Democrats aim for modest deal on guns
Senate Democrats say they are ready to accept a modest deal on gun control legislation as they are eager to get something done in response to mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas, even if it falls below their ambitions of previous years.
A bipartisan group of nine senators met Thursday afternoon to chart out a path for negotiations.
They say their top priorities are proposals to expand background checks and encourage states to set up red flag laws to prohibit people deemed dangerous to themselves or others from owning firearms.
Democrats acknowledged from the outset that whatever deal they get is likely to be modest, since it needs at least 10 Republican votes to overcome a filibuster.
“If they’re successful, and I hope they are successful, I hope I’ll support it. I expect I will, but I’m certainly not going to be satisfied,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said of the bipartisan negotiations on gun control legislation.
“I know the dynamics here. The assault weapons [ban] is not going to be in that package,” he said.
Another proposal favored by many Democrats, to ban high-capacity magazines, is also off the table in the bipartisan negotiations.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), one of the lead Democratic negotiators on gun control, said immediately after the shooting in Texas that he was intent on getting a deal with Republicans and didn’t want to settle for another round of gun control votes that fail largely along party lines.
“This is all about what can get 60 votes,” he said. “Let’s see what public demand for action arises in the next few weeks, but we need to work with Republicans.”
Murphy hosted a meeting with four Democrats and three Republicans in the basement of the Capitol Thursday to see what common ground could be found on addressing gun violence.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who attended the meeting, characterized it as an “organizational” and preliminary meeting.
The other attendees were Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who called in by phone.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday that he has tapped Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to his leadership team, to negotiate a possible agreement with Democrats. But McConnell warned that any proposal that emerges should be a narrowly tailored response to the Texas shooting.
“I am hopeful that we could come up with a bipartisan solution that’s directly related to the facts of this awful massacre,” he said.
Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, whose job it is to preserve the Democratic majority, emphasized the need to rack up an accomplishment on reducing gun violence.
“Right now I would hope that we would be able to get something done. I think we know kind of where everybody is. We’ve had enough votes in the past on some of this,” he said. “Given the tragedies that we continue to see and the fact every day that nearly 100 people die of gun violence, we want to show we can get something together.”
There’s some preliminary discussion about raising the age for purchasing an assault weapon, like the AR-15–style rifles used in Buffalo or Uvalde, but the idea is already running into GOP opposition.
Some Democrats are very skeptical about even getting a modest deal with Republicans.
“I’m not going to engage in this fiction that somehow we’re going to have enough votes to pass. We know the outcome already. This is hopefully to put more people on notice in America about who stands for commonsense, bipartisan gun reform and who doesn’t,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.). “My hope has had its ass kicked, OK?”
Right now it appears legislation to encourage states to enact red flag laws has the best chance of winning 60 votes on the Senate floor. But it’s a relatively modest proposal, one that didn’t even get a vote in 2013 after 20 children were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“Red flag laws are certainly something that matter and something that Republicans have been open to,” Murphy said.
Nineteen states already have red flag laws on the books, including New York, where an 18-year-old suspect allegedly killed 10 people with a Bushmaster assault-style rifle at a Buffalo supermarket on May 14. Connecticut enacted the nation’s first red flag law in 1999, but that didn’t stop a 20-year-old shooter from killing 26 people at Sandy Hook, also with a Bushmaster assault-style rifle.
It’s also unclear whether a red flag law would have prevented the shooting in Uvalde, as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said the shooter did not have a history of mental illness.
But red flag legislation has the broadest support within the Senate GOP conference, with Graham having already negotiated a bill with Blumenthal to set up a grant program to encourage states to establish red flag laws.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) co-sponsored the Blumenthal-Graham red flag legislation in 2018 and this week endorsed the red flag law on the books in Maine.
The Blumenthal-Graham bill would empower law enforcement officers to file a petition with a federal court requesting that someone deemed to be danger be prohibited from owning a firearm. Their proposal would allow that person a speedy hearing to protest the order.
“It’s a grant program,” said Graham. “We’re not federalizing this. We’re trying to incentivize best business practices at the state level.”
Another bipartisan group of senators introduced their own red flag law last year, the Extreme Risk Protection Order and Violence Prevention Act. The sponsors are Sens. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Angus King (I-Maine) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.).
Their bill would create a grant program at the Department of Justice to encourage states to implement red flag laws. It would require that those laws set up a process for a law enforcement officer or family member to petition a court to bar someone from owning a firearm if there is clear and convincing evidence that person poses a risk to himself or others.
The other proposal getting the most attention is legislation to expand background checks for firearm sales and transfers, but there are serious divisions over how far to go.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) acknowledged on Thursday that it would not be easy to get a deal.
He noted that Murphy has “asked for space to see what progress can be done with Senate Republicans.”
“Neither he nor I have illusions that this is easy. But his view, my view, and the overwhelming view of our caucus is that we need to give it a short amount of time to try,” he said.