Newly passed gun bills show how much the political debate has changed

A woman points a handgun with a laser sight on a wall display of other guns during the National Rifle Association convention Friday, April 13, 2007, in St. Louis.
A woman points a handgun with a laser sight on a wall display of other guns during the National Rifle Association convention Friday, April 13, 2007, in St. Louis.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Democratic-led House approved the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, which would greatly expand federal background checks for all gun purchases. It was the first bill intended to reduce gun violence to pass either chamber of Congress in a generation.

Yesterday, the House passed another.

The House voted Thursday to extend the time allotted for the F.B.I. to conduct background checks for gun purchasers flagged by the national instant check system, the second major gun control bill to clear the chamber this week after two decades of inaction. [...]The 228-to-198 vote aims to extend the background check review period for gun purchasers to 10 days. Currently, the F.B.I. must perform its review and determine whether there is sufficient evidence to deny a purchase in three business days. If it cannot complete the review within that time, a buyer may return to the dealer on the fourth day to purchase a firearm.

The measure, which passed with three Republican votes, was crafted to close what's known as the "Charleston loophole," which allowed Dylann Roof to buy a gun in 2015, which he used to kill nine people at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston.

Both of this week's bills will now go to the Republican-led Senate, where they're almost certain to fail. Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will likely let the legislation wither on the vine.

And while that will no doubt disappoint reform proponents, this week's House votes are emblematic of a progressive political shift: for more than two decades, Democrats were terrified to vote for bills to reform the nation's gun laws. Now they're not.

It wasn't easy to reach this point. In 1994, with Democrats in control of the Congress and the White House, the party passed gun legislation, including an assault-weapons ban. Later that year, Republicans rode an electoral wave that gave the GOP the reigns in both the House and the Senate.

There were several reasons that explain the Republican gains that year, but many Democratic leaders made the connection between the party's defeats and the gun reforms. A new political truth took hold: if Dems gain power and intend to keep it, this is an issue they must avoid.

A quarter of a century later, the landscape has changed, both qualitatively and quantitatively. We see candidates like Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.) running and winning on this issue, even in the South. We see advocates of gun reforms matching the activism of reform opponents.

And we see districts that used to elect center-right Democrats moving safely into Republican territory, leaving Democrats with a more unified party on issues like these. In the recent past, if Democrats wanted a majority in the House, that meant relying on more conservative districts electing more conservative Dems. We learned in 2018 that this is no longer the case.

After the 1994 votes on gun reforms, Republicans were delighted, assuming that many of the Democrats who voted for the bills faced inevitable defeat. This week, the fact that no one's saying that is emblematic of just how much the debate has shifted.