Democrats Are Resurfacing a Gun Control Bill That Contains an Anti-Immigrant Amendment

H.R. 8 would expand background checks — but mandate gunsellers notify ICE when an undocumented immigrant tries to purchase a gun.

LOUISVILLE, KY - AUGUST 06: Activists participate in a moment of silence while demonstrating outside the office of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on August 6, 2019 in Louisville, Kentucky. Protestors from Kentucky March For Our Lives held a candlelight vigil and called on McConnell to pass legislation expanding background checks for firearms purchases in the wake of shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)
Gun control activists demonstrate outside the office of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Louisville, Ky., on Aug. 6, 2019. Photo: Luke Sharrett/Getty Images

This weekend, there were back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. The accused shooter in El Paso, who appears to have published an anti-immigrant manifesto on 8chan declaring the attack a response to a “Hispanic invasion,” killed at least 22 people and injured dozens more at a Walmart in what seems to be the worst anti-Latino attack in the country’s history. On Monday, in light of these massacres, House Democrats called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to take up their gun control bill. Tucked into the bill, however, is an anti-immigrant amendment promoting deportation that Republicans, with help from more than two dozen centrist Democrats, pushed in a last-minute maneuver.

H.R. 8, also known as the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, would expand background checks for all firearms sales, including gun shows and online — though it does make exceptions for situations involving law enforcement or a family member giving a firearm as a gift. The legislation, which the House passed in late February but McConnell has stalled ever since, was the first major piece of gun control legislation the chamber has passed in over two decades.

Democratic lawmakers in both chambers have been urging McConnell to end the Senate’s August recess for a gun control vote. “Mitch McConnell should bring the Senate back into session immediately to pass HR 8, the gun safety bill that has already passed the House. That’s a first step to addressing our serious gun violence epidemic,” presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted. Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and California Rep. Ted Lieu have also called on McConnell to bring the measure to a vote.

But Democrats are ignoring the anti-immigrant rider in their renewed effort to pass this gun reform measure. Just before the bill went to a vote, Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., forced an amendment through — using a maneuver known as “a motion to recommit” — that would require a gunseller to notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement when an undocumented immigrant tries to purchase a gun. While only 26 Democrats voted in favor of the amendment to empower ICE, the final version of the bill passed 240-190, with only two Democrats voting against it.

“What we are simply saying is that, if you have someone who is a criminal who came into our country illegally — criminal time number one — if they then try to buy or purchase a firearm which they are unable to do, that is the second strike as a criminal, and what we are simply saying is, if they do that, they will be reported to ICE,” Collins said on the floor.

“Now, which members in this body are opposed to notifying law enforcement when a person prohibited from purchasing a firearm attempts to do so? Are we against that? No. I believe my friends across the aisle are not. I have heard it all day: We don’t want criminals to have firearms.”

“The amendment is really a sad and shameful distraction that plays into these white supremacist narratives around immigrants at the worst possible time.”

At the time, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., both expressed frustration with the defecting Democrats. “When activists ask [Ocasio-Cortez] why she had to vote for a gun safety bill that also further empowers an agency that forcibly injects kids with psychotropic drugs, they’re going to want a list of names and she’s going to give it to them,” Ocasio-Cortez spokesperson Corbin Trent told the Washington Post, implying that the moderate Democrats who voted for the amendment would receive primary challenges.

Immigration advocates oppose the rider attached to the bill, saying it plays directly into the Trump administration’s racist rhetoric and agenda. “To me, the amendment is really a sad and shameful distraction that plays into these white supremacist narratives around immigrants at the worst possible time, especially as we see immigrants being the victims of attacks that are in part motivated by some of that rhetoric,” said Alisa Wellek, executive director of the Immigrant Defense Project.

Activists in both the immigrant rights and gun reform worlds, Wellek added, want to address the root causes of violence but agree adding amendments like the one on H.R. 8 is a way to continue the demonization of immigrants. “A lot of organizations that were involved in the bill vow to fight, should it take traction in the Senate, to pass a bill that would clean up some of those provisions that play into Trump and white supremacist narratives.”

Margot Bennett, executive director of Women Against Gun Violence, told The Intercept in an email that although the group supports universal background checks, “we have never supported HR8 because of its inclusion of what we consider to be anti-immigrant language.”

“We would like to see real universal background check legislation that closes loopholes, extends the time available to do the background check, and also includes background checks on both long term and short term transfers between family members and friends,” Bennett wrote.

Despite pressure from Democrats and gun control advocates, McConnell probably won’t put it on the floor and, if he did, it probably wouldn’t pass. But if it did, it would mean that one of the deadliest hate crimes against Latinos would lead not only to much-needed gun safety legislation but further criminalization of the people targeted in the El Paso shooting.

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