Gun Reform: Will This Time Be Different?

June 1, 2022

Gun Reform Protest Photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash

Members of a bipartisan Senate panel have been meeting virtually while Congress is on holiday break in an attempt to come up with a basic framework on gun reform that both sides can agree to. The panel, led by Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Republican John Cornyn of Texas, also met in person several times last week in the aftermath of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and two teachers dead.

Cornyn called Tuesday’s virtual meeting “constructive” and added, “We’ve asked our staff to continue to work together to address some of the details that we hope to be able to discuss at some point soon.”

What may be different this time than the past ten years of failed gun law proposals  is that Republicans are expressing an openness more than ever, while Democrats, who’ve previously turned down what they viewed as weak offers, are signaling a willingness to take whatever they can get from their counterparts.

Biden Hands Heavy Lifting of Gun Reform to the Senate

Several hours after attending Sunday mass with the grieving community of Uvalde, after which crowds pleaded with President Biden to “Do something!” he posted a tweet, “To everyone impacted by the horrific elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas: We grieve with you. We pray with you. We stand with you. And we’re committed to turning this pain into action.”

But upon arriving back at the White House later that day, he told reporters, “I can’t dictate this stuff,” adding that he would take “any executive action I can,” but only Congress can pass legislation to make specific changes to background check requirements or outlaw weapons altogether.

In 2021, the House of Representatives did pass two laws which would have strengthened the rules surrounding background checks. Neither, so far, have been brought to the floor of the Senate, as it takes 60 “yes” votes to even bring a bill up for debate on the Senate floor, and Majority Leader, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), did not believe either of these bills could get enough Republican votes to do that—at least, not as of last week.

“You know, the United States Senate is known as the great deliberative body. But if we can’t even get a bill on the floor to debate, where are we? I mean, this is an issue that the American public expects us to act,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) said Sunday.

GOP Leader Encouraging Bipartisan Talks

“I met with Senator Cornyn this morning,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said Thursday. He said he “encouraged” Cornyn to speak with Senator Murphy and others to “get an outcome that is directly related to the problem,” adding, “I am hopeful that we could come up with a bipartisan solution.”

This is something of a departure for McConnell, it would seem. “If there’s any one individual in the United States to blame for our inability to put things in place to prevent gun violence, it’s Mitch McConnell,” said Peter Ambler, the Executive Director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Some Republicans Still Balking at Gun Reform Efforts

When stopped by reporters on Capitol Hill following the Uvalde shooting, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said, “I can’t think of a law that would have stopped this particular shooting–are there other things we can do? Yeah.”

But there might be at least one law that could have stopped him. One of Graham’s fellow Republicans, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, would like to see the minimum age requirement for purchasing an assault rifle (the Uvalde shooter bought two for his 18th birthday) raised from 18 to 21.

“If you look at the Parkland Shooting, you look at Buffalo, you look at this shooting, these are people under the age of 21. We know that the human brain develops and matures a lot between the age of 18 and 21. We just raised without really so much as a blink the age of purchasing cigarettes federally to 21. I think we need to get there eventually,” Kinzinger said Sunday.

His fellow Republican Congressman, Dan Crenshaw of Texas, however, is hesitant. “I think the question we have to ask ourselves is, should 21 be the age that you’re an adult?” he said.

According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, already a federal firearms licensee may not “sell or deliver a firearm other than a shotgun or rifle”—in other words, a handgun—to a person the licensee “knows or has reasonable cause to believe is under 21 years of age.” However, 18-year-olds can acquire handguns from unlicensed individuals who reside in the same state.

This goes against the vast majority of American sentiment, according to new polling. A May 25 Politico/Morning Call survey of 1,920 registered voters found that not only do 80% want the minimum age for purchasing any sort of firearm to be 21, two-thirds believe there should be a total ban on assault rifles.

Republicans Might Support Beefing Up Background Checks

The largest number of those polled—88%—want to see universal background checks for all gun purchases, which some Republicans, including Sen. Cornyn, have expressed a willingness to support.

Specifically, they point to the Fix NICS Act of 2021. NICS stands for “National Instant Criminal Background Check System.” It would reward states for uploading data and firearms records to be shared across the country. It would also create a Domestic Abuse and Violence Prevention Initiative, to prevent domestic abusers and felons from purchasing firearms.

Republicans Have Proposed & Passed Red Flag Laws

Following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, which left 14 teenagers and three adults dead in 2018, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced a “red flag” bill, which sought to allow authorities to prevent unstable and potentially violent people from obtaining firearms.  Rick Scott (R), then Governor of Florida, now a Senator, signed a red flag bill into law that year (as well as a ban on gun sales to those under 21), but a federal red flag law has yet to be approved in Congress.

They work like this: if a person exhibits behavior suggesting that they might be a threat to themselves or others, such as expressions of suicide or violence, then a family member, school official, or police officer can secure a court order permitting police to seize their weapons and prohibit them from purchasing any during the length of the order.

Along with Florida, 18 other states and DC have red flag laws. They’ve had limited success, though, according to Pew Research, because many citizens aren’t educated about what they are, or that they’re in effect in their states.

So, Will Anything Get Done?

At the state level, action has occurred. The Giffords Law Center notes that more than 450 laws have been signed since the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, left 20 children and six adults dead.

However, if Lanae Erickson’s experience is any indication, prospects in the Senate aren’t great. She’s Senior Vice President for Third Way, a think tank that champions center-left ideas, and navigated many of the Sandy Hook parents through the bureaucracy of Congress in the massacre’s aftermath. She tells Political IQ that following compromise after compromise, “the legislation that got the most votes was a pro-gun bill. And even that, we failed to get across the finish line.”

She adds, “I sat in meetings with the Sandy Hook parents, and they were describing their experience to members of Congress who then looked them in the eye and said, ‘I’m not going to vote for that bill.’ And it was just heartbreaking.”

And Senator Murphy has said he’s “sober-minded” about the likelihood this time. “I have had the football pulled out from under me enough times to be realistic.”

But Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) is Chair of the Judiciary Committee which has jurisdiction over any proposed gun reform legislation. He said Sunday, “I said to Chris [Murphy], and I offered to Senator Cornyn, if you can make progress between you, if you can move us forward, don’t worry about the committee jurisdiction. Do the right thing, do as much as you can. Let’s join together in a bipartisan basis to show the American people that what happened in Uvalde was not in vain.”

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