A bipartisan package of modest gun safety measures has passed the US Senate 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 illustrates the deep divide over firearms in the US, weeks after mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, killed more than 30 people, including 19 children.
The Senate bill, approved in a 65-33 vote, is the first significant gun control legislation to pass in three decades, in a country with the highest gun ownership per capita in the world – and the highest number of mass shootings annually among wealthy nations.
“This is not a cure-all for the ways gun violence affects our nation, but it is a long-overdue step in the right direction,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said ahead of the vote.
The bill, which supporters say will save lives, is modest – its most important restraint on gun ownership would tighten background checks for would-be firearms purchasers convicted of domestic violence or significant crimes as juveniles.
Republicans refused to compromise on more sweeping gun control measures favoured by Democrats, including President Joe Biden, such as a ban on assault-style rifles or high-capacity magazines.
It came just hours after the US Supreme Court struck down New York state’s limits on carrying concealed handguns outside the home, in a controversial ruling pushed through by its conservative majority,
The court found the law, enacted in 1913, violated a person’s right to “keep and bear arms” under the US Constitution’s Second Amendment.
In the Senate vote late on Thursday, 15 Republicans joined all 50 Democrats in voting for the bill.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi applauded the bill’s passage and said in a statement it would advance in the House on Friday, with a vote coming as soon as possible.
House Republicans have instructed their members to vote against the bill. But, with the chamber controlled by Democrats, their support is not needed.
After House passage, President Biden will sign the bill into law.
Polls show a majority of Americans support some new limits on firearms, demands that typically rise following mass shootings like those in Texas and New York.
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 buyers convicted of domestic violence or significant crimes as juveniles.
It also includes millions of dollars for mental health, school safety, crisis intervention programs and incentives for states to include juvenile records in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
More than 20,800 people have been killed in gun violence in the US already this year, including through homicide and suicide, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit research group.
The Supreme Court ruling, authored by conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, declared 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 also closes the ‘boyfriend loophole’ by denying gun purchases to those convicted of abusing intimate partners in dating relationships. However, if they have no further convictions or penalties they will be allowed to purchase again.