I have reported on Washington’s response to gun violence in one way or another since the shooting in Charleston left nine Black worshippers dead in 2015. Then came the Pulse nightclub, a shooting at a country music concert in Las Vegas, and the shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. I covered the March for Our Lives event after the shooting in Parkland, Florida, when scores of people filled the streets of DC in front of the Capitol and there was a sense there could be actual change.
Then there were weekends as a night editor when I managed a team during the shootings in Virginia Beach, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and El Paso. The fact that a standard operating procedure existed for such situations was both reassuring and depressing. And now Buffalo, followed by Uvalde, followed by Tulsa. While states — including Republican strongholds like Florida — have passed some laws on guns, Congressional action has been lacking. If a lot of my articles recently talk bleakly about gun talks failing, it’s because I’ve seen this all before.
And yet, there is enough reason to think this time really might be different. Republicans and Democrats are actively speaking in the Senate, typically where gun legislation dies. More than that, there appears to be a level of good faith and trust between the Democrats and the Republicans with whom they are negotiating.
Here’s why I’m optimistic about this time round, when I never was before. First, we have a more liberal Democratic trifecta. One reason why even Joe Manchin and Senator Pat Toomey’s legislation to expand background checks died was because of the filibuster. But even if it had survived a Senate vote, Republicans controlled the House of Representatives at the time, and it likely would have faced the same death as immigration reform (the other pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in Washington) faced in 2013 when it never went to a vote in the House. Republican control of the House and Senate during the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency meant there would be little action for fear of angering the base.
Furthermore, Democrats are far more unified on guns than they were during Barack Obama’s presidency. In 2013, four Democrats joined a GOP filibuster on the background check bill. Nowadays, even the most conservative Democrats, like Manchin, are on board — and fellow centrist Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona is one of the four main negotiators.
A weakened NRA is also a reason why things are looking up this time. Anytime that Republicans offer their condolences to victims of gun violence, liberal Twitter accounts like to flag how much the National Rifle Association gave that elected official. It’s an effective reaction and pointing out the supposed hypocrisy offers a simple solution to liberals: simply create more streams of fundraising to make Republicans less dependent on the gun lobby. But the NRA’s real power has always been its ability to mobilize its members, rather than its money. These days, though, the former behemoth has been felled by scandals, having failed to receive bankruptcy protection last year. (Tim Mak of NPR has written the definitive book on how its power declined). The fact that Republican Senator John Cornyn — now the lead Republican negotiator on guns — pulled out of the NRA’s conference days after Uvalde, as did Governor Greg Abbott (who only delivered recorded remarks) is a marker of how diminished the NRA’s power is.
There also seems to be some renewed trust built between Republicans and their Democratic colleagues. Democrats saw their efforts on passing Build Back Better wither in December. Since then, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer set up two votes on legislation that had no buy-in from Republicans: one on voting rights and another on abortion. Those bills were mostly messaging bills to get Republicans on record or to show voters they were at least trying, and most Republicans were opposed to any type of changes. This time, it seems like Democrats are willing to give Republicans the benefit of the doubt. Case in point: On Monday, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy — who has been the leading voice on guns since the Sandy Hook massacre in his home state of Connecticut — said he hoped there could be a deal by the end of the week before Cornyn said, “I don’t think arbitrary deadlines help us very much.” Surprisingly, Murphy then told me, “I don’t disagree,” and added, “I think there’s an urgency from the American people that we act fast. But we should get it right.”
All of these reasons mean we really could see change on guns in 2022. But here are a few reasons why things could fall apart.
Too many people have too many differing needs: Toomey, who is retiring, described the core group of people discussing changes to gun control as Cornyn and Senator Thom Tillis from North Carolina representing Republicans; and Murphy and Sinema representing Democrats. There is a larger outside group, too, including potentially a number of Republicans. “These things are ad hoc” and said there are no “by-laws,” Toomey said. He added that he thinks there is “a very real prospect of something on background checks.” “Exactly how it works is not entirely clear,” he told reporters.
However, many Republicans like Senator Lindsey Graham would prefer emergency risk protections orders, also known as “red flag laws”. Still other members of the GOP — like Senator Rick Scott, who signed a law when he was governor of Florida — would rather such legislation be handled on the state level. Gun negotiations could wind up being a Rubik’s cube where one Republicans’ solution fails to match up adequately with others’.
Republicans have more leverage, and they have more risk. Despite the apparent sincerity of the talks, the fact remains that the GOP have the thing that Democrats need: their ten votes. Republicans don’t need to do this, in other words, and they’ll have to be convinced that such a risk is worth it.
Democrats know supporters of gun control will likely take much less than what they actually want if it means passing something. Republicans risk angering their base, generating a primary challenge or facing negative coverage in right-wing media if they work with Democrats. So they could easily walk away.
So far, the reasons why negotiations could fail are not as strong as the reasons it could succeed. But that’s not to say this is a comprehensive list. Plus, all it takes is for one person to pull out their thread for the whole cloak to unravel.