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Senate gun negotiators hit a snag on background checks

The top GOP negotiator, Sen. John Cornyn, wants to include juvenile records in the background checks system. Other senators involved in the talks want to go bigger.
Image: John Cornyn
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas is the lead GOP negotiator on proposed gun violence legislation in the Senate. Graeme Sloan / Sipa USA via AP file

WASHINGTON — One of the remaining sticking points for Senate negotiators trying to get a deal this week on gun violence legislation: how big to go on background checks for gun sales.

At issue is whether to add waiting periods for young people purchasing firearms and to enable the FBI to conduct background checks on their juvenile records, two people close to the Senate talks told NBC News on Tuesday.

"It's hard to figure out how to do it right," one person said.

That’s a narrower approach than earlier legislation aimed at expanding background checks, including a decade-old bill written by two Senate negotiators — Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa. — that would require background checks for gun shows and internet sales.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the lead GOP negotiator, has been pitching his colleagues and the public on a proposal that would place certain juvenile records — for individuals between the ages of 18 to 21 — in the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Checks System, or NICS.

A Cornyn spokesman clarified in a statement: “A mandatory, across-the-board waiting period for 18-21 year olds is not being considered by Senator Cornyn."

The shooter that targeted Black shoppers and killed 10 people in Buffalo, New York, was 18 years old; so was the shooter who killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Cornyn’s home state. Both used AR-15-style rifles in the attacks.

“I think if this young man’s background had been part of the background check system, nobody would have ever believed that he should buy firearms,” Cornyn said Tuesday of the Uvalde shooter. “But because when he turned 18, essentially everything that happened before he was 18 was not available to the background check system, he was able to pass it." 

Juvenile criminal and mental health records are typically sealed and not accessible when the FBI conducts a standard background check for firearms purchases for adults. Cornyn wants to change that, and has been discussing his proposal in detail with his Democratic counterpart in the talks, Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, as well as two other negotiators, Sens. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.

Cornyn, Murphy and Sinema worked through some of their issues during a two-hour dinner meeting Monday night. Negotiators are hoping to announce a deal by the end of the week, though talks could slip into next week.

But others in the bipartisan group are not happy about efforts to pare down the background checks portion of the gun reform package.

In the wake of another school massacre, the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut that left 26 dead, Manchin and Toomey successfully negotiated a bipartisan deal to expand background checks. But facing opposition from the NRA, the bill fell six votes short of defeating a GOP filibuster in the Senate.

"I come from a gun state and I’m big supporter of the Second Amendment," Manchin said Tuesday, "but for all my law-abiding gun owners and gun friends that I go with all the time shooting and we would go hunting ... there’s not one of them that felt it was unreasonable that they should get a background check if they’re going to sell their gun to somebody didn’t know."

Toomey said he did not want to "accept that premise" that negotiators had moved on from the Toomey-Manchin bill. But later in the day, Toomey conceded the group likely would not agree to his bill.

"I still think there is a very real prospect that something will be done on the background checks space. Exactly what gets done has not been determined," Toomey said.

Tillis, however, said he is on board with the Cornyn plan, noting that juveniles are arrested for roughly 45,000 violent crimes each year, crimes that usually do not appear in the federal background checks system.

"It’s reasonable to be able to look at those records and determine whether or not if they had been committed as an adult, they would have been a disqualifying event," Tillis said.

Others areas that the group of bipartisan negotiators are looking at include incentives for states to pass so-called red flag laws and more funding for mental health and school security.

Cornyn's push on juvenile records follows his previous work with Murphy to improve background checks after the 2017 mass-shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where a gunman killed 26 people.

The Fix NICS Act, which strengthened the existing system by incentivizing states and agencies to submit timely records, didn’t become law until after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Cornyn praised Fix NICS on the Senate floor on Monday, hanging its success on being able to address a problem “without jeopardizing the rights of law-abiding citizens.”

“Strengthening mental health, bolstering school security, keeping guns out of the hands of people who are already legally prohibited from having them,” Cornyn said. “I think a lot of our colleagues could get behind those provisions like they did with the Fix NICS bill."