Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va) said describing a rifle gauge as a first step “accurately reflects people’s sincere hopes, often basing success on success.” But he cautioned, “My reading of the room here, if we do, we’ve got a lot of other issues on the table now. It’ll probably be some time before we get back to anything in the gun safety space.”
Two months ago, everyone was scoffing at the idea that the Senate could introduce a bipartisan bill on one of the most polarizing topics in American politics. However, the final product also highlighted severe headwinds hampering support for broader proposals such as raising the minimum age for purchasing assault weapons to 21.
And it wouldn’t be easier to write gun bills in a room where most legislation needs some GOP votes. The House of Representatives is likely to move into Republican control this fall. The Democrats do not have the votes to weaken the disruption. Not to mention that the arms deal, seen by many Democrats as a modest adaptation for the Republican Party, has the support of less than a third of Republicans in the Senate.
Some Democrats are tired of hearing the party’s position that they will come back for more later.
“This has collapsed about three times over the weekend. We are just barely getting through this. And so one of the things I struggle with is this constant ‘not enough!’” said one Democratic senator who asked not to be named to speak frankly. On more later it’s just nonsense. “For the foreseeable future, I think this will be a milestone.”
Meanwhile, Republicans have said the highly anticipated gun safety package is about to go for their party, especially given that four of the 15 Republicans likely to support the bill will retire at the end of this Congress. Then there are the political consequences of resistance to their party’s hardline conservative faction as well as gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association.
Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who supports the legislation, noted his proposal to lead negotiators to include raising the minimum age for purchasing assault weapons in their work. They told him he wouldn’t get 60 votes.
“I expect [Democrats] We won’t be able to do more because we’re hardly going to deal with the Republicans they need to get this done,” the Utah Republican said. “So if they want to do something more than this, they’re not going to get 10” Republicans.
Members on both sides of the aisle acknowledge that the dynamics surrounding the once-elusive arms deal changed after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers in Ovaldi at the end of May. Republicans saw Democrats as more willing to interview them in the middle on certain policy areas, such as background checks. Meanwhile, Democrats have seen a shift in the openness of some Republican senators to gun safety legislation.
For Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the lead Democratic negotiator, the bipartisan compromise suggests that more gun safety legislation could be within reach.
“My theory has always been that once Republicans vote for gun safety measures they will find that the sky is not falling,” Murphy said. “We’re going to have to see how that happens to the Republicans. I think the Republicans who vote for this are going to find a lot of new support back home that they didn’t count on before, and I think they’re going to find that the groups that were against it can’t do much harm.”
In addition, the effectiveness of a bipartisan rifle safety package could strongly influence the potential for subsequent legislation. The bill provides grants to states to implement so-called red flag laws or other crisis intervention programs, and closes what’s known as the “friend loophole” by expanding firearm restrictions for domestic abusers. In addition, the legislation provides for new spending for mental health and school security.
Republicans who support the legislation have dismissed the Democratic proposals as the first step in a drawn-out string of gun proposals, a line that tends to exacerbate fears among GOP base voters who fear any restrictions on gun ownership could become a slippery slope.
“They shouldn’t say that,” said Senator Jonny Earnest (R-Iowa), who voted to move forward with the package. “Because this is the effort that will cross the finish line. … All of these things are steps in the right direction. So let’s put them in place… and let’s see the results.”
The Senate’s expected passage of a bipartisan gun safety package follows a string of failed attempts to reduce gun violence. Most Republicans blocked a 2013 bill to expand background checks after the Sandy Hook school shooting. Negotiations collapsed in 2019 after back-to-back shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, as former President Donald Trump lost interest amid a House investigation. The Senate, in 2018, passed narrow legislation to improve reporting from federal and state agencies to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
This law was written by Murphy and Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), the lead negotiators for this year’s gun safety package.
“We tried to include in this everything we could think of that might have bipartisan support,” Cornyn said, describing how they approached the negotiations this time around.
Cornyn did not rule out the possibility of re-examining the case if circumstances so required. Senators from both parties suggested that further congressional actions would likely depend on the circumstances surrounding future tragedies.
This will require challenging political odds for a second time. So when will Congress act again on weapons?
The Senate majority, Dick Durbin (D-Florida), whipped it this way: “After waiting 30 years, I’m not ready to say it.”