WASHINGTON — Key senators announced a framework agreement on new gun legislation Sunday, marking a breakthrough on a collection of measures to combat gun violence, including "red flag" laws and enhanced background checks on gun buyers.
The chief negotiators of the deal are Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., an outspoken proponent of gun safety laws, and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a firm Second Amendment advocate who has promised the new measures won’t affect the gun rights of law-abiding Americans. The final bill hasn't been written yet, sources familiar with the negotiations said.
“Today, we are announcing a commonsense, bipartisan proposal to protect America’s children, keep our schools safe, and reduce the threat of violence across our country," Murphy, Cornyn and other senators involved in the talks said in a joint statement. "Families are scared, and it is our duty to come together and get something done that will help restore their sense of safety and security in their communities."
Unlike the series of gun bills authored by Democrats that passed the House last week, the Senate deal has a better chance of becoming law because it has support from key Republicans, who wield effective veto power over gun legislation in the Senate because of the 60-vote filibuster rule. The joint statement backing the deal was signed by 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans.
A centerpiece of the Senate deal is to provide substantial resources for states to implement "red flag" laws, which allow individuals like police or family members to petition courts to keep firearms away from people deemed a risk to themselves or others.
Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia have red flag laws on the books. The new provisions are aimed at increasing that number and improving their implementation.
The agreement also establishes a more rigorous process for background checks on people between 18 and 21 years old, with an enhanced review that includes contacting state and local law enforcement for criminal records that could be disqualifying, and to appropriate state organizations for mental health information that could affect the decision.
The proposal also seeks to clarify ambiguities over who must register as a federally licensed firearm dealer for the purposes of conducting background checks.
“Our plan increases needed mental health resources, improves school safety and support for students, and helps ensure dangerous criminals and those who are adjudicated as mentally ill can’t purchase weapons,” the senators said. “Most importantly, our plan saves lives while also protecting the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans. We look forward to earning broad, bipartisan support and passing our commonsense proposal into law.”
It slaps new penalties on "straw purchasing" of firearms to improve prosecution of traffickers. And it authorizes new money for mental health services and school safety provisions.
The agreement would also include a provision to address the so-called boyfriend loophole on domestic violence, sources familiar with the negotiations said.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he's "pleased that, for the first time in nearly 30 years, Congress is on the path to take meaningful action to address gun violence."
"After an unrelenting wave of gun-related suicides and homicides, including mass shootings, the Senate is poised to act on commonsense reforms to protect Americans where they live, where they shop, and where they learn," he said in a statement. "We must move swiftly to advance this legislation because if a single life can be saved it is worth the effort.”
A deal that follows numerous mass shootings
If it is passed, activists say the proposal would represent the most significant piece of gun violence prevention legislation in nearly three decades — since 1996, when the Lautenberg Amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibited anyone convicted of a domestic violence offense to possess a gun.
The deal comes on the heels of a spate of recent shootings that have shocked the nation, including a racially motivated massacre in Buffalo, New York, that killed 10, and an elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 students and two teachers dead.
It was announced a day after protesters across the country, including here in the nation's capital, marched to demand action against gun violence, in a series of demonstrations organized by the advocacy group March for Our Lives.
For years, public opinion has been shifting toward tougher gun laws as mass shootings become a regular feature of American life. A recent CBS News poll found that U.S. adults support stricter gun laws over less strict gun laws by a 5 to 1 margin.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a longtime opponent of gun control, said Sunday he's "glad" Cornyn and Murphy are "continuing to make headway in their discussions." He said he wants to see "a bipartisan product" that addresses mental health, school safety and respects the Second Amendment.
During the negotiations, which began after the Uvalde shooting, Cornyn sought to walk a tightrope between pursuing action and taming Second Amendment anxieties on the right, which some Republican senators with presidential ambitions have played up as they kept their distance from the bipartisan discussions.
Murphy and Cornyn had previously worked on another modest bill that became law in 2018: the Fix NICS Act — which was aimed at improving information in the FBI background check system. Last year, they sought to negotiate a deal to close loopholes in background check requirements, but those talks fell apart.
The Senate agreement is modest, negotiated with extreme caution to avoid offending gun-rights advocates who make up a passionate and influential slice of the Republican Party. Democrats sought more aggressive laws but were stymied by limited GOP interest.
The deal would not ban or confiscate any of the hundreds of millions of guns in circulation in the U.S. It would not outlaw the sale or ownership of semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15, which was used by the Uvalde shooter to kill children. It would not prohibit high-capacity magazines. It would not, unlike a recent House-passed bill, raise the age to buy a semi-automatic weapon to 21. And it would not, unlike a bill passed by House Democrats, mandate universal background checks.
For Democrats, who control the House and need Republican support to pass legislation in the Senate, the deal represents a preference for accepting incremental progress over resisting a deal in order to use the issue to bludgeon the GOP in the 2022 midterm elections.
President Joe Biden said the Senate deal takes “important steps in the right direction” and called for speedy passage.
“With bipartisan support, there are no excuses for delay, and no reason why it should not quickly move through the Senate and the House,” he said in a statement. “Each day that passes, more children are killed in this country: the sooner it comes to my desk, the sooner I can sign it, and the sooner we can use these measures to save lives.”