Decisions by key Republicans and Democrats over what to include in the bill—and what to leave out—paved the way for an agreement after years of inertia
by Natalie Andrews, Lindsay Wise and Eliza Collins, The Wall Street Journal, June 25, 2022
The Senate’s march to passing legislation on one of the most contentious issues in American politics started with those questions from Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, the day of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and two teachers dead.
Years of mass killings had failed to spark meaningful solutions in Congress, because of divisions over how best to tackle gun violence. This time turned out to be different.
Yet the deal’s path and final shape show both how unique this set of circumstances was and how hard it is for Congress to make progress. The question going forward is whether this is a template for further bipartisan action, or whether it exposed the limits of what the two parties can get done—with Democrats emphasizing what was included in the final package and many Republicans taking solace in what was left out.
“The important part the first two weeks was what we weren’t going to do,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R., N.C.), one of the core negotiators.
The resulting legislation provides roughly $15 billion in funding to help states put in place and enforce extreme protection orders, known as red-flag laws; to remove guns from people deemed dangerous; to close what is known as the boyfriend loophold related to violent dating partners; and to expand background checks to include juvenile and mental-health records for buyers under 21 years old. It also includes funding to address mental-health issues and to bolster school safety.
Not included was a ban on assault weapons or high-capacity magazines, or increasing the age of eligibility to buy such from 18 to 21.
On May 24, as the tragic news from Uvalde reached the Capitol, Mr. Murphy, a longtime advocate for stricter gun measures since the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., texted condolences to Sen. John Cornyn, according to Mr. Murphy.
The Texas GOP senator had pledged after a shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, not to face any more grieving families empty-handed. He successfully negotiated narrower legislation with Mr. Murphy to address a gap in background checks in response to that tragedy, which became law in 2018.
Now, Mr. Cornyn was open to discussing another bill, as long as it was tailored carefully to not infringe on the Second Amendment, which Republicans accuse most Democratic gun proposals of doing.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), who had called for action after a mass shooting in May at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., started off with a standard partisan strategy. He readied a vote on gun-control bills that Republicans largely opposed and indicated that the debate should be settled by voters in the midterm elections.
“Americans can cast their vote in November for senators or members of Congress who reflect how he or she stands with guns,” Mr. Schumer said.
Mr. Murphy asked Mr. Schumer to hold off. Mr. Schumer agreed, but wanted to see progress after the weeklong Memorial Day break, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Murphy connected with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a centrist Arizona Democrat, who works frequently with Republicans.
Few were hopeful. “We are caught in the most perverse version of Groundhog Day,” Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) told reporters that day, predicting any gun legislation would fail.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) publicly deputized Mr. Cornyn to begin talks, along with Mr. Tillis, signaling the party’s engagement.
Republicans, feeling confident headed into the midterm elections, didn’t want a lack of action on guns to alienate swing voters, according to GOP aides.
“I hope it will be viewed favorably by voters in the suburbs that we need to regain in order to hopefully be a majority next year,” Mr. McConnell said Thursday.
Within 24 hours, the four lawmakers were meeting in Ms. Sinema’s office, trying to write an outline that would keep all 50 members of the Democratic caucus on board, plus at least 10 Republicans. Chamber rules require 60 votes to advance most bills, a bar that has scuttled many previous Democratic gun efforts.
Mr. Murphy said banning assault weapons or high-capacity magazines was off the table from the start. Instead, they focused on red-flag laws and altering background checks for 18-year-old gun buyers, as well as addressing mental health.
Over the Memorial Day break, lawmakers said they continued to hear from constituents concerned about shootings, fueling negotiations rather than cooling them.
President Biden gave a prime-time speech on June 3 in which he backed the bipartisan talks as well as more broad proposals by House Democrats, such as a ban on assault weapons.
Some Republicans panned the speech. Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, who opposed the eventual bill, said on Fox News that Mr. Biden “chose to double down on hard-left, divisive politics.”
On June 12, the group released a framework outlining its planned legislation. Especially notable was that the lawmakers released the framework with backing from 10 Republican and 10 Democratic senators, demonstrating that they likely would have sufficient support to pass a bill.
Two days later, Mr. McConnell said he would back legislation if it remained in line with the framework. In the end, 15 Republican senators and all members of the Democratic caucus would vote for the bill.
Mr. Schumer, who has served in Congress for decades and seen the NRA stymie other gun bills, noticed a difference. “You could just feel it when I went to the floor and talked to Republican colleagues.” He also gave credit to the minority leader.
“It came as a pleasant surprise that McConnell was not going to stand in the way of some of his members who wanted to go forward,” he said.
After the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, Americans ramped up calls for changes in gun laws, though all bills failed in the Senate. According to a Gallup poll taken this month, 66% of respondents want laws covering the sale of firearms to be stricter than they are currently—up 14 percentage points from October, and the highest since after the Parkland high-school shooting in 2018.
“We have a gun-safety infrastructure in a way we did not have 10 years ago,” said Robin Lloyd, managing director of Giffords, a gun-violence-prevention group.
The negotiating group broke for the weekend with two sticking points: the red flag laws and closing the boyfriend loophole. By June 17, the group had mostly agreed on a path forward on the red-flag laws but the boyfriend loophole remained problematic.
Democrats wanted to ban all those convicted of domestic violence from getting a gun. Republicans wanted a way for some people to have rights restored.
So the new legislation would prohibit dating partners or recent dating partners convicted of domestic violence from purchasing a firearm, and rights for those individuals would be restored after five years if they haven’t been convicted of a further violent crime.
“Frankly, the Republicans were raising a legitimate issue,” Mr. Murphy said.
Behind the scenes, Republicans had been working closely with the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, keeping them abreast of the negotiations and involving them in the drafting of the bill, according to people familiar with the talks.
Both groups refrained from bashing the framework early on, which gave some Republicans room to back it. In the end, both the NRA and NSSF opposed the bill. That didn’t sway Mr. McConnell or Mr. Cornyn, both of whom have A+ ratings from the NRA.
“We’d had a number of these mass shootings over the years, and we’ve never been able to act afterwards because Senate Democrats always insisted on amendments that I and others on our side simply couldn’t support.…And there was nothing in the bill that we thought infringed on individuals’ Second Amendment rights,” Mr. McConnell said.
In Texas on June 17, as lawmakers were still trading lines on the legislative text, boos rained down on Mr. Cornyn at the state’s Republican convention as he told the audience he had “fought and kept President Biden’s gun-grabbing wish list off the table.”
“I take that as part of what goes with the territory,” Mr. Cornyn said in an interview during the negotiations.
Some Senate Republicans pushed back on Mr. Cornyn’s argument that the legislation didn’t infringe on Second-Amendment rights and expressed frustration with the rush to pass it. More than two-thirds of Senate Republicans voted no.
Ahead of the final vote late Thursday, Mr. Murphy turned back to his queries from a month earlier about whether Congress would ever take action. “We’re answering those questions today,” he said.
The next day, the House passed the bill—with 14 Republicans joining Democrats in support—and sent it to Mr. Biden’s desk.
Write to Natalie Andrews at [email protected], Lindsay Wise at [email protected] and Eliza Collins at [email protected]