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H.R. 115: Thin Blue Line Act

May 18, 2017 at 4:20 p.m. ET. On Passage of the Bill in the House.

This was a vote to pass H.R. 115 (115th) in the House.

Shootings of police officers have been on the rise recently. Law enforcement fatalities caused by firearms increased 56 percent last year, to their highest level in the past five years. And so far this year, they’re up another 9 percent.

A new bill called the Thin Blue Line Act would enhance sentences for people convicted of fatally shooting (or attempting to fatally shoot) law enforcement officers.

Context and what the bill does

In death penalty cases, so-called “aggravating factors” are elements of the case that would merit a more severe penalty for the defendant. In federal death penalty cases, aggravating factors include the murder victim being a child or a pregnant woman, a hostage situation occurring prior to the murder being committed, or if the murder containing additional “cruel” elements such as torture or rape.

One element not currently on the list: killing a law enforcement officer. So the Thin Blue Line Act would add the killing or attempted killing a law enforcement officer to the list of aggravating factors in federal death penalty cases. Labelled H.R. 265 in the House, the legislation was introduced by Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL16).

What supporters say

Supporters argue the legislation is a necessary tough-on-crime measure in the face of an escalating threat to public safety.

“America’s police officers and first responders are the first ones on scene to help those in harm’s way,” House lead sponsor Buchanan said in a press release. “These brave men and women and their families put it all on the line and deserve our unwavering support. Getting this bill signed into law will protect those who serve our communities and send a clear message: targeting or killing our first responders will not be tolerated.”

What opponents say

Opponents argue that the bill is worrisome on both civil liberties and criminal justice grounds.

The American Civil Liberties Union wrote in opposition, “Expanding the number of aggravating factors that would subject a person to the death penalty is unnecessary and duplicative, counterproductive to improving law enforcement and community relations, and unlikely to prevent future violence against police.” They argued that the death penalty has not proven an effective deterrent to murder rates, and that all 50 states currently contain the provision on a state level already.

Opponents note that, while any law enforcement officer death is tragic, the current numbers are noticeably lower than they were throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The one-year spike in 2016 may prove an aberration amid a decades-long overall decline.

Opponents also note that the 64 law enforcement officials killed last year, while tragic, was dwarfed by the 963 people killed by police last year, including 233 black people — an issue for which many Democrats contendRepublicans’ have been far more reticent to condemn or to introduce corresponding public policy.

Votes and odds of passage

After first attracting 21 cosponsors, all Republicans, the bill passed the House 271–143 on May 18. Democrats mostly opposed, 48–139. All but four Republicans voted in favor: Reps. Justin Amash (R-MI3), Thomas Massie (R-KY4), Paul Mitchell (R-MI10), and Chris Smith (R-NJ4).

It had not yet received a vote in the Senate. President Trump highlighted the measure approvingly during National Police Week.

Totals

All Votes R D
Yea 65%
 
 
271
223
 
48
 
Nay 35%
 
 
143
4
 
139
 
Not Voting
 
 
16
10
 
6
 

Passed. Simple Majority Required. Source: house.gov.

Ideology Vote Chart

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Republican - Yea Democrat - Yea Republican - Nay Democrat - Nay
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Cartogram Map

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Study Guide

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You can find answers to most of the questions below here on the vote page. For a guide to understanding the bill this vote was about, see here.

What was the procedure for this vote?

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    This vote is related to a bill. However, that doesn’t necessarily tell you what it is about. Congress makes many decisions in the process of passing legislation, such as on the procedures for debating the bill, whether to change the bill before voting on passage, and even whether to vote on passage at all.

    You can learn more about the various motions used in Congress at EveryCRSReport.com. If you aren’t sure what the House was voting on, try seeing if it’s on this list.

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