WASHINGTON — House Democrats are warming to gun-control legislation once considered risky for all but the safest incumbents, but remain uncertain whether they will vote this year on some of the more far-reaching bills.
In a sign of the changing political climate around gun-safety legislation, some of the more vulnerable House Democrats, including those who just ousted GOP incumbents, said they would support a ban on assault-style weapons. For Democrats, such legislation has long been considered a gamble, with its potential to trigger the wrath of the National Rifle Association and voters swayed by the gun lobby.
But after a midterm election in which 40 House Democratic challengers beat Republicans who had “A” ratings from the NRA, Democrats said the appetite had grown for taking up a ban on semiautomatic rifles described as assault weapons that operate on the same principles as semiautomatic handguns.
“I am a proponent of an assault-weapons ban and that’s borne of my experience as a hunter and as an Army Ranger,” said Rep. Jason Crow, D-Aurora, who defeated former GOP Rep. Mike Coffman, who was A-rated by the NRA, in November.
Crow said the political pressure had eased on swing-district Democrats to oppose tighter gun regulations.
“I’m proof that in Colorado, a state that has a long history and heritage of responsible gun ownership, and in a swing district like mine, that you can lead” by supporting gun-control measures, he said.
Rep. Angie Craig (D., Minn.), a gun owner who beat GOP Rep. Jason Lewis in November, also said she planned to sign on, as did Rep. Matt Cartwright, a Democrat whose Pennsylvania district Trump won in 2016.
The Republican-controlled Senate is unlikely to bring up any of the gun bills passed by the House this year, although advocates are hopeful public pressure will build on the chamber to act.
House Democrats haven’t decided whether their gun-control agenda this year will include the more historically contentious measures, most prominently the assault-weapons ban. This week, the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on legislation to expand background checks to more commercial sales and private transfers, with the goal of flagging people with criminal or mental-health histories that disqualify them from gun ownership.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said Thursday she expected the background-checks bill would come this month to the House floor, where it is likely to pass easily. The legislation is seen as the least controversial of gun-control measures that can pick up the broadest swath of support.
But after the background-checks bill, House Democrats haven’t decided which of the many other gun-control bills being introduced should make their way to the floor.
“We want to start with the very obvious and very smart thing to do, which is close the background-check loophole,” said freshman Rep. Madeleine Dean (D., Pa.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee. Beyond that, “we’re going to methodically go through this and make sure the evidence and the data supports that which we can bring to the floor and get passed.”
House Democrats are discussing legislation codifying President Trump’s regulation banning bump stocks, devices that allow certain guns to fire as quickly as fully automatic weapons, as well as measures prohibiting people convicted of crimes related to dating violence from possessing firearms. Federal law prohibits people convicted of domestic violence from accessing guns, but that doesn’t apply to dating partners who don’t live together or have children together.
Ms. Dean has introduced legislation that would update laws aimed at ensuring that guns with plastic components can’t evade metal detectors. Her bill would prohibit the possession of any firearm that couldn’t be spotted by devices such as those used in airports.
Many Democrats also plan to push for increased spending for gun-violence research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last March, Congress partially altered the 1996 ban, known as the Dickey Amendment, which the CDC had interpreted as a blanket prohibition on gun-violence research, but lawmakers haven’t yet boosted funding for that effort.
Rep. Jim Himes (D., Conn.) introduced legislation that would provide incentives for gun manufacturers to develop firearms with biometric-safety technology such as fingerprint locks, that would ensure only its rightful owner could operate it. And Rep. David Cicilline (D., R.I.) said he planned to reintroduce the assault weapons ban.
The original 1994 law banned certain semiautomatic weapons and set a limit on high-capacity magazines. When the prohibition expired in 2004, Congress, then controlled by Republicans, didn’t renew it.
Democrats said they weren’t sure yet if a new assault-rifle ban would make it to the House floor, since it is less likely than other measures to get any GOP support.
“I would support an assault-weapons ban, but I’m not sure that really moves the needle in a huge way,” Himes said. And Republicans predicted bringing it to the floor would backfire with voters.
“I fully expect the Democratic House majority to overreach,” said Rep. Steve Stivers (R., Ohio), the former chairman of House Republicans’ campaign arm. “Middle America includes a lot of people who happen to be sportsmen.”