Gun deal is less than Democrats wanted, but more than they expected
By Carl Hulse
The bipartisan gun-safety deal announced Sunday is far from what Democrats would have preferred in the aftermath of the racist gun massacre in Buffalo, New York, and the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, but it is considerably more than they hoped for initially.
The proposal, which still has a long way to go before becoming law, focuses less on the “gun” part of gun control and more on other factors, such as a buyer’s mental health or violent tendencies, in a concession to Republican hesitation and the hard political reality that tough limits on sales, let alone outright bans on firearms, are far out of reach.
Although it would not raise the age to buy assault rifles to 21 from 18, the plan would enhance background checks on those younger than 21 before they could take possession of a gun — perhaps the most significant element of the emerging measure. Republicans say enough sentiment exists for a direct age increase but perhaps not enough to forestall a filibuster.
Democrats would much rather ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, impose universal background checks and take other stringent steps to limit access to guns. But they will accept the agreement as a step in the right direction.
“We cannot let the congressional perfect be the enemy of the good,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the No. 2 Senate Democrat, who said he would have preferred to bar military assault weapons. “Though this agreement falls short in this and other respects, it can and will make our nation safer.”
In interviews over the past two weeks, multiple Senate Democrats made it clear they were ready to embrace almost anything the bipartisan talks could produce, rather than engage in another fruitless standoff on the Senate floor and ending up with nothing.
That outcome might have allowed them to make a potent political point, pummeling Republicans for standing in the way of popular gun-control initiatives, but it would not have answered the public outcry for action. Stymied on multiple legislative fronts, Democrats are also eager to claim a win for a change.
“While more is needed, this package will take steps to save lives,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Sunday in a statement, indicating she will back it even though the House last week passed much more sweeping measures.
As the talks got underway two weeks ago, it appeared more likely that the effort would collapse, as so many had before it, once the initial outrage of the most recent mass shootings had died down. And the designation of Sen. John Cornyn of Texas as the lead Republican negotiator limited the possibilities from the start, since Cornyn quickly declared that he would not be backing an assault weapons ban or other steps to make weapons harder to obtain.
But as the talks continued, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., the party’s lead negotiator, said steady progress was being made, and that the talks had a different feel from the failed efforts of the past. On Sunday, he said on Twitter that he thought Americans would be “surprised” at the scope of the legislative framework, which included more substantial measures than the ones initially on the table.
The more extensive background check for buyers ages 18-21 is a narrower version of a change Democrats have been promoting for years, which would allow more time to vet potential gun buyers who are flagged by an initial instant check. And for the first time, juvenile and mental health records will be allowed as part of that review.
The deal includes federal incentives for states to enact so-called red-flag laws to seize guns temporarily from those deemed a threat to themselves and others. And in a long-sought change that has been opposed by Republicans in the past, it would also make it harder for those accused of domestic violence to obtain guns, adding dating partners to a prohibition that currently applies only to spouses.
Any one of those provisions is likely to draw significant opposition from Republicans who believe in giving no ground whatsoever on gun-safety measures, which are seen as intolerable infringements on Second Amendment rights. But the Republicans engaged in the talks believe they have made worthwhile concessions without treading on the gun rights so many Republican voters see as sacrosanct.
Although gun-safety proponents Sunday said they hoped the proposal was the beginning of a new era of compromise, this is considered likely to be the best opportunity on gun safety for some time.
Given rising public alarm over the mass shootings and crime in general, both parties were ready to act and give some ground. Enough Republicans were also in a position to take the political leap required, and negotiators in both parties had the backing of their leadership to try to make something happen. But with Republicans poised to win the House and threatening to take the Senate in November, the outlook for more-expansive changes sought by Democrats in the months ahead is not bright.
Still, both sides saw what they could agree on as worthwhile, and as evidence that Congress, in light of unspeakable gun violence, could for once offer more than thoughts and prayers.
“When we put our partisan differences aside and focus on what’s best for the American people, the Senate is capable of making a substantial, positive impact in our society,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. “This is a step forward for the Senate and, if this proposal becomes law, will be a much bigger step forward for gun-violence prevention and our nation.”