A bipartisan package of advanced in the United States Senate on Thursday, even as the Supreme Court broadly expanded gun rights by ruling Americans have a constitutional right to carry handguns in public for self-defence.
The landmark court ruling and Senate action on gun safety illustrate the deep divides over firearms in the United States, weeks after successive mass shootings in , and , killed more than 30 people, including 19 children.
The Senate bill, which supporters say would save lives, aims to tighten background checks for would-be gun purchasers convicted of domestic violence or significant crimes as juveniles. But it does not include more sweeping gun control measures favoured by Democrats including President Joe Biden, such as a ban on assault-style rifles or high-capacity magazines.
The ruling by the six to three conservative-majority Supreme Court struck down New York state’s limits on carrying concealed handguns outside the home. The court found that the law, enacted in 1913, violated a person’s right to “keep and bear arms” under the US Constitution’s Second Amendment.
A few hours later, the Senate voted 65 to 34 to advance the gun safety package toward a final vote on passage that could come later in the day or on Friday. The vote sets the clock ticking for up to 30 hours of debate. Democrats urged Republicans to agree to expedite the process.
The Senate action also came weeks after an impassioned speech by Mr Biden, in which he declared “enough” of gun violence and urged lawmakers to act.
Polls show that majorities of Americans support some new limits on firearms, demands that typically rise following mass shootings like those that occurred in Texas and New York.
Democrats warned that the high court ruling could have dire consequences for gun safety nationwide.
“The Supreme Court got the ruling wrong,” Senator Chris Murphy, the lead Democratic negotiator on the gun safety legislation, said in an interview.
“I’m deeply worried about the court’s willingness to take away from elected bodies the ability to protect our constituents and that has real grave implications for the safety of our country,” said Murphy, whose home state of Connecticut was the site of a 2012 mass shooting that killed 26 at an elementary school.
Conservatives defend a broad reading of the Second Amendment, which they say limits most new restrictions on gun purchases.
The Senate’s 80-page Bipartisan Safer Communities Act would encourage states to keep guns out of the hands of those deemed to be dangerous and tighten background checks for would-be gun purchasers convicted of domestic violence or significant crimes as juveniles.
More than 20,800 people have died from gun violence in the United States so far in 2022, including through homicide and suicide, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit research group.
“This is not the cure-all for all the ways gun violence affects our nation. But it is a long-overdue step in the right direction. It’s significant and it is going to save lives,” top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer said in a floor speech.
‘Monumental win’ for gun advocates
The Supreme Court ruling, authored by conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, declared that the Constitution protects “an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defence outside the home.”
“This is a monumental win for NRA members and for gun owners across the country,” said Jason Ouimet, executive director of the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action, in a statement.
“This ruling opens the door to rightly change the law in the seven remaining states that still don’t recognise the right to carry a firearm for personal protection.”
In the Senate, Republican backers of the new gun safety bill said that the measure does not erode the rights of law-abiding gun owners, who are among their most ardent constituents.
“It does not so much as touch the rights of the overwhelming majority of American gun owners, who are law-abiding citizens of sound mind,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who backs the legislation.
The bill provides funding to help states adopt “red flag” laws to keep firearms out of the hands of those deemed a danger to themselves or others. It would also fund alternative intervention measures in state where red flag laws are opposed and provide for enhanced school security.
It closes the “boyfriend loophole” by denying gun purchases to those convicted of abusing intimate partners in dating relationships, and allows states to add juvenile criminal and mental health records to national background check databases.
Senator John Cornyn, the lead Republican negotiator on the bill, was booed last week as he discussed its contents during a speech before a Republican Party convention in his home state of Texas.