Senate lawmakers edged closer to breaking a decades-long logjam on gun policy Sunday, announcing a bipartisan framework for expanding background checks and funding school safety efforts after a spate of mass shootings created a heightened sense of urgency among lawmakers.
The deal, crafted by a group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers, is the most ambitious update of the nation’s gun laws in nearly a decade. It boosts funding for school security and mental health treatment while tightening the background check system and incentivizing states to adopt “red flag” laws. A more ambitious package of gun control measures passed earlier by the Democratic majority in the House had no chance of approval in the evenly divided upper chamber.
“Families are scared, and it is our duty to come together and get something done that will help restore their sense of safety and security in their communities,” said some 20 senators from both parties announcing the framework.
President Biden hailed the deal and vowed to quickly sign the final legislation. Some conservatives and smaller gun groups quickly condemned the framework. The National Rifle Association expressed doubts about portions of the agreement but said it was reserving final judgment until the bills are written.
The agreement was negotiated by a core group of four senators, led by Democrats Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Christopher Murphy of Connecticut and Republicans John Cornyn of Texas and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. The four lawmakers gave others involved in the negotiations wide latitude to craft different portions of the agreement.
The package’s “red flag” provision, which gives states incentives to adopt laws allowing courts to prohibit people deemed threats from buying or possessing guns, was authored by Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, and Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat. The two senators introduced various gun bills in previous years.
Negotiators included within the framework a bill expanding mental health treatment programs, spearheaded by Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat.
The strategy expanded bipartisan support for the framework and shortened the time needed to strike a deal.
“Will this bill do everything we need to end our nation’s gun violence epidemic? No,” said Mr. Murphy. “But it’s real, meaningful progress. And it breaks a 30-year logjam, demonstrating that Democrats and Republicans can work together in a way that truly saves lives.”
Driving the debate
The debate over guns and school safety jumped into hyperdrive after the May 24 shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and two teachers dead, and a May 14 shooting at a Buffalo supermarket that left 10 Black people dead. Mr. Biden pressed repeatedly for action from Congress.
If the deal holds, supporters say, it will significantly tighten the ability of people with troublesome backgrounds to get access to or possess guns.
Apart from incentivizing the adoption of state red-flag laws, the framework proposes to expand the background check system for gun purchases to include juvenile records. It also broadens restrictions on gun ownership for people accused or convicted of domestic violence.
The deal could not have been possible without Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. Although not directly involved in the talks, Mr. McConnell encouraged Mr. Cornyn, one of his top lieutenants, to participate in the bipartisan negotiations.
At the same time, Mr. McConnell tasked another top ally, Mr. Blunt, with gauging whether there was enough support within the Republican conference for a deal. The quiet prodding was evident Sunday when 10 Republicans, including Mr. Cornyn and Mr. Blunt, signed on to back the framework in principle.
“I appreciate their hard work on this important issue,” said Mr. McConnell. “The principles they announced today show the value of dialogue and cooperation.”
Republican support for the deal was never assured. Gun rights groups have long fought legislation on the topic and often spent heavily to pressure Republicans by stirring fears of primary challenges.
Mr. McConnell allowed Senate Republicans to engage in the bipartisan negotiations anyway, betting that voters would reward incremental action on gun violence at the polls in November.
“It’s a no-brainer to do something. Every suburban and swing voter in the country was moved by the tragedies in Uvalde and elsewhere,” said an aide close to the Senate Republican leadership. “They’re looking for some sort of movement.”
Despite pushing a more ambitious plan that would ban semi-automatic rifles and limit ammunition magazines to no more than 10 bullets, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, is supporting the compromise.
“Once the text of this agreement is finalized, I will put this bill on the floor as soon as possible so that the Senate can act quickly to advance gun safety legislation,” Mr. Schumer said.
Mr. Biden similarly has thrown his weight behind the framework. He urged unenthused Democrats to support it and keep pushing for more substantial gun control measures down the line.
“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,” the president said. “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.”
The legislative road ahead is filled with potential potholes.
Time after time, efforts to address mass shootings and gun violence have flamed out on Capitol Hill. Republicans have accused Democrats of going too far, and the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups have flexed their political muscle. President Obama learned that lesson after a gunman killed 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 but major gun legislation stalled on Capitol Hill.
Given that history, lawmakers are antsy that the framework, which has yet to be written into legislation, can maintain the support of at least 10 Republican senators. If it can’t, the bill will likely die because of the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster threshold.
Gun rights groups, in particular, are gearing up to pick off vulnerable Republican supporters. Their most significant attack will be on the framework’s red-flag provisions, which they say could violate the right of due process for millions of law-abiding gun owners.
“Red-flag laws are ripe for abuse,” said Eric Pratt, senior vice president of Gun Owners of America. “They throw due process out the window and violate people’s rights by punishing them for what they might do.”
The NRA said in a statement that it opposes gun control measures as an infringement of fundamental constitutional rights but supports strengthening school security, mental health care and law enforcement.
“As is our policy, the NRA does not take positions on ‘frameworks,’” the Fairfax, Virginia-based group said. “We will make our position known when the full text of the bill is available for review.”
Still, the gun lobby’s power may not be sufficient to kill the agreement.
Four Republican senators supporting the framework are not seeking reelection this year, leaving them less fearful of retribution at the ballot box. The other six Republican lawmakers backing the framework are not up for reelection this year.
Gun control advocates celebrated the announcement.
“If the framework announced today gets enacted into law, it will be the most significant piece of gun safety legislation to make it through Congress in 26 long and deadly years,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety.
“We applaud this bipartisan coalition, led by Sens. Murphy and Cornyn, for leading this push to address our nation’s raging gun violence crisis, and we call on their colleagues to answer the call of history and honor the victims and survivors of gun violence with long-overdue action,” he said.
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