The Book on H.R. 8
Democrats’ gun control bill is clean, but limited in vision.
On January 8, a group of ten U.S. Representatives — Mike Thompson (D-CA-5), Peter King (R-NY-2), Jerry Nadler (D-NY-10), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA-1), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX-18), Brian Mast (R-FL-18), Robin Kelly (D-IL-2), Fred Upton (R-MI-6), Chris Smith (R-NJ-4) and gun violence survivor Lucy McBath (D-GA-06) — introduced H.R. 8, the “Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019.” H.R. 8 is House Democrats’ flagship gun control bill in the new 116th Congress.
The bill would require private gun sellers to conduct background checks on buyers using the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Transactions between immediate family members are exempted. Because individual gun sellers cannot access the NICS system, H.R. 8 directs them to go to federally-licensed firearm dealers (FFLs) to have background checks performed. FFLs are under no obligation to assist private sellers, but can do so if they wish and charge a fee for the service (with no cap). FFLs would maintain paper records of these transactions — H.R. 8 expressly forbids the U.S. Attorney General from requiring private sellers to keep records.
H.R. 8 also directs FFLs to share a form with buyers notifying them that the transfer of the gun to another private party without a background check would constitute a violation of federal law. Buyers would sign the form to acknowledge they received the information.*
The bill makes some minor concessions to the gun lobby, but they are largely chimeric, like Section 5 which directs judges that “nothing in this Act, or any amendment made by this Act, shall be construed to authorize the establishment, directly or indirectly, of a national firearms registry.” That’s a notable improvement from last year’s version of H.R. 8 (H.R. 4240) co-sponsored by Reps. Thompson and King, which would have prohibited the U.S. Attorney General outright from creating a federal registry of privately-held firearms. One other seemingly harmless provision in H.R. 8 makes it clear that the states have continued leeway to legislate on gun policy, including the background check process.
Reps. Mike Thompson and Peter King originally introduced their background checks bill in 2013 following the horrific mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. It did not start off as “universal” background checks legislation. Instead, it sought to expand instant check requirements to certain private sales of firearms — namely, those commercially advertised at gun shows, over the internet, or through classified ads in newspapers. Early versions of the King-Thompson bill were laden with gun lobby language that caused significant harm to existing federal gun laws. There’s no doubt that H.R. 8 is the cleanest version of the legislation produced to date.
House Democrats’ plan is to pass H.R. 8 with five or more Republican votes and send it to the Senate for consideration. Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and DINO Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia would be responsible for convincing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to give the legislation a floor vote (along with gun control activists applying grassroots pressure). The duo’s track record is not good, however. In April 2013, the Manchin-Toomey amendment to expand background checks — a companion to the King-Thompson bill — went down in flames on the Senate floor as gun violence survivors shouted “shame” from the gallery.
The truth is H.R. 8 has little chance of passing the Senate given the current political climate and even less chance of being signed into law by NRA asset Donald Trump.
Virtually every gun control group supports H.R. 8, but there are rumblings about whether House Democrats should have led with bold, visionary legislation like the pro-democracy bill H.R. 1. Fueling this frustration is emerging research that shows the expansion of instant checks is failing to drive down homicide and suicide rates. What does seem to be working well is gun owner licensing (permit-to-purchase). This is true both in the states and under the National Firearms Act, a federal licensing & registration law that has kept fully-automatic machine guns off crime scenes almost completely since 1934.
The human element in systems like licensing & registration or fashionable “emergency risk protection orders” is critical. Family/friends will know a gun buyer better than anyone, and public safety benefits when buyers with a history of violence have direct contact with law enforcement.
At the Capitol Hill press conference announcing H.R. 8, Mike Thompson described the bill as “very decisive” and a “bold statement about where we stand as a Congress.” That’s a bit much. The truth is H.R. 8 is a modest reform supported by more than 90% of Americans that would stop some (but not all) violent people in America from buying guns and thereby save lives.
That makes it worth supporting until more inspired Democratic leadership arrives to make horrors like Sandy Hook and Parkland a thing of the past.
* Section 3(4) of H.R. 8 states, “It shall be unlawful for a licensed importer, licensed manufacturer, or licensed dealer to transfer possession of, or title to, a firearm to another person who is not so licensed unless the importer, manufacturer, or dealer has provided such other person with a notice of the prohibition [against selling a firearm privately without a background check], and such other person has certified that such other person has been provided with this notice on a form prescribed by the Attorney General.’’