House passes universal background checks in breakthrough victory for gun control groups

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Rep. Lucy McBath (pictured), a recently-elected representative from Georgia, lost her son to an act of gun violence. She worked for Everytown for Gun Safety before the group supported her run for Congress. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Members of the House were met with rare cheers from the audience on Wednesday afternoon after they passed significant gun control legislation for the first time in more than two decades.

The Bipartisan Background Check Act of 2019 (H.R. 8), which would require background checks for all gun purchases across the country, passed 240-190, gaining the support of nearly all Democrats and eight Republicans.

Though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is unlikely to give the bill a vote, the bill’s passing in the lower chamber marks a major victory for gun control and gun safety groups that have worked toward this legislation for years.

The bill’s passage comes following the first election in recent history where gun control groups outspent their gun rights counterparts. The bill received support from gun control groups Everytown for Gun Safety and its subsidiary Moms Demand Action, Giffords and the Brady Campaign, all of which spent to help elect House Democrats willing to tackle gun-related issues during the 2018 election.

“We proved that gun safety is no longer a third rail of American politics—it’s a winning issue,” Everytown said Wednesday following the bill’s passage.

Everytown for Gun Safety Victory Fund spent $30 million on local, state and federal races in 2018. It spent a majority of its $5.1 million in outside spending backing the successful campaign of Rep.Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), a former national spokesperson for the group who lost her son to an act of gun violence.

The group reportedly spent $400,000 in advertising and sponsorships asking people to contact their representative about the bill.

Giffords’ two outside groups, run by former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.), a gun violence survivor, shelled out more than $6.6 million in outside spending mostly to defeat the most gun rights-friendly House Republicans. It also contributed $263,965 to Democratic House candidates and a few pro-gun control Republicans, and spent $430,000 lobbying in 2018.

“Today’s historic gun safety victory in Congress is a testament to courage,” Giffords said in a statement. “When the days were darkest, when it looked like the gun lobby’s money and influence would forever silence any debate in Washington about stronger gun laws, courage shone through.”

The bill’s passage marks a major defeat for the National Rifle Association (NRA), which opposes universal background checks and has long been able to defeat gun control efforts. The NRA called the bill “extreme” on Wednesday and said it will not stop criminals from getting guns “through the black market, theft, and straw purchases.”

Though it still spent roughly $5 million lobbying in 2018, the NRA doesn’t appear to have the sway it once had in Congress. Following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that left 20 children dead, the NRA successfully defeated gun control-related bills, particularly a bipartisan background check bill crafted by Senators Joe Manchin (D-Wv.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) that ultimately didn’t attract enough votes to avoid a filibuster.

This time around, the bill actually got support from eight Republicans — Reps. Vernon Buchanan (R-Fla.), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), Brian Mast (R-Fla.), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), Will Hurd (R-Texas), Peter King (R-N.Y.), Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.).

The NRA spent less than $9.4 million in outside spending aiding pro-gun rights Republicans in 2018, far less than the $27 million it spent in 2014, as its finances experienced an apparent downturn.

But the effectiveness of gun control groups — and ineffectiveness of the NRA — may have more to do with changing public opinion than strategy and funding.

At least 20 mass shootings — defined by the FBI as an incident in which four or more people, not including the subject, are killed — took place in 2018. At least 49 people were killed at an Orlando nightclub in 2016, 58 were killed at a Las Vegas concert in 2017 and 17 were killed at a Parkland, Florida high school last year.

A Quinnipiac Poll found that 97 percent of Americans — and 97 percent of gun owners — support universal background checks. The poll also found that 66 percent support stricter gun laws, the highest level of support the pollster has ever measured.

Here is a historical comparison of gun rights vs. gun control groups’ spending in federal elections.

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