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Congress Poised to Approve Most Significant Gun Bill in Decades
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Congress Poised to Approve Most Significant Gun Bill in Decades

The Senate passed the measure Thursday by a vote of 65-33. Next up: the House.

Good morning. Congress is poised to send the most significant gun violence prevention bill in nearly three decades to the president’s desk for his signature.

Gun Violence Prevention Bill Passes Senate

Senators approved a bipartisan gun violence prevention measure Thursday night with a vote of 65-33, breaking Congress’ lengthy stalemate on imposing new gun restrictions.

The House is expected to consider it this morning—the last step before President Joe Biden can sign it into law. With Democrats controlling the House, it is expected to pass. 

It’s a quick victory, but one that took a great deal of work and negotiation after a bipartisan group of senators ran up against several hurdles when drafting the legislative text last week. They wanted to move it through the Senate this week, before senators left for a two-week recess.

The legislation would direct funding toward mental health programs, incentivize states to implement red-flag laws and other risk protection measures, and establish heightened background checks for people younger than 21 attempting to purchase weapons. It also expands a ban on gun purchases to those convicted of domestic violence, encompassing offenses in dating relationships. Stephen Gutowski at The Reload has a helpful, more comprehensive look at the legislation here.

“This bill is going to save lives. This bill is going to save thousands of lives,” Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy—a steadfast advocate of stricter gun laws after the deadly Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in his state—said on the Senate floor this week. “This is going to be something that every single member of the Senate who votes for it can be proud of.”

He was joined in the negotiations by Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, both feeling urgency to act after the horrific mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, in late May.

“I don’t believe in doing nothing in the face of what we saw in Uvalde and we’ve seen in far too many communities,” Cornyn said Thursday night. “Doing nothing is an abdication of our responsibility.”

House Republicans are urging members to vote against it when it comes forward in that chamber, arguing it does not do enough to protect due process. (Some Republicans have taken another tack, arguing against it from the left. Florida Sen. Rick Scott slammed a portion of the bill that restores gun rights to those domestic abusers from dating relationships who have a clean record for five years, calling it soft on crime.) 

Because Democrats control the House and only a simple majority is needed to approve it there, it is expected to pass.

“Every day, gun violence steals lives and scars communities—and this crisis demands urgent action,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote in a statement after the Senate vote. “While we must do more, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act is a step forward that will help protect our children and save lives.”

A Different Gun Violence Bill Failed in the House This Week

A bipartisan bill to create alert systems for active shooter situations failed in the House this week amid opposition from most Republicans.

Democratic leaders brought the bill forward under suspension of the rules, which requires a two-thirds majority to pass. House leaders use this process for measures they expect will receive broad bipartisan support. 

The shooting alert bill would boost development of official alert systems for those in the vicinity of active shootings. It met resistance from Republicans who opposed taking federal action on the issue.

“If it were anything other than an attempt to demonize guns, to panic people, it would cover things like stabbing, car violence—how come we never hear about car violence?—it would cover all violence,” Kentucky Republican Rep. Thomas Massie said on the House floor this week. “But they’ve chosen to single out the Second Amendment and firearms. The technology already exists to do this, and the states that want to do it have already done it.”

We wrote you about the bill few weeks ago:

The legislation, called the Active Shooter Alert Act, would create a role within the Justice Department to coordinate active shooter alert efforts nationwide. The coordinator would work with state and local governments to build out active shooter procedures and to develop communication systems for mass alerts. It includes $2 million in fiscal year 2023 to carry out those goals. 

It failed on a vote of 259-162. That’s enough support to pass under a normal House process, separate from the two-thirds threshold it faced this week. Speaker Pelosi promised to bring it back up soon for another attempt at passage.

“Our House Democratic Majority will take up this legislation again and pass it—making clear that Democrats are on the side of protecting our families and supporting our courageous first responders,” Pelosi said.

Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act Holds Lessons for Congress

The last installment in our history of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act is out today—and, in my view, it’s one of the most important sections of the story. It takes a look at some institutional challenges lawmakers face with advancing bills like this, and how America is failing Uyghur refugees.

Despite the bill’s passage, it highlights the shortcomings of the U.S. Congress. 

The institution’s anarchy and lack of planning was on full display, with members never quite sure of how the bill would move—whether as part of an omnibus spending package, the defense act, a broader China competition bill, or a standalone measure—until the final weeks of 2021. Still, in a Congress with more animus between members than most sessions in recent history, lawmakers overwhelmingly rallied around the bill in the end.

It’s a question of resources. Most staff offices lose talent and expertise often as aides leave to take higher-paying jobs. It’s also a matter of time: Many aides don’t have the bandwidth to dedicate to an effort this ambitious.

Without the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, it’s not clear the forced labor bill would have been written or passed into law. It originated from that commission, led by staff who knew the issue inside and out. Their hard work, and the expertise the lawmakers on the commission have gained from serving on it, was essential in seeing the bill to fruition.

“How many members can spend enough time to really delve into that deep of an issue?” asks Jonathan Stivers, the former CECC staff director. “And between Rubio and McGovern and the rest of them, they did. The ability for a member to sit that long on one specific aspect of an issue is hard.” 

Because those members did have that capacity, they were able to decide: “Let’s do something. Let’s do something big.”

There’s an irony to this. 

Congress established the CECC to monitor human rights in China in 2000, in the same bill that paved the way for permanent normal trade relations with China. The CECC was seen almost as a bone thrown to the losers of the trade relations fight, those lawmakers who wanted China to make more significant human rights advances before America closely embraced it as a hub of economic investment. With the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, people involved say, the CECC created the most potent tool in decades for the government to pursue economic disentanglement with China.

But the U.S. government has still not taken one of the most substantial steps it can to help Uyghurs and others harmed by China’s genocide: prioritizing refugees who have made it out of Xinjiang but who still face China’s international influence.

Gulzira Auelkhan and her family have been in the United States for more than a year.

She still hasn’t been granted asylum, even though she directly suffered in what the U.S. government has officially designated genocide.

Auelkhan hasn’t even been able to have her first asylum interview with immigration officials yet, Fu says. …

She is among many others, primarily Uyghurs, who are in the United States seeking safety from China’s oppression. They face massive backlogs, contending with a bureaucracy that isn’t prioritizing them or providing much clarity on how long they will have to wait for approval. In January, Caroline Simon at Roll Call reported there are roughly 800 Uyghurs stuck in America’s asylum backlog consisting of hundreds of thousands of people from around the world.

Bob Fu, who came to America as a political refugee in the late 1990s, has helped hundreds of people escape China since establishing China Aid. It’s grueling work.

“The American asylum system is totally broken,” he says.

So is the refugee program, which is for people applying from outside the United States.

Fu has attempted to bring people who escaped Xinjiang to America from various third countries through the refugee admissions program, but he has been rebuffed by State Department officials who point to a lack of capacity and other geographic priorities. That’s why he and other human rights activists have relied on special humanitarian parole to rescue victims of China’s genocide.

“Despite the fact that the U.S. government made a legal recognition of genocide that has occurred in Xinjiang by the Communist Party, the bureaucracy has been really, really slow-walking—in some ways stalling—the kind of freedom that we could have helped so many,” Fu says.

A bipartisan group of American lawmakers introduced legislation more than a year ago to prioritize Uyghur refugees and others fleeing Xinjiang. It would make it easier for those affected by the genocide to apply for refugee status in the United States.

Having direct access to the American refugee program is an important step, advocates say, because it would offer greater protection from China’s long arm in other countries. Without priority status in America, refugees generally go through the United Nations process or processes in the countries they are living in, facing more exposure to extradition requests or pressure by Chinese officials.

Countries heavily influenced by China in the Middle East and North Africa are not safe for those who have escaped Xinjiang. Since 1997, the Chinese government has targeted more than 5,500 Uyghurs outside of China with cyberattacks, threats to family members in China, and intimidation, according to a 2022 Wilson Center report. And in the same timeframe, more than 1,500 Uyghurs have been detained abroad or forced to go back to China.

Reporting by the Uyghur Human Rights Project also tells a grim story.

“At least six Arab states—Egypt, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—have participated in a campaign of transnational repression spearheaded by China that has reached 28 countries worldwide,” the report reads.

The bill to help refugees hasn’t passed. It has gotten caught up in broader immigration politics. The House included it in their version of a sweeping China competition bill, but Republican senators are opposing it in negotiations for a final package. Sen. Chuck Grassley’s office confirmed last week that he is including the Uyghur refugee section in the immigration components he is pushing against.

This legislation doesn’t actually need to pass Congress, though.

It doesn’t need to go through the same fraught, winding process the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act went through to become law. If he wanted to, President Biden could unilaterally make the change prioritizing Uyghur refugees, matching America’s official view of the genocide in Xinjiang with tangible action. He hasn’t yet.

Read the rest of the story here.

Of Note

From my colleague Audrey: Bucking the party line on gun control

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.