The three provisions drew a lukewarm response from gun-control advocates. On the one hand, they were encouraged that a Republican majority resolutely opposed to restrictions on gun access felt compelled to pass even a modest, bipartisan bill in that direction. But they worried that the move would sap momentum for more expansive changes they believe are necessary to actually prevent gun violence and mass shootings.
“Congress clearly feels the pressure from Americans demanding action, but these baby steps forward aren’t enough,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety. “Congress needs to buck the NRA and go big on gun safety. If they don’t, voters will throw them out.”
The Fix NICS Act is a response to the November church massacre of more than two dozen people in Sutherland Springs, Texas, by a gunman, Devin Patrick Kelley, who had pleaded guilty to domestic violence in a military court martial. The Air Force soon acknowledged it had failed to add Kelley’s conviction, which would have barred him from buying the guns he used, into the National Instant Check System.
None of the provisions in the spending bill are opposed by the National Rifle Association, and none add new restrictions for gun purchasing or close legal loopholes in the background-check system. The NRA endorsed the Fix NICS Act, which was written by GOP Senator John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. But in a setback to the gun-lobbying group, the law will take effect without the simultaneous passage of its top legislative priority—a bill expanding state concealed-carry rights nationwide. The House had attached that measure to Fix NICS late last year, but it is not included in the spending bill and won’t advance through the Senate.
The timing of the bill’s enactment coinciding with Saturday’s anti-gun-violence rally, March for Our Lives, is mostly coincidental; Congress was facing a Friday deadline to keep the government open, and Republicans wanted to pass the Fix NICS Act and other consensus bills without devoting floor time in the Senate for a debate. But advocates said the march would now serve as a reminder to lawmakers that their limited action was not enough.
“Some members of Congress will probably use these two pieces to take off some of the pressure they’re now feeling—look, we did something!—when in reality, many of them are too beholden to the NRA and their own political calculations to take the bold actions necessary to save the lives of their constituents,” said Igor Volsky, founder of Guns Down. The Fix NICS Act, he said, was “better than nothing,” but lawmakers “won’t be able to hide behind these small changes.”
Advocates adopted a similar posture toward the change in the language on federally-funded research into gun violence, which was also a compromise. Democratic leaders had sought to repeal an amendment first enacted in 1996 that prohibits the CDC from conducting research that promotes gun control and is frequently cited as a ban on studies into any firearm-related issue. The provision, known as the Dickey Amendment, will survive, but Congress included the following clarification in a report accompanying the spending bill: “While appropriations language prohibits the CDC and other agencies from using appropriated funding to advocate or promote gun control, the Secretary of Health and Human Services has stated the CDC has the authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence.”