From opposite sides of America’s great divide on guns, senators who had been talking sporadically since the school massacre in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24 faced each other last week in a hideaway office in the basement of the U.S. Capitol belonging to Sen. Chris Murphy.
Northeastern liberal Democrats like Murphy and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut sat with Southern conservative Republicans like John Cornyn of Texas and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, testing whether compromise was viable after the deaths of 19 fourth graders and two teachers in Uvalde.
Murphy, a proponent for gun controls since the mass shooting of 26 at the Sandy Hook school in his old House district nearly a decade ago, had feared that the demands for legislative action would dissipate once his colleagues returned from the Memorial Day recess.
“The opposite happened this time around,” Murphy said. “When my colleagues went home for that Memorial Day week, they were confronted by voters who told them that this time failure could not be an option, that this time they had to step up and do something.”
So, Murphy and Blumenthal said, the scene was set in Murphy’s office for a significant step last Wednesday towards a framework for the first significant gun safety measure in the Senate in nearly 30 years. There were follow-up talks into the weekend, then an announcement Sunday of a deal.
The framework includes an expansion of which gun sales should be subjected to background checks, as well as enhanced penalties for what now are lightly regulated straw purchasers of firearms.
The question now is whether the framework will survive the transition from concept to detailed legislative language.
“Every one of the elements of this proposal could potentially run into drafting” problems, Blumenthal said. “There’s no layup here.”
In places like Connecticut, Democrats focused Monday on what the bipartisan bill would do. In Texas, Cornyn tried to reassure constituents — some of whom attacked him on Twitter — of what it would not do. Such is the view from opposite sides of the divide.
While Murphy and Blumenthal promoted the significance of enhanced federal penalties for the trafficking of firearms purchased illegally, Cornyn stressed that universal background checks and lowering the legal standard for prosecuting straw purchases were among the things rejected in the talks.
With the promise of federal funding, the proposal would encourage but not require more states to adopt “red flag laws” that allow police to at least temporarily seize firearms from gun owners who show evidence of being a danger to themselves or others.
Connecticut was the first state to adopt a “red flag” or “risk warrant” law, acting in 1999 after a CT Lottery employee killed four co-workers.
It would make the laws more effective by providing resources for smaller police departments without the expertise or larger ones that may be overwhelmed by the crush of routine business.
Other elements would change what goes into NICS, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
The so-called “boyfriend loophole” — only domestic violence and restraining orders related to spouses are currently reasons for disqualification — would be closed. While raising the age of purchasing an AR-15 or other military-style rifle was a non-starter, gun buyers under age 21 now face a more detailed background check, including juvenile records.
“Now, of course, I want to ban assault weapons,” Murphy said. “Of course, I would rather just raise the age to 21. But we have found common agreement to put a pause on sales to under 21 buyers and to use that pause both as a cooling down period, if that person is in crisis, but also to do a more rigorous background check.”
Cornyn highlighted on Twitter that an assault weapon ban for 18- to 21-year-old buyers was rejected, as well as a 21-day waiting period for all gun purchases by that age group.
Even Blumenthal talked about what the bill would not do.
“There’s nothing here that takes away a gun for a single American, law-abiding citizen. And I think my Republican colleagues get that fact,” Blumenthal said.
As the Texas Tribune noted, Cornyn seemed equal to the task of defending the deal, especially the language promoting red flag laws — something that was explicitly rejected in Texas after a mass shooting at a high school in 2018.
Cornyn quickly accepted a challenge on Twitter to appear on a radio show with Dana Loesch, a former NRA spokesperson opposed to red flag laws, to discuss the proposal. And he suggested on Twitter that a red flag law could have prevented Uvalde.
“Enhanced background check of juvenile court, police, and mental health records likely would have disclosed what everyone in the community knew,” wrote Cornyn, who has an A-plus grade from the NRA. “The shooter was a ticking time bomb.”
Blumenthal credited outreach by Murphy with doubling the number of Republicans interested in a deal from five to 10.
The mathematics and rules of the evenly divided Senate made the participation of 10 Republicans crucial: With 60 votes necessary to go forward, the equation for passage of the first gun reform measure in nearly three decades is 10 Republicans plus 50 Democrats.
“Expanding that group to 10 was just an explosive breakthrough, politically,” Blumenthal said. “It says volumes about where this country has gone, and it’s a good thing. So I think just keeping everyone talking to each other, not making any particular provision a deal breaker, I think was very important.”
Blumenthal said members of the working group had differing motivations. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., never has been mistaken for a gun-control advocate, but he is passionate in his support for expanding community behavioral health programs.
“He has a bill with Debbie Stabenow. This provision will provide funding to expand those community behavioral health centers. Now that may have been a very strong impetus for him to join,” Blumenthal said.
Stabenow, a Democratic U.S. Senator from Michigan, also is a member of the working group.
Murphy and Blumenthal said the most significant element of the deal might be enhanced penalties on gun traffickers, especially those who obtain weapons from straw purchasers with clean criminal records who front for them.
“I’ve talked to many legal experts who say this might be the most important piece of our compromise bill, because finally we’re going to have federal tools to go after the traffickers who buy all their weapons in South Carolina or Georgia and bring them up to Hartford and sell them on the streets of the city,” Murphy said.
Blumenthal conceded that trafficking already is a federal crime but that federal law views straw purchases as a “paperwork violation.”
“Penalties reflect priorities. Penalties determine priorities. And the increase in penalties will create major incentives for law enforcement, as well as investment of resources,” said Blumenthal, a former U.S. attorney. “ATF will elevate that crime, and so will the FBI and other federal law enforcement.”
The realities of the coalition were evident as Blumenthal caught himself talking about the “iron pipeline” of guns from Southern states.
“I don’t want to demean any of them,” said Blumenthal, who has been working with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on red flag language.
“Stop picking on South Carolina,” Murphy said in a stage whisper to Blumenthal, who laughed. “We’re trying to write a bill with Lindsey.”