theme that Republicans have signaled will be a major element of their campaign attacks on Democrats before the midterm elections.
Democrats had originally planned to pair the vote to ban assault weapons with legislation that would provide more funding to local police departments. Moderate Democrats from conservative-leaning districts argued that passing the police funding would blunt Republican accusations that Democrats are soft on crime and bent on defunding the police.
But the police legislation drew criticism from progressives and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who insisted that more police accountability measures should be included. With the House’s August recess set to begin this weekend, Democratic leaders decided to hold a vote only on the assault weapons bill.
Ms. Pelosi said on Friday that lawmakers would continue to work on the police legislation after returning to Washington later in the summer.
When the House passed the 1994 crime bill, which included the assault weapons ban, 46 Republicans supported the legislation and 64 Democrats opposed it. The ban expired in 2004 and has never been renewed; the Republican Party is united in opposition to such a measure.
“The American people are tired of living in fear,” said Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts. “They are tired of thoughts and prayers. They are tired of press releases offering sympathy but no solutions.”
“This is not a radical idea,” he added. “We are not in uncharted territory.”