It didn’t happen after Newtown. It didn’t happen after Parkland. But in the aftermath of last month’s mass shooting in Uvalde, which left 19 young kids and two of their teachers dead, lawmakers may finally pass major gun safety legislation. And while that compromise package stops well short of the broadly popular, common sense reforms necessary to address this uniquely American crisis in full, the bipartisan deal would — if passed — represent the most significant federal legislative action on gun violence in decades.
“This bill will be too little for many; it’ll be too much for others,” Democratic Senator Chris Murphywho led the bipartisan negotiations, said on the floor Tuesday. “But it isn’t a box-checking exercise. This bill is not window dressing. This bill is going to save lives. This bill is going to save thousands of lives. It is going to be something that every single member of this Senate who votes for it can be proud of.”
When Murphy, whose state was devastated by the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre a decade ago, kicked off the latest push for gun safety, he put his chances of success at “well less than 50-50.” Those odds seemed to worsen when talks started to break down last week. But on Tuesday, a bipartisan group of 20 senators reached an agreement and the chamber signaled support for it in a 64-34 test vote. It hasn’t been formally approved yet. But it appears to have at least 10 Republican votes it needs to clear the filibuster, and the backing of key GOP members — including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellwho said that his deputy, John Cornyn, had helped craft a package of “popular steps that will help make these horrifying incidents less likely while fully upholding the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.” The bill, it seems, is on the cusp of passage.
“We know there’s no such thing as a perfect piece of legislation,” Cornyn, a Texas conservative, said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “We are imperfect human beings. But we have to try, and I believe this bill is a step in the right direction.”
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has promised to quickly approve and send to President Joe Biden for signature, establishes $750 million crisis funds for red flag programs and other intervention measures; closes the “boyfriend loophole” to keep weapons out of the hands of domestic abusers; expands background checks; cracks down on the “straw purchases” that have helped fuel gun violence in cities like Chicago; and boosts funding for violence prevention and mental health support. Included in the legislation: enhanced scrutiny for those under 21 seeking to purchase guns and strengthened licensing requirements for firearms dealers. Not included: bans on the military-grade weapons that killers have deployed in mass shootings from Uvalde to Buffalo; limits on ammunition magazine capacity; and other common sense measures Biden called for in a primetime address earlier this month.
“After Columbine, after Sandy Hook, after Charleston, after Orlando, after Las Vegas, after Parkland, nothing has been done,” Biden said June 2. “This time, that can’t be true. This time, we must actually do something.”
It will be tempting — understandable, even — to question whether this Senate compromise actually meets Biden’s call in a meaningful way. It is the product, after all, of negotiations that Cornyn claimed that he used to thwart Biden’s “gun grabbing agenda.” Some of that boasting, at the Texas GOP convention over the weekend, may have been an attempt to tamp down the boos he faced from Republicans for even participating in the bipartisan talks. But it is true that he and the other GOP negotiators succeeded in pulling some of the teeth from the package: They got Democrats to agree to allow states to receive federal funding for intervention programs without establishing red flag laws, for instance, and to restore the gun rights of those convicted of misdemeanor domestic abuse after a five year period with no additional offenses. Comprehensive gun control legislation, this is not.
And yet, it has become significant and overdue progress on an issue that has been maddeningly stagnant for violence, a steady drumat of death and devastation not only from headline-grabbing mass shootings, but “tine” accidents, and suicides. The legislation, as Murphy and others have noted, will not prevent all of that. but it will help in some concrete ways.