The group struck a deal with Democrats on Sunday that could lead to more spending on mental health care, school security, extra scrutiny of young gun buyers and incentives to states to temporarily confiscate weapons from those deemed a threat.
Critically, the size of the group of senators brings the promise of overcoming the Senate filibuster, the procedural block requiring 60 votes that has allowed conservatives to thwart previous efforts to pass gun reform legislation. If the package can pass the Senate — still a massive question given the bill is not yet written and the fierce conservative backlash it’s likely to stir — it would mark the most sweeping attempt to tackle America’s epidemic of mass shootings in many years. Even Democrats, like President Joe Biden, and gun safety groups who want to see much broader action are praising it as a breakthrough and a small first step.
The symbolism of a new law would be significant since it would reverse the recent pattern that once the initial grief and fury that follows a massacre subsides, the impetus for tough political choices needed for Republicans to brave their own party’s pro-gun base quickly subsides. It would also represent a victory over the extreme position of hard-line Republicans, that any small-scale tinkering with any law involving guns represents a slippery slope that would inevitably lead to the destruction of the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms.
It’s not possible to say for sure whether measures included in the compromise could have made a difference in the recent mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, but they could come into force in similar situations in the future and save lives if a law is enacted. It’s unlikely, however, that the measure could stem the flow of mass shootings like those last weekend at bars, high school graduations and outside a funeral in a Kentucky church.
But the fact that a set of measures that is so modest is on the verge of creating its own piece of history tells its own story about Congress’ paralysis in the face of so much death.
The deal includes no ban on assault rifles that some relatives of gun massacre victims want. While it promises to slow the process for those under 21 to buy semi-automatic weapons, it does not expand background checks for all gun buyers — a move considered a political step too far by Republicans.
Race to finish in two weeks without losing support
The biggest question now is whether the 10 Republicans will stand firm and help push the measure through the Senate despite what are likely to be delaying and obstruction tactics by their colleagues. There are two weeks until the next congressional recess. If a bill doesn’t pass before then, there is a real risk that GOP senators returning home will come under extreme pressure to walk back their support for the package.
It is critical that Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut have the support — or at least something less than full-throated opposition — of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has stood in the way of previous gun safety legislation.
McConnell put out a statement praising Cornyn and Murphy for “continuing to make headway,” but did not endorse the deal and framed their efforts as a work in progress.
“I continue to hope their discussions yield a bipartisan product that makes significant headway on key issues like mental health and school safety, respects the Second Amendment, earns broad support in the Senate, and makes a difference for our country,” McConnell said.
And Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer welcomed the deal, though it falls short of his party’s wish list, pledging to put the bill “on the floor as soon as possible” — as soon as it is written.
Therein lies a challenge for the package that is a broad framework for action but that is not yet codified into legislative language. Accomplishing that task before the next recess will be a high bar given the intricacy of the issues and the sensitive position in which the 10 GOP senators have placed themselves.
The group includes Sens. Cornyn, Thom Tillis and Richard Burr of North Carolina, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Rob Portman of Ohio, Mitt Romney of Utah and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. Of the 10, Burr, Blunt, Portman and Toomey are not seeking reelection in 2022 so are somewhat shielded from a direct backlash by conservative anti-gun reform advocates. Cassidy, Tillis, Graham, Cornyn and Collins have meanwhile just been reelected so don’t have to worry about primaries until 2026.
The fact that there was any Republican impetus to negotiate a compromise — while ensuring in the minds of those involved that there was no watering down of Second Amendment rights — shows the level political pressure following the Uvalde tragedy in particular.
Majorities of Americans in polls favor expanded background checks or a ban on assault weapons, for instance. But the filibuster in the Senate and the threat from the party base to Republicans who even think about gun safety reform has for years prevailed against real action — most notoriously after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. Given the retirements of more moderate members of the GOP in the Senate, and the likelihood that some of them may be replaced by more radical, pro-Trump senators after November’s midterm elections, the window for Republican cooperation on gun safety may be short.
Red flag law measure could spark GOP backlash
One of the most scrutinized parts of the compromise is expected to be its encouragement for states to pass so-called red flag laws that allow authorities to temporarily take guns away from people who are considered dangerous. Several high-profile Republican senators — including Missouri’s Josh Hawley, a potential 2024 presidential candidate — have said that they oppose such measures.
Some Democrats will be disappointed, meanwhile, that the compromise doesn’t include a full prohibition on people under 21 buying powerful semi-automatic weapons like the ones used by two 18-year-old shooters, who bought their weapons legally, ahead of the Uvalde and Buffalo mass killings last month.
Democratic members of the House, which has gone far further in passing broader gun reforms, grudgingly agreed to back the Senate compromise if passes.
“It’s moving in the right direction. We’re glad that the Senate is finally awake about this,” Maryland Rep Jamie Raskin told Dana Bash on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday before the full scope of the compromise was announced. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told CNN she would prefer that there was a greater focus on the actual guns involved in shootings rather than other measures. But she also hinted that she would support the deal if it was “a real baby step.”
Biden adopted a pragmatic response, which reflects his own belief that bipartisanship can still be a force in bitterly polarized Washington even if it falls well below his own aspirations for reform.
“Obviously, it does not do everything that I think is needed, but it reflects important steps in the right direction, and would be the most significant gun safety legislation to pass Congress in decades,” Biden said in a statement. “Each day that passes, more children are killed in this country: the sooner it comes to my desk, the sooner I can sign it, and the sooner we can use these measures to save lives.”
But there were ominous signs from the National Rifle Association, even if the group said it did not take positions on frameworks.
NRA spokesman Lars Dalseide told CNN that “the NRA will continue to oppose any effort to insert gun control policies, initiatives that override constitutional due process protections and efforts to deprive law-abiding citizens of their fundamental right to protect themselves and their loved ones into this or any other legislation.” Some conservatives have suggested that the red flag law does indeed infringe due process considerations.
And while most national Democrats seemed ready to vote for a compromise, even if it does not satisfy what they think needs to be done, the feeling is not universal in the party. Melanie D’Arrigo who is running for the US House from New York’s 3rd Congressional District and has been endorsed by the Everytown for Gun Safety organization, said the Senate compromise was a half measure.
“We don’t need to incentivize states to pass red flag laws; we need federal red flag legislation. We need to ban assault weapons, period. And we need a national license and registration program for gun ownership to crack down on illegal guns,” D’Arrigo said in a statement Sunday.