Washington (AFP) - US lawmakers voted Wednesday to allow gun owners to carry concealed firearms across state lines, a controversial bill that critics say is aimed at undermining national gun control efforts.
The move came two months after the worst mass shooting in modern US history, when a gunman who had taken a vast arsenal into a Las Vegas hotel fired down on concert-goers and killed 58.
It passed the House of Representatives 231 to 198, after six Democrats joined all but 14 Republicans in supporting the bill, which will also need Senate passage if it is to become law.
The Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act would essentially allow anyone with a permit to carry hidden weapons into any state, including those like New York and California, and the US capital Washington, DC, which have some of the toughest restrictions on carrying loaded guns in public.
It would also allow people to carry concealed weapons into federally owned lands, including national parks.
The nation's top pro-gun lobby group, the National Rifle Association, declared the concealed carry bill its "highest legislative priority," while House Speaker Paul Ryan framed it as a vote "to protect our citizens' Second Amendment rights" and one that will save lives.
But Gabby Giffords, a former congresswoman critically wounded by a gunshot to the head in a 2011 assassination attempt, sounded an alarm immediately following the bill's passage.
"After two of our nation's worst mass shootings, Congress took direct instruction from the gun lobby and passed a bill that will override existing state laws and allow dangerous, untrained people to carry guns in every state and every city," Giffords, now an anti-gun-violence activist, said in a statement.
About one month after the Las Vegas attack, a man who once escaped from a mental hospital shot dead 26 people in a Texas church.
Prospects for the measure are less clear in the Senate, where such legislation would need some Democratic support in order to pass.
Most Democrats are opposed. But in order to sweeten the deal, the House Republican leadership attached the measure to a bipartisan effort to strengthen the existing system of background checks on gun buyers.
Such a move could fracture a fragile bipartisan coalition pursuing a background check expansion after recent massacres.
- Safer? -
Opponents of expanding concealed carry legislation say the bill would allow individuals to acquire a permit from states with the easiest requirements and bring that gun into any other state.
"The appalling House vote for concealed carry reciprocity puts all New Yorkers at risk," New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo said.
"This legislation would let individuals from out-of-state convicted of certain crimes carry hidden, loaded weapons in New York, in violation of New York's much better, safer law."
Andrew Zucker, a spokesman for the gun violence prevention network, Everytown For Gun Safety, told AFP the bill "would eviscerate state gun laws across the country and make it easy for people with dangerous histories and no training" to take their concealed weapons across state lines.
The Association of Prosecuting Attorneys wrote congressional leaders warning that such federal legislation "would undercut local efforts to combat gun violence."
But 24 state attorneys general disagreed.
"Authorizing permit holders to carry across state lines will not result in an increased risk of crime," argued Missouri Attorney General Joshua Hawley and 23 others in their own letter to the same congressional leaders.
The challenge of how to reduce gun violence in America has vexed lawmakers for years.
"By passing this law, you allow a lot of bad guys to get guns and carry them anywhere in this country," said Senator Chris Murphy, surrounded by survivors and parents of victims of gun violence who came to the US Capitol to oppose the legislation.
"That doesn't make our country safer."
Murphy is from Connecticut, where a deranged gunman stormed an elementary school and murdered 20 students and six adult staff in 2012. December 14 marks the massacre's fifth anniversary.