In two bipartisan votes in as many days, the U.S. Congress passed the first major piece of gun-related legislation in over two decades this week.
While the bill covers mental health, school security, background checks, “red flag” laws, straw purchases, and domestic violence, it does not include many of the Biden administration’s favored proposals. Most American hunters are unlikely to be affected by the new law since it doesn’t impose any new bans on firearms, ammunition, or hunting gear.
However, there are certain portions of the bill that would affect younger hunters almost immediately, and the legislation’s success could signal a more bipartisan approach to gun policy in the United States.
The bill, dubbed the “Bipartisan Safer Communities Act,” was crafted by 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats in the Senate in response to two recent mass murders in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas. The provisions are ostensibly designed to prevent future tragedies.
One of the provisions, for example, creates a $750 million fund over the next five years to encourage states to pass and maintain “crisis intervention services.” These services intervene in the lives of people who are ruled to be a danger to themselves or others, and can include so-called “red flag” orders. Other provisions increase funding for school-based mental health services, school security measures, and “community violence intervention.”
Another portion of the bill prohibits firearm ownership for those convicted of abusing “dating partners.” Current law bars anyone from owning a firearm who has been convicted of domestic abuse of a spouse, former spouse, someone who has cohabitated with the victim, or someone who shares a child with the victim. This new bill would expand that prohibition to domestic abusers who have had “a continuing serious relationship of a romantic or intimate nature” with the victim.
Perhaps the most consequential portion of the bill—and one that has received surprisingly little attention so far—would enhance the background check requirements for 18- to 20-year-olds who try to purchase a firearm from a federally licensed dealer. While red flag laws and domestic abuse laws affect a relatively small portion of gun owners, this provision would affect all prospective gun owners under 21 years of age, no matter their criminal history or the type of firearm they wish to purchase.
Current law requires all federally licensed gun dealers to perform a background check on all gun buyers through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). This system is maintained by the FBI and is used to determine whether a prospective gun buyer is a “prohibited person.” The list of offenses that make one a prohibited person is extensive and includes, among other things, being a fugitive from justice, having been adjudicated as a “mental defective,” being an unlawful user of a controlled substance, and having committed a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.
The Safer Communities Act would require FBI agents to look up a buyer’s juvenile criminal records and mental health adjudication records in the buyer’s state of residence if that person is less than 21 years of age. Agents would also have to contact the local law enforcement agency of the jurisdiction in which the buyer resides to determine whether they are a prohibited person.
The law gives FBI agents three business days to conduct an initial check. If they find a potential disqualifying record, they have another seven business days to conduct a further investigation. They can deny the purchase if they determine that the buyer has committed an offense that makes them a prohibited person. If they determine the buyer is not a prohibited person or make no determination within that time period, the gun seller can (but is not required to) transfer the firearm. This provision will sunset in 2032.
For most buyers, a NICS check is instantaneous. But because juvenile records are often not in the NICS system, this new process would result in a de facto waiting period of up to 10 business days for anyone under 21 years of age who wants to buy a rifle or a shotgun (federal law already prohibits that age group from purchasing handguns).
Some states have already imposed waiting periods, and others prohibit all firearm ownership for those under 21. But for residents of most states in this age group, this enhanced background check could be an unpleasant surprise on their next visit to the gun counter.
Public interest in the bill stems not so much from the ways it changes federal firearm law as from its bipartisan support in Congress. Congress hasn’t passed a major piece of gun-related legislation since 1994. Even though state governments, the ATF, and most recently, the Supreme Court, have adjusted who can access what kinds of firearms, the U.S. Congress has been unable to overcome an entrenched partisan impasse.
But after the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, Republican Senator John Cornyn and Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy began the discussions that resulted in the Safer Communities Act. Cornyn was joined by nine other Republicans, including stalwart conservatives Roy Blunt of Missouri and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. While other senators like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio expressed concern about the bill (and the time they were given to review it), 15 Senate Republicans and 14 House Republicans ultimately voted in favor of the legislation.
Gun rights groups have mirrored that mixed support. The National Rifle Association characterized the bill as “fall[ing] short on every level,” and Gun Owners of America called the legislation an “anti-gun deal.” The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), however, acknowledged that some provisions are worthy of support.
“We went into this working with the Senate and providing input in good faith,” Mark Oliva told MeatEater. Oliva is the NSSF’s managing director of public affairs, and he said he was “encouraged” by the “good faith negotiations” that were taking place in the Senate.
In its official statement on the bill’s text, the gun industry trade association said it was “thankful” the bill provides funding for mental health treatment and services. The organization also said it supports portions of the legislation that increase penalties for straw purchasing and firearms trafficking, and reaffirmed its support for shoring up the NICS system.
However, Oliva said the NSSF does not support increased funding for red flag laws because the bill does not require states that receive funding to incorporate robust due process protections. In addition, the NSSF does not support the new background check requirements for 18- to 20-year-olds.
“The background check delays for adults under the age of 21 is problematic, to say the least,” Oliva said. “When your rights are delayed, your rights are denied. If you’re putting in a delay period of up to 10 days for adults to exercise their Second Amendment rights, that’s something we cannot support.”
Oliva said the NSSF has always encouraged states to include juvenile records in their submissions to the NICS system, but the legislation does not include an expedited process for ensuring those submissions. Without that mechanism, which Oliva says was in the original framework of the bill, anyone under 21 will have to wait for FBI agents to conduct those background checks by hand.
The bill provides funding for the FBI to hire more agents to meet increased workload, but Oliva is skeptical they will be able to conduct these new checks in a timely manner. At the very least, the checks will no longer be instantaneous for adults under the age of 21.
Senator Mike Lee also pointed out during floor debate that juvenile criminal proceedings are often different from adult proceedings. It’s unclear based on the legislation, for example, whether a juvenile “felony” conviction should be considered as equal to an adult felony conviction.
Gun control groups, meanwhile, have hailed the legislation as an important first step in combating the rise of violent crimes committed with firearms.
Everytown for Gun Safety president John Feinblatt said the legislation will “save lives,” and that it moves the country “one big step closer to breaking the 26-year logjam that has blocked Congressional action to protect Americans from gun violence.” Brady urged its supporters to back the legislation, and Giffords executive director Peter Ambler said he is “heartened” to see legislation that will “help address the epidemic of gun violence plaguing our nation.”
President Joe Biden has indicated his plans to sign the legislation. The Biden Administration released a statement claiming the bill will “make meaningful progress to combat gun violence” and calling for the “swift passage of this life-saving legislation.”
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act could be the first of many federal gun bills, or it could be a flash in the pan. Oliva noted that Republicans are expected to regain control of the House in November, and the top three Republican House leaders have all voiced opposition to the legislation. The odds that they will turn around and pass more gun bills in the near future are “very, very low,” Oliva said.
Still, this bill does demonstrate that some members of both parties are willing to work to find common ground—as small as that ground may be.
“Everyone is interested in providing real solutions,” Oliva said. “Real solutions that protect peoples’ Second Amendment rights but also find common ground that are going to provide the answers to stopping some of these issues. If you can keep it within those guardrails, I think there is work that could possibly be done.”