Senators present bipartisan gun safety bill
By Emily Cochrane and Annie Karni
The Senate earlier this week cleared the first hurdle to passing a bipartisan measure aimed at keeping firearms out of the hands of dangerous people, agreeing to take up a compromise bill whose enactment would break a yearslong stalemate over federal legislation to address gun violence.
While the bill falls short of the sweeping gun control measures Democrats have long demanded, its approval would amount to the most significant action in decades to overhaul the nation’s gun laws. The 64-34 vote came just hours after Republicans and Democrats released the text of the legislation, and after days of feverish negotiations to hammer out its details.
Proponents hope to pass it by Saturday, and Democratic leaders put it on a fast track on the normally sluggish Senate floor.
The 80-page bill, entitled the “Bipartisan Safer Communities Act,” would enhance background checks, giving authorities up to 10 business days to review the juvenile and mental health records of gun purchasers younger than 21, and direct millions toward helping states implement red-flag laws, which allow authorities to temporarily confiscate guns from people deemed dangerous, as well as other intervention programs.
The measure would also, for the first time, ensure that serious dating partners are included in a federal law that bars domestic abusers from purchasing firearms, a longtime priority that has eluded gun safety advocates for years.
Senators agreed to provide millions of dollars for expanding mental health resources in communities and schools in addition to funds devoted to boosting school safety. The legislation would also toughen penalties for those evading licensing requirements or making illegal “straw” purchases, buying and then selling weapons to people barred from purchasing handguns.
The vote margin — and the swift backing of top leaders in both parties — indicated that the measure has more than enough support to scale the 60-vote threshold needed to break a Republican filibuster that has thwarted such legislation in the past and make it to final passage in the coming days.
Fourteen Republicans, including Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, joined Democrats in advancing the bill. Two Republican senators were absent; one of them, Sen. Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania, announced his support in a statement.
Proponents hoped to win final Senate approval for the legislation before a scheduled Fourth of July recess, with the House expected to follow suit quickly. The National Rifle Association almost immediately announced its opposition, and the vast majority of Republican officeholders fell in line behind it.
But both Senate leaders swiftly issued statements of public support, suggesting that public sentiment in favor of toughening gun laws, particularly in the wake of recent mass shootings, had finally broken through in Congress. McConnell called the bill “a common sense package of popular steps that will help make these horrifying incidents less likely while fully upholding the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, said he expected the legislation to pass by the end of the week.
“This bipartisan gun safety legislation is progress and will save lives,” he said before the vote. “While it is not everything we want, this legislation is urgently needed.”
The flurry of negotiations was spurred by two mass shootings in the last two months: a shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, which left 19 children and two teachers dead, and a racist attack that killed 10 Black people at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket. The human devastation brought the issue of gun violence back to the forefront on Capitol Hill, where years of efforts to enact gun restrictions in the wake of such assaults have fallen short amid Republican opposition.
Since 10 Republican and 10 Democrats announced their agreement on a bipartisan outline less than two weeks ago, lead negotiators — Sens. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, both Democrats, and John Cornyn of Texas and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, both Republicans — have spent hours hammering out the details and toiling to keep their fragile coalition together.
“Today, we finalized bipartisan, common sense legislation to protect America’s children, keep our schools safe, and reduce the threat of violence across our country,” the four senators said in a statement. “Our legislation will save lives and will not infringe on any law-abiding American’s Second Amendment rights. We look forward to earning broad, bipartisan support and passing our common sense legislation into law.”
Talks had teetered on the brink of failure repeatedly last week, as lawmakers, in late-night meetings and calls, wrestled with how to translate their outline into a legislative text. The group spent the three-day weekend haggling over the details.
The title of the bill reflected that careful negotiating — it notably emphasized “safety,” not any particular limits on an individual’s right to own or purchase a firearm. This was in line with the way Republicans have been discussing the framework agreement, emphasizing all the Democratic efforts to limit access to guns they have succeeded in keeping out of the final bill.
In its final form, much of the spending in the bill was directed toward mental health investment, according to a summary reviewed by The New York Times. It includes $60 million over five years to provide mental health and behavioral training for primary care clinicians, $150 million to support the national suicide prevention hotline and $240 million over four years for Project AWARE, a program that focuses on mental health support for school children, $28 million of which is set aside for trauma care in schools.
Two provisions proved particularly tricky in the final days of talks: whether to extend funds for the implementation of red-flag laws to states that do not have such laws, and exactly how to define a boyfriend or intimate partner, as lawmakers sought to close what has come to be known as the “boyfriend loophole.”
Current law only bars domestic abusers who have been married to or lived with the victim, or have had a child with them, from buying a firearm. Lawmakers expanded the definition to include “a current or recent former dating relationship with the victim,” although the change cannot be applied retroactively.
Negotiators also agreed to allow dating partners convicted of a misdemeanor to regain the right to buy a gun after five years, provided they were first-time offenders and not found guilty of any other violent misdemeanor or offense.
And lawmakers agreed to allow states access to federal funds either to implement red-flag laws or support what Cornyn described as “crisis intervention programs,” including programs related to mental health courts, drug courts and veterans courts.
The bill will be financed by delaying implementation of a Medicare rule approved under former President Donald Trump that would limit hidden discounts negotiated between drug companies and insurers.
A majority of Senate Republicans still opposed the measure, arguing that it infringed on the rights of gun owners. Over the weekend, Texas Republicans booed Cornyn and moved to formally “rebuke” him and eight other Republicans for their role in the negotiations.
Some progressive Democrats, particularly in the House, where they have advanced far more ambitious gun reform legislation, have expressed uneasiness about the notion of “hardening” schools, or further stigmatizing mental health struggles.
But gun safety activists and groups like the NAACP, which support more sweeping gun legislation, said they would back it in a bid to address at least some aspects of a crisis that has gripped the country.
“When school children, churchgoers and grocery store shoppers are being gunned down, the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good,” Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, said in a statement.
“This bipartisan legislation meets the most important test: It will save lives,” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement. “We now move one big step closer to breaking the 26-year logjam that has blocked congressional action to protect Americans from gun violence.”