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Senate gun talks center on red flag laws after Texas school shooting

Efforts to pass gun safety laws regained some momentum this week following Tuesday's attack.

WASHINGTON — Democrats want votes on bills that would expand background checks for gun purchases. Republicans say better security measures could harden schools against violent attacks.

But a day after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at a Texas elementary school, a small group of Democrats and Republicans expressed hope that they might be able to find common ground elsewhere: federal red flag legislation.

So-called red or yellow flag laws, already on the books in some states, allow authorities to temporarily seize firearms from people who are found to be dangers to themselves or others.

A handful of Senate Democrats and Republicans kicked off informal talks Wednesday about what — if anything — lawmakers could agree on to stop the proliferation of mass shootings after a decade of inaction on Capitol Hill.

Two Connecticut Democrats — Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, who led the failed push for gun reforms after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in their state in 2012 — are helping spearhead the effort.

Murphy said he asked Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to give the bipartisan group 10 days to come up with a proposal — which Schumer agreed to. Other Democrats had been pressing Schumer to rush the House-passed background checks bills to the floor immediately and put Republicans on record.

"I think, over the course of a week and a half, we'll know whether there's an opportunity to get a bipartisan bill or not," Murphy said.

Blumenthal said he has been working with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., “for years” on legislation that would provide incentives for states to pass red flag laws. On Wednesday, Murphy reached out to Republicans, including moderate Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who told him about her state’s yellow flag law, which allows law enforcement to confiscate someone’s firearm if both a medical professional and a judge sign off.

“I think that is the kind of law that could have made a difference in this case, since … it appears that he suffered from mental illness," Collins told reporters. "It’s my understanding that he bought his weapon legally and passed a background check, so I really think our focus should be on looking at what some states have done, red flag or yellow flag laws.”

Another moderate senator, Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., said she will be involved in the conversations. "There's some shared agreement on red flags," she said, "which I think might be a place to start conversations to actually get something done."

The bipartisan talks also could touch on background checks, which a handful of Republicans back, including Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who is retiring. Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., whose wife, Gabby Giffords, was nearly assassinated in a mass shooting when she was in Congress, spoke to Graham about a proposal to notify the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives when someone buys multiple long guns during a specific period of time.

"That makes some sense," said Graham, who also highlighted that his bill with Blumenthal would provide grants to states that implement red flag laws.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said he will bring separate red flag legislation, by Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., to the floor when lawmakers return to Washington on June 7.

It’s unclear whether any red-flag laws could have stopped the unspeakable carnage that unfolded Tuesday at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Authorities said the suspected shooter, who was killed by police, didn’t appear to have any criminal history as an adult. Days after his 18th birthday, he had purchased two AR 15-style long rifles, one of which was used in the shooting.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said Wednesday that the gunman made three posts on Facebook shortly before the shooting saying he was going to kill his grandmother and attack an elementary school. A Facebook spokesman described the correspondence as “private one-to-one text messages that were discovered after the terrible tragedy occurred.”

It’s also unclear whether there are 10 Republicans who would be willing to join Democrats to defeat a GOP filibuster of red flag legislation. Many Senate Republicans interviewed Wednesday said they believed red flag laws should be left for states to decide.

Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., who was a school board member for 10 years, said he backs his own state’s red flag law but believes it wouldn’t work on the national level.

“It’s worked in Indiana, and statistically, they’ve shown where it’s reduced some of those horrific kind of issues,” Braun said, adding, “I don’t think we’ll get there” with federal legislation.

After the Texas shooting, President Joe Biden called on lawmakers to "stand up to the gun lobby" and criticized the proliferation of so-called assault weapons. But even some Democrats conceded that any legislative attempt to ban assault weapons would go nowhere in the Senate given the political environment and staunch GOP opposition.

"It ain’t gonna pass if you can’t get background checks done," said moderate Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. "I mean, come on, guys. Kids got killed yesterday, for Christ’s sake. Let’s talk about what can be done, not talk about what somebody wants, all right?"

GOP Sen. Kevin Cramer laid out the tough politics in his deeply red state, North Dakota: If he votes for any gun restrictions, voters "would probably throw me out office."