Gun-control advocates have heralded the House of Representatives' passage of a gun-control bill last week as a long-awaited stride for public safety. But tucked away in that bill was a Republican-authored amendment that would require gun vendors performing background checks to flag undocumented prospective gun-buyers to federal immigration authorities. More than two dozen Democrats voted for the amendment, reportedly roiling House majority leadership as well as immigrant rights and gun-safety advocates alike.
On Wednesday, the House passed the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, requiring that all vendors—including private and gun show vendors and not just licensed retail gun shops—perform background checks for all gun sales. The legislation passed 240 to 190, with only eight Republicans joining the Democratic majority. Two Democrats voted against the bill.
Before the House's vote on the initial legislation, Republicans called for a motion to recommit, a procedure that allows the minority to conduct 11th-hour debates and propose amendments to bills. The House Republicans used the motion to amend the act to include a provision requiring that vendors conducting background checks notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement when the applicant is found to be undocumented. All but three Republicans voted in favor of the amendment, and they were joined by 26 Democrats.
Although they were always able to notify immigration authorities of undocumented prospective gun buyers, vendors had previously not been required by law to notify the authorities of undocumented applicants. The amendment, put forward by Florida Republican Representative Greg Steube, had been proposed and voted down before in early February. "In rejecting this Amendment, the Democrats have shown their true colors," Steube wrote about the initial rejection in a press release. "It is clear they are not interested in preventing gun violence or stopping the illegal purchase of firearms, but rather they are only interested in limiting the rights of law abiding citizens to advance their own political agenda."
Of the Democrats who voted in favor of the Republican amendment the second time around, 22 hailed from districts that President Donald Trump had won in the 2016 election, according to information compiled by Bloomberg reporter Greg Giroux.
None of the 26 legislators who voted in favor of the amendment responded to Pacific Standard's multiple requests for comment, nor did a spokesperson for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
The bill, including the amendment, has moved to the Senate, where it is unlikely to pass.
Immigrant rights advocates blasted the amendment as a thinly veiled attempt by Republicans to legitimize the Trump administration's continuous claims that undocumented immigrants are violent criminals. Multiple studies have shown that, despite the Trump administration's protestations, immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than their United States-born counterparts.
"No amount of gun-control legislation victory can cover up the fact that the House just passed legislation to further criminalize our family members and community in the absence of providing any legislation that would help them adjust their status and recognize their contributions to this country," says Kevin Solis, spokesman for immigrant rights group DREAM Team Los Angeles.
While gun-safety advocates championed the promise of gun control, some agreed with Solis that the bill should not have included a measure to further demonize American immigrants.
"Women Against Gun Violence is committed to an intersectional approach to preventing gun violence," says Margot Bennet, the organization's director. "Although we are pleased that gun violence prevention and background checks in particular are finally getting the attention and action they deserve from our legislators, we are not pleased with the inclusion of an amendment that targets individuals based on race and immigration status and dangerously perpetuates the myth that immigrants are responsible for gun violence in this country."
Bennet pledged to work together with her colleagues in immigration rights for an equitable way forward for the proposed gun-safety legislation. "Should this bill gain traction in the Senate, we will fight to make certain this discriminatory and unnecessary language is removed," she says.
The Democratic support for the bill exposed underlying tensions between left-leaning and centrist Democrats. After the bill's passage, Pelosi and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) reportedly blasted the Democrats who voted with Republicans to include the amendment, with Ocasio-Cortez promising to help challengers unseat them in 2020.
With much media attention heaped on more left-leaning members of the House's new majority, like Ocasio-Cortez, it can be easy to forget that she espouses one of a diverse array of political leanings within the Democratic Party, analysts say.
"The Democratic Party is a reasonably wide 'ideological tent' in the House these days," Jeffery A. Jenkins, a University of Southern California public policy professor whose work focuses on American political institutions, writes in an email.
"There is a fairly large moderate wing too," he adds. "These are members of the 'Blue Dog' caucus, and they represent districts that are fairly centrist. So these members have to be conscious of public opinion, and having roll-call votes be held against them come election time. Rather than vote with the party on this one, they decided to take the 'safe' route and vote in a way that won't be held against them back home."
While the centrists remain concerned with maintaining support from their constituencies, immigrant rights advocates warn that the party stands to upset its traditional support base.
"Democrats continue to cede immigration ground to the Republicans and the undocumented community gets nothing in return," Solis says. "I really wish the Democrats would have walked from their gun bill rather than accept the Republican narrative on undocumented Americans."