The US House of Representatives has passed a bill that would ban assault weapons for the first time in decades, in response to a series of mass shootings that shocked the country.
The legislation was approved on Friday by a 217 to 213 vote in the Democrat-majority House. All but two Republicans voted against it, joined by a handful of Democrats.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the bill a “crucial step in our ongoing fight against the deadly epidemic of gun violence in our nation.”
It would ban the sale, import, manufacture or transfer of certain semi-automatic weapons.
President Joe Biden hailed the House vote, saying: “The majority of the American people agree with this common sense action.” He urged the Senate, split 50-50 between each party, to “move quickly to get this bill to my desk” but the measure is not expected to get the approval it needs to become law.
Congress placed restrictions on the manufacture and sale of assault weapons in 1994, but the legislation expired 10 years later, after politicians were unable to muster the support to counter the gun lobby.
The Biden administration said that while the ban was in place, mass shootings declined.
“When the ban expired in 2004, mass shootings tripled,” the statement said. Assault rifles have emerged as the weapon of choice among the young men responsible for many of the country’s most devastating gun attacks.
The latest effort at gun control follows two mass shootings in May that shocked the country – the shooting of 10 African Americans at a supermarket in Buffalo by a white supremacist, and the murder of 19 children and two teachers at a school in Uvalde, by an 18-year-old gunman.
Still, in the debate ahead of the vote, Republicans dismissed the legislation as an election-year strategy by Democrats, and stood firmly against limits on gun ownership.
“It’s a gun grab, pure and simple,” Guy Reschenthaler, a Republican from Pennsylvania told the House.
Andrew Clyde, a Republican from Georgia said: “An armed America is a safe and free America.”
Democrats argued the ban on the weapons made sense, portraying Republicans as extreme and out of step with a changing national mood.
Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said the weapons ban was not about taking away constitutional rights but ensuring that children also have the right “to not get shot in school.”
Congress passed a modest gun violence prevention package last month in the wake of Uvalde, with measures including expanded background checks on young adults buying firearms, and allowing authorities to access certain juvenile records.
That bipartisan bill was the first of its kind after years of failed efforts to confront the gun lobby.
A House committee, in a report released this week, said US gun makers had earned $1bn in the past 10 years from sales of AR-15-style semi-automatic weapons.
“The gun industry has flooded our neighbourhoods, our schools and even our churches and synagogues with these deadly weapons and has gotten rich doing it,” Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat, said at a hearing attended by relatives of victims of gun violence.
“They are choosing their bottom line over the lives of their fellow Americans.”