Something seemingly impossible happened in Washington this week: The House approved a measure that gun-control advocates like.
In a 260-145 vote, the House approved an amendment Thursday night from Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson of California to provide $19.5 million to expand the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). States access the federal database when they process gun sales, and the money is intended to prevent criminals and the mentally ill from purchasing guns.
This happened in the same legislative body that ended up passing nearly no gun legislation in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. In fact, Congress did just one thing related to guns since the 2012 mass shooting: In December 2013 it renewed an expiring ban on plastic guns, although lawmakers voted down toughening regulations on such guns.
Even modest gun provisions, like some of those included in the gun legislation the Senate took up in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, have been met with fierce opposition from gun-rights groups.
Thompson's amendment to fiscal 2015 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill didn't face such opposition; the National Rifle Association was neutral on it.
NRA leader Wayne LaPierre has previously said that his group is opposed to universal background checks and new gun laws because the government doesn't fully enforce existing laws, and the NICS was a failure because violators are rarely prosecuted.
The Thompson amendment passed with 76 Republicans voting along with nearly all Democrats. It is part of an appropriations package the House approved; the Senate will consider its own broad funding package, and the two chambers will reconcile their bills later this year.
"Our national criminal background check system is only as good as the data you put in it, and right now all the information isn't getting into the system," the amendment's cosponsors said in a statement. "When this happens, we can't enforce the law, and criminals, domestic abusers, or dangerously mentally ill individuals who otherwise wouldn't pass a background check can slip through the cracks and buy guns."
Thompson introduced another bill Friday meant to keep the severely mentally ill from getting guns. The measure would expand the list of those prohibited from purchasing guns.
But there aren't many signals yet that the modest boost to America's existing background-check system means other gun bills will likewise pass the House.
"I want to think this is a major victory, and I want to believe that it opens the door for more comprehensive gun safety legislation, but it's very difficult to say," said Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, a longstanding proponent of new gun laws. "We know for a fact that whenever there are any issues regarding guns, no matter how common sense they seem, and no matter how practical they seem, the NRA finds a way to attack the proposals."
Cummings added: "It's so sad that our normal now is for [this amendment passing] to be shocking."