Gun Background Check Votes Highlight Growing Party Polarization

  • There were few party defectors on gun background check bills
  • Gun control bills in the 1990s drew more Republican support

Few House members broke party rank on a pair of Democratic-sponsored gun background check bills the chamber passed Thursday — continuing a trend of partisan voting on gun policy and underscoring the increased ideological homogeneity in the two parties.

Just nine members crossed party lines on a bill (H.R. 8) that would require background checks for all firearms sales, including at gun shows. Eight Republicans voted for the bill, while Rep. Jared Golden (Maine), who represents a rural district President Joe Biden lost in the 2020 election, was the lone Democratic defector. The vote was 227-203.

There were even fewer party-line defectors — four — on a second bill (H.R. 1446) the House passed 219-210, a measure that would prevent gun sales from proceeding if a background check isn’t completed within three days.

The votes reflect the increased polarization on Capitol Hill since the early 1990s, when the GOP had a sizable moderate contingent that supported some gun control measures while rural and southern Democrats who opposed such curbs were a larger presence in their party. Votes on hot-button cultural issues such as gun control have become more important to winning party primaries.

The Republicans who supported closing the “gun show loophole” were Vern Buchanan (Fla.), Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.), Andrew Garbarino (N.Y.), Carlos Gimenez (Fla.), Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), Maria Elvira Salazar (Fla.), Chris Smith (N.J.), and Fred Upton (Mich.).

Buchanan, Fitzpatrick, Smith, and Upton also were among the eight Republicans who voted for a similar bill in February 2019, in the 116th Congress. Garbarino, Gimenez, and Salazar are in their first terms.

Kinzinger, the only member who supported the bill the House passed Thursday after voting against the 2019 version, said in a statement that “we have a violence problem in this country and it cannot be ignored.” He cited mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, in August 2019.

Republican Reps. Brian Mast (Fla.) and Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.) shifted to no after voting yes in 2019. Mast said in a statement the new bill included changes that “dramatically expanded the power of unelected DC bureaucrats to unilaterally implement new gun control measures.” The Florida lawmakers’ votes also came a year after the 2018 Parkland, Fla., high school shooting in which 17 people were killed.

Republicans Pete King (N.Y.) and Will Hurd (Texas), who voted for the 2019 bill, didn’t seek re-election in 2020. Garbarino succeeded King.

Golden and Collin Peterson (Minn.) were the only Democrats who opposed the 2019 measure. Peterson was defeated for re-election in 2020 in an overwhelmingly Republican, rural district.

Golden and Ron Kind (Wis.) were the only two Democrats who voted no on the second gun measure Thursday. Kind represents a large western Wisconsin district that Biden lost in 2020. Fitzpatrick and Smith were the only two Republican backers of the bill.

Fitzpatrick and Smith broke ranks to vote for similar legislation in February 2019 along with King. Golden and Kind opposed the 2019 bill, plus Peterson and four other Democrats who were unseated in the 2020 election in strongly Republican districts — Anthony Brindisi (N.Y.), Kendra Horn (Okla.), Ben McAdams (Utah), and Xochitl Torres Small (N.M.).

Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.) voted against both bills Thursday after supporting the 2019 versions when he was a Democrat.

Brady Law

A generation ago, there were far more Democrats who voted against gun-control bills and more Republicans who supported them. Many of the Democratic defectors were moderates and conservatives from rural and ancestrally Democratic districts, while many of the Republicans who supported some gun control measures were moderates from the northeast and Midwest.

In 1993, when Congress enacted the Brady law that required background checks and initially imposed a five-day waiting period on gun purchases, 56 of 172 House Republicans voted for the measure and 70 of 252 Democrats opposed it. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), then a House member, also opposed it.

The following year, the Democratic-led House voted 216-214 to ban the sale of certain semiautomatic firearms often called “assault weapons.” Seventy-seven Democrats opposed and 38 Republicans voted for the ban, which was included in a broad anti-crime package that President Bill Clinton signed into law.

In 2005, the Republican-led House passed a bill to shield gun makers from lawsuits when their guns are used in crimes, with all but four Republicans joined by 59 Democrats in support.

In 2011, the House passed a bill called the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act to allow gun owners to more easily carry concealed weapons across state lines. Seven Republicans voted no and 43 Democrats voted yes.

In 2017, the House passed similar legislation, with 14 Republicans voting no and just six Democrats voting yes. Some of the Republicans who voted no were gun-rights supporters who objected to the bill’s provisions from a separate bill designed to strengthen reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which the Brady law established in 1998 to determine whether a prospective gun buyer is precluded from purchasing the firearm.

Also in 2017, the GOP-led House voted to roll back an Obama administration rule that required the Social Security Administration send NICS information on people who are incapable of managing their disability insurance benefits. Two Republicans voted no and six Democrats supported the measure.

Everytown for Gun Safety advocates for universal background checks and other gun control measures. Michael Bloomberg is the majority owner of Bloomberg Government’s parent company and serves as a member of Everytown’s advisory board.

To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Giroux in Washington at ggiroux@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com

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