WASHINGTON — As bipartisan talks on legislation to tackle gun violence heat up, the chief Senate Republican negotiator, John Cornyn of Texas, has found himself in a familiar place: swatting away unfounded claims that the Senate is scheming to trample the Second Amendment.
“I want to be clear, though: We are not talking about restricting the rights of current law-abiding gun owners or citizens,” Cornyn said Monday in a floor speech. “What I’m interested in is keeping guns out of the hands of those who, by current law, are not supposed to have them: people with mental health problems, people who have criminal records.”
The remarks cut to the heart of the explosive gun politics within the Republican Party, which have been the main obstacle to Congress’ taking major action for decades, even as mass shootings become frequent in the U.S. Gun rights activists have depicted previous proposals to tackle gun violence, even if modest and popular, as slippery slopes to snatching their weapons.
In a Senate in which rural, pro-gun states are overrepresented as a share of the population, that has been a powerful force in scuttling bills to limit access to deadly weapons, with Republican senators leery of blowback if they vote for new restrictions.
Taming that perception is goal No. 1 for reaching a deal.
“I’m a proud supporter of the Second Amendment,” Cornyn said.
Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, the top Democratic negotiator, said this time feels different after the spate of horrific mass shootings from Buffalo, New York, to Uvalde, Texas, to Philadelphia.
“Parents are scared to death we’re going to do nothing. Ultimately, the vast majority of Americans are demanding we step up and do something,” he said.
McConnell blesses Cornyn's negotiations
With Senate Republicans holding an effective veto over gun legislation, Cornyn now sits at the center of any hopes of action, having been encouraged to negotiate for the GOP by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who said Tuesday he hopes to see an agreement "sooner rather than later."
"Sen. Cornyn knows more about this subject than anyone we have in the Senate," he told reporters after a GOP meeting. "And I think he's working in good faith with Sen. Murphy to try and get an outcome."
The goal: find a safe zone that can win Democratic support and address the problem of mass shootings without offending gun-rights voters, a passionate slice of the Republican base.
Two GOP Senate aides said Cornyn’s support will be necessary for any bill to succeed. The reason is simple: Cornyn’s backing is essential to win over McConnell, and the 50-50 Senate has demonstrated time and again that the path to break a filibuster goes through McConnell. Cornyn, who is seen as a potential successor to McConnell, met with him Monday.
Democrats also see Cornyn as essential to secure a viable deal.
“He’s the key linchpin in terms of votes. … He’s well-respected in the Republican conference. He’s smart and savvy,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “Basically, if Cornyn is on board, it would be a pretty good sign that McConnell would be, as well.”
Cornyn has ruled out a host of proposals backed by President Joe Biden, including banning semi-automatic rifles or high-capacity magazines. He isn’t interested in raising the age to buy such weapons from 18 to 21. And a Cornyn aide emphasized that he’s not out to “expand” background checks but rather to “strengthen” them.
Still, Biden has branded Cornyn and McConnell as “rational Republicans” who recognize that the status quo on mass shootings can’t continue.
People close to Cornyn are keeping their eyes on Republican sentiment, aiming for broad buy-in from about half the 50-member caucus. They’re also watching the activist community, which has been relatively subdued about the modest measures Cornyn has set as parameters of a deal, including “red flag” laws and improving background checks, potentially by including juvenile records in the system to keep firearms away from youths with felony records.
Some Democrats are wary of Cornyn and McConnell's intentions, fearing that they won't support anything meaningful and that the negotiations are merely an attempt to appear reasonable amid high national support for stricter gun laws.
"Republicans have failed to act on guns, contrary to overwhelming public opinion, for years. Democrats are understandably skeptical that the same GOP leaders who have said no for years are suddenly interested in actually getting to yes," said Matt House, a former Democratic Senate leadership aide. "If Republicans were to run out the clock negotiating legislative details before walking away, it wouldn't be the first time."
GOP presidential hopefuls keep their distance
Some GOP senators with higher ambitions are keeping their distance from the talks.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said voters in his state “are really, really worried” about the negotiations, including the fact that party leadership has backed the talks.
“I got a lot of earfuls from constituents who say, you know, ‘I want criminals to be punished, I want these shooters to be stopped, but don’t come after my Second Amendment rights.’ And that’s very important,” he said.
Another wild card is the junior senator from Texas: Ted Cruz, a Republican who ran for president in 2016 and may do so again. Speaking to reporters Monday, Cruz claimed that Democrats were seeking “to disarm law-abiding citizens.” Asked whether he trusts Cornyn to negotiate a deal, Cruz deflected and accused reporters of “trying to pit one Republican against another.”
Other Republicans are keeping open minds.
"John knows Texas, and he knows the Senate Republican Conference as well as anyone. He also knows the Constitution," said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. "I am confident he will keep the car between the ditches."
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who is seeking re-election in a conservative-leaning state this fall, said he supports the negotiations in principle, but he declined to comment on any policy proposal.
“I’m going to wait to see what sort of a list they present,” he said. “I believe that there’s a real, very good chance — with these two people working together. They proved they could do it in 2018, and I think there’s a good chance that it can be done again.”
Still, Democrats remain nervous that pro-gun activists could prey on fears about the Second Amendment and spook Republicans.
“There’s nothing new in that complaint. And so far it has been pretty effective,” Blumenthal said in an interview. “Obviously we’re at a time that feels different. Whether it is remains to be seen. I am very clear-eyed about the history here. The gun groups still have enormous sway and power to intimidate and threaten Republican colleagues. But it’s put up or shut up time.”
Blumenthal said the National Rifle Association doesn’t necessarily need to be supportive to sway Republicans. “If they vehemently oppose something, it is a major obstacle,” he said. “If they’re willing to just stand aside, that’s a different posture.”
Murphy met with Biden at the White House on Tuesday and said the talks are "entering a pretty critical stage," expressing hope of reaching a deal this week. But he added that "if we need a little bit more time, we’ll take it."
He praised Cornyn as an honest broker, noting that they worked together on the 2018 Fix NICS Act.
“He’s a good partner. We’ve written important legislation in the past,” he said. “We come from very different places. We each have bottom lines. It’s not going to be easy to get to a result. But I think we can get there.”