Senate negotiators announce gun deal, breaking deadlock

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FILE – Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, listens to testimony during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 25, 2018. Following the recent school shooting in Uvalde, Aus Texas, his home state, Cornyn and a bipartisan group of senators, including Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., are holding private virtual meetings to try to find a compromise on gun safety legislation. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

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Senate negotiators on Sunday announced a bipartisan framework in response to last month’s mass shootings, a notable but limited breakthrough offering modest gun restrictions and enhanced efforts to improve school safety and mental health programs.

The proposal falls far short of tougher measures long sought by President Joe Biden and many Democrats. Even so, the deal was embraced by Biden and its signing into law would signal a significant reversal after years of gun massacres that ended only in a stalemate in Congress.

Biden said in a statement that the framework “doesn’t do everything I think is needed, but it does reflect important steps in the right direction, and would be the most important gun safety legislation to be passed by Congress for decades.

Given the bipartisan support, “there’s no excuse for a delay, and no reason it shouldn’t pass quickly through the Senate and the House,” he said.

Leaders are hoping to push through any deal quickly — they hope to do so this month — before political momentum wanes, stoked by recent mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas. Participants warned that final details and legislative language have yet to be finalized, meaning further disputes and delays could arise.

In a consequential development, 20 senators, including 10 Republicans, issued a statement calling for passage. That’s potentially crucial because the biggest hurdle to passing the measure is likely to be in the 50-50 Senate, where at least 10 GOP votes will be needed to reach the usual 60-vote threshold for approval.

“Families are scared, and it’s our duty to come together and do something that will help restore their sense of safety in their communities,” the lawmakers said. The group, led by Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. , John Cornyn, R-Texas, Thom Tillis, RN.C., and Krysten Sinema, D-Arizona, produced the agreement after two weeks of closed-door talks.

The compromise would make juvenile records of gun buyers under 21 available when they undergo a background check. The suspects who killed 10 black people at a grocery store in Buffalo and 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde were both 18, and many of the perpetrators of mass shootings in recent years were young.

The deal would offer money for states to enact and put in place “red flag” laws that make it easier to temporarily take guns from people considered potentially violent, as well as funds to bolster safety programs school and mental health.

Some people who sell firearms informally for profit would be required to obtain federal dealer licenses, which means they would have to perform background checks on buyers. Convicted domestic abusers who do not live with a former partner, such as estranged ex-boyfriends, would be prohibited from buying guns, and it would be a crime for a person to legally buy a gun for someone who would not be eligible for ownership.

Congressional aides said billions of dollars would be spent to increase the number of community mental health centers and suicide prevention programs. But they said some spending decisions remained unresolved, as did the final wording of juvenile records and other gun provisions that could prove controversial.

Still, underscoring election-year pressures from Buffalo and Uvalde, the parties’ shared desire to demonstrate a response to those shootings suggested the momentum toward enactment was strong.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., called the deal “a good first step in ending the continued inaction in the face of the gun violence epidemic” and said he would submit the final measure to a vote as soon as possible.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who backed the talks, was more restrained. He praised the work of negotiators and said he hoped for a deal that makes “meaningful progress on key issues such as mental health and school safety, upholds the Second Amendment, enjoys broad support in the Senate and make a difference to our country.”

The deal was quickly endorsed by groups that support gun restrictions, including Brady, Everytown for Gun Safety and March for Our Lives, which held rallies across the country on Saturday.

The National Rifle Association said in a statement that it opposes gun control and undermines the “fundamental right of people to protect themselves and their loved ones”, but supports increased security school, mental health and law enforcement. The group has a long history of lobbying millions of gun-owning voters to derail gun control campaigns in Congress.

The deal represents a lowest-common-denominator compromise on gun violence, not a sea change in Congress. Lawmakers demonstrated a new desire to move forward after saying their constituents have shown an increased desire for congressional action since Buffalo and Uvalde, but Republicans still oppose more sweeping measures than Democrats want and Sunday’s deal omits.

These include banning assault-type firearms such as the AR-15-style rifles used in Buffalo and Uvalde, or raising the legal age to purchase them. AR-15s are popular and powerful semi-automatic weapons that can fire high-capacity magazines and have been used in many of the country’s most high-profile massacres in recent years. One of them, the murder of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, happened six years ago on Sunday.

Democrats also wanted to ban high-capacity magazines and extend required background checks to many more gun purchases. None of these proposals have a chance in Congress.

Underscoring this, the Democratic-controlled House last week approved sweeping bills banning the sale of semi-automatic weapons to people under 21 and high-capacity magazines, and giving federal courts the power to decide when local authorities want to remove firearms from people considered dangerous. Currently, only 19 states and the District of Columbia have red flag laws. These measures will go nowhere in the Senate, where Republicans can block them.

The last major gun restrictions enacted by lawmakers was the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, which Congress allowed to expire 10 years later.

For years, congressional Republicans representing pro-gun rural voters have blocked tough restrictions on gun purchases, citing the Constitution’s Second Amendment.

Democrats, whose voters overwhelmingly support gun restrictions, have been reluctant to endorse progressive measures they say would leave GOP lawmakers saying they tried to stem the tide of violence without resolving the problem significantly.

About James K. Bonnette

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