President Joe Biden signed the “Bipartisan Safer Communities Act of 2022” into law on Saturday.
Negotiations for a legislative effort to address gun violence took new precedence in the wake of the shooting in Buffalo, New York, and the killing of 19 elementary school students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas.
The Act includes language that changes background check laws and allows states to include “non-spouse individuals” when enacting “domestic violence prevention laws.” The Act also includes significant funding for various mental health programs.
“While this bill doesn’t do everything I want, it does include actions I’ve long called for that are going to save lives,” Biden said when signing the legislation. “Today, we say more than enough. We say more than enough. This time, when it seems impossible to get anything done in Washington, we are doing something consequential.”
Legislation for a separate “assault weapons” ban is currently in the House but is unlikely to garner enough Republican support to pass the Senate.
The federal ban lapsed in 2004 after the U.S. Legislature did not move replacement bills forward. Evidence published by the U.S. Department of Justice indicates that the ban had little to no effect on gun violence in the U.S.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, as signed into law, is broken into three sections that provide new rules and clarifications of existing laws while also allocating significant funding to numerous programs.
The most significant expenditures in the Act seek to address mental illness, providing $940 million to the Department of Health and Human Services for “enacting and funding” various mental health-related programs and training opportunities.
An additional $2 billion is allocated to the Department of Education to fund “mental health awareness” and on-campus crisis intervention programs.
The legislation also allocates $1.6 billion in funding to the Department of Justice, which includes $200 million for expanding background checks.
Among the most potent aspects of the new laws are requirements to expand background checks for gun purchasers under the age of 21. The Act will prevent individuals under 21 from buying guns when they have been convicted of disqualifying crimes as a minor, records that were previously unavailable.
The Act also requires that state and local governments report convictions to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Currently, federal convictions and warrants are entered into the database, while state, local, and tribal convictions are provided on a voluntary basis.
The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence claims that, due to inconsistent reporting, as many as 3,000 individuals pass a NICS background check each year despite being ineligible to own a firearm.
The Justice Department will also receive $750 million for Byrnes JAG crisis intervention funds that will be available to states seeking to create Extreme Risk Prevention Order laws, commonly referred to as “red flag” laws.
Current federal law only restricts prospective gun buyers if their background check reveals they are the current subject of a restraining order or if they have been: involuntarily committed to a mental health institution, found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity, convicted of domestic violence, or found to be a danger to themselves or others by a court.
State red flag laws vary drastically, with the most restrictive states allowing coworkers, mental health providers, and school educators to petition courts to withhold an individual’s right to possess firearms.
The length of time an individual can be restricted also varies by state, with most states allowing the restriction for one year. Five of the 19 states that currently have red flag laws only allow law enforcement to petition courts.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act limits how states may enact these restrictions and directs that individuals must have a process open to getting their property returned once they are deemed “no longer a threat” or once a court has determined that “no threat existed.”
Further, the legislation addresses the so-called “boyfriend loophole.” The Act allows authorities to restrict the possession of firearms by individuals convicted of domestic violence who are in intimate relationships with the victim but are not necessarily married. Prior law did not address intimate but unmarried partners who engaged in violence.
While the Act falls short of the goals of many Democrats — including the Biden administration — it is also unpopular with pro-gun organizations, including the National Rifle Association (NRA), Gun Owners of America (GOA), and the National Association for Gun Rights (NAGR), which view the legislation as an overreach that impacts lawful gun owners without addressing criminal behavior.
“This legislation can be abused to restrict lawful gun purchases, infringe upon the rights of law-abiding Americans, and use federal dollars to fund gun control measures being adopted by state and local politicians,” wrote the NRA in response to the inclusion of the red flag funding. “This bill leaves too much discretion in the hands of government officials and also contains undefined and overbroad provisions – inviting interference with our constitutional freedoms.”
NAGR called out Texas Senator John Cornyn, one of the Republican senators who backed the legislation.
“John Cornyn is the definition of a two-faced politician. He claims to support the Second Amendment but is actually working to eviscerate our gun rights by cutting deals with anti-gun Democrats – and when his constituents publicly held him accountable, he called them a mob,” said Dudley Brown, President of the National Association for Gun Rights. “It appears that Sen. Cornyn hates the First Amendment as much as the Second and will continue to undermine the Bill of Rights as long as he’s in public office.”
The Safer Communities Act was created through negotiations and discussions among 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats led by Senators John Cornyn (R-TX), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Chris Murphy (D-CT), and Krysten Sinema (D-AZ). A total of 15 Republicans joined all Democrats to advance the bill out of the Senate last week before it was signed by President Biden.