Something highly irregular is happening in the United States Senate: Bipartisan gun reform talks haven’t completely collapsed several weeks after they began. You might even say they’re progressing.
A group of twenty senators, including 10 Republicans, signed off on a rough outline of a deal over the weekend in the wake of mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde. The compromise, according to the leaders of the negotiation, would provide resources to states to administer or pass “red-flag laws” that allows authorities to intervene and seize weapons from those deemed (through the courts) a danger. It would close the so-called “boyfriend loophole” that allows certain dating partners with records of abuse to pass background checks. It doesn’t raise the gun ownership age to 21, but it does enhance background checks for younger buyers. It cracks down on straw purchasers, invests in mental health programs for young people and families, and offers more resources for school safety measures.
This comes up well short of the sort of gun control package Democrats agree is necessary. Were they in a stronger midterm position, they might reject such a meek response to unspeakable tragedy and instead hammer Republicans for blocking meaningful reform.
But it’s also notably farther than Republican negotiators have been willing to go before. Democrats’ insistence on closing the “boyfriend loophole,” after all, was one of the issues that held up reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act for years; Democrats eventually dropped the demand. And even though the “red flag” laws provision is pretty soft—throwing some money at states and giving them a chance to do it—the politics of the federal government making it easier to seize anyone’s firearms are thorny for Washington Republicans.
The politics of the moment favor action in a way they usually don’t. Democrats want to get something done on guns, and President Biden wants a well-broadcast bipartisan signing ceremony, before they lose control of at least one chamber of Congress. Republicans don’t need to worry about such a bill depressing base turnout this fall—the Republican base is ready to turn out, no matter what happens between now and November—and signing off on such a deal could help Republicans recoup some of their suburban losses under Trump.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who’s the leader because he has the best grasp of the politics of any given move, opened his Tuesday press conference by saying that “if the legislation ends up reflecting what the framework indicates, I’ll be supportive.” And Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, Democrats’ point-person on gun legislation who’s ever-careful not to raise expectations too high, was coming awfully close to declaring victory on Tuesday.
“The heavy lifting is done,” Murphy told reporters Tuesday. “All we’re doing now is taking a framework and putting it into legislative text. And I’m confident we can get there, and get there soon.”
So how could this all fall apart?
It was interesting to hear Murphy say that “all we’re doing” is putting a framework into legislative text. Another way of putting it is: They had some bullet points they shook hands on, and now they have to write a bill.
“One thing I was reminded of in this negotiation is where two people can hear the same word, and hear different things, or make inferences,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the lead Republican negotiator, explained of the challenge of “grinding out” the legislative text. “So eliminating some of those ambiguities, and just making sure we all understand one another.”
Senate Republicans who aren’t keen on doing this have, so far, been disciplined in holding their fire publicly. A couple of Republicans whom I gave the opportunity to tee off on the proposal, Sens. John Kennedy and Ron Johnson, curtly said they wouldn’t comment until there’s legislative text. This may partially come out of respect for Cornyn, a former no. 2 Senate Republican whom colleagues trust not to cut a deal that would get them in trouble with pro-gun groups. When Cornyn presented the proposal and took questions during Republicans’ private lunch Wednesday, things were mostly respectful.
“There was nobody that lost their cool or anything,” Indiana Sen. Mike Braun, who’s open to the proposal, told me.
The two planks that will be most delicate to draft are the closure of the “boyfriend loophole” and the grants for state “red flag” laws. Both make Republicans susceptible to arguments from gun-rights groups, and their base, that they’re infringing on Second Amendment rights, and that “red flag” laws sidestep due process laws by not requiring the person to be present in court.
Cornyn, meanwhile, told me Tuesday that his big concern is combating “misinformation” coming from certain quarters. He’s spent an inordinate amount of time in the last couple of days, for example, insisting that there is no federal red flag law, and this would just be giving states resources to pursue their own.
Sure enough, by Wednesday morning, Cornyn conceded to reporters that there were hang-ups in the negotiations over “red flag” laws and the “boyfriend loophole.”
“At some point, if we can’t get to 60, then we’re going to have to pare some of this, some of it down,” Cornyn said Wednesday, according to NBC News.
This would be how it falls apart: Republicans slink away from the two items that Democrats most want. Democrats then question the point of passing such a bill. Each side blames the other for sabotaging talks, and finger-pointing replaces legislative action. Onward to the election.
But they’re not there yet.