Last month, as the Senate prepared to leave Washington for a holiday recess days after the Uvalde shooter killed 19 fourth-graders and two teachers, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) upbraided Republican opponents of gun control and said he would move to a vote if the talks did not “bear fruit in a short period of time.”
Speaking Tuesday, Schumer did not issue any new ultimatum or outline a timeline for action. “I’m encouraging my Democratic colleagues to keep talking to see if Republicans will work with us to come up with something that will make a meaningful change in the lives of the American people and to help stop gun violence,” he said, adding, “We have a moral obligation to do everything conceivable to break the cycle of violence.”
The top Republican negotiator, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), issued a similar plea for patience Monday, counseling his colleagues against setting “artificial deadlines.”
“I don’t believe the Senate will be voting this week, because good consensus legislation takes time,” he said. “My goal is to achieve a result. And the only way we can do that, the only way we can get a bill that will pass both chambers and earn the president’s signature, is by taking the time and reaching that consensus.”
Senators involved in the negotiations said this week that they have narrowed the list of potential elements to include in a package but that more work is needed. On Tuesday, the top Democratic negotiator, Sen. Chris Murphy (Conn.), visited the White House to brief President Biden on the talks.
Murphy said afterward that Biden “knows that we’ve got to work out our compromise on our own” and that the president “is giving us the space necessary to get a deal done.” Murphy said he still aimed to strike a deal this week but said the Senate may need “some extra time to dot the I’s and cross the T’s.”
More far-reaching measures that Biden has endorsed — such as an assault weapons ban, restrictions on high-capacity ammunition magazines and expansions of background checks to cover private gun sales — are not on the table, the senators said. But the use of federal grants encouraging states to adopt “red flag” laws meant to keep guns out of the hands of potential shooters is under discussion, as is a system to potentially screen gun buyers under 21 for juvenile offenses and mental health episodes.
A proposal that could create a federal minimum age of 21 for rifle buyers, matching the current law for handgun buyers, has not been formally ruled out but is unlikely to make it into a final package, several senators involved in the talks said.
But questions persist about how long the gun debate will remain front and center on Capitol Hill, with serious economic and foreign policy challenges also bearing down on Congress.
The Democratic-controlled House is set to take quicker action. It will begin debating two gun bills Wednesday — one that would create a federal red-flag law as well a package of legislation that includes a minimum age of 21 for semiautomatic rifle purchases and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines, among other provisions. Those bills, however, are dead on arrival in the Senate, where a united minority of Republicans can block legislation because of the chamber’s 60-vote filibuster rule.
Also Wednesday, lawmakers on the House Oversight and Reform Committee will hear from a young Uvalde survivor, Miah Cerrillo, and the parents of a victim, Lexi Rubio, in what promises to be searing testimony that could keep public attention focused on the fight for congressional action.
The push has also been lent star power from actor Matthew McConaughey, an Uvalde native who is advocating “gun responsibility” legislation along the lines of what the bipartisan group is considering. The actor, who was spotted roaming the Capitol this week, met with Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Democratic leader, on Monday evening and later dined with a bipartisan group of senators.
Several of the Senate negotiators said Tuesday that the increasingly fuzzy timeline for action is actually a positive sign, reflecting considerable progress in intensive talks that occurred in phone calls and Zoom meetings over the Memorial Day break and were rekindled in person Monday night, with a meeting between Cornyn and Murphy, along with Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).
“I personally regard an agreement as still a lot of uphill work, with obstacles to overcome,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “But we are closer than ever before.”
Blumenthal, who has led negotiations on red-flag provisions with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), said he believed that a system of federal grants and standards surrounding such laws represented a “centerpiece in terms of consensus” among the group. He said that the negotiators were prepared to discuss some proposals in “general terms” during the party lunches Tuesday but that finer details would await feedback from the broader groups of senators.
While Democrats appear largely open to the modest new restrictions that the negotiators are discussing, some are pushing for votes on more-aggressive measures, such as an assault weapons ban or a 21-and-over law for rifle buyers. On the Republican side, the negotiators are battling fierce skepticism among rank-and-file senators, who argue that new restrictions would simply impede law-abiding Americans while doing little to prevent gun violence.
“I am not convinced that more gun control is the answer,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said Monday.
Details could prove divisive as the negotiations proceed, potentially derailing the process altogether. On background checks, for instance, Republicans said this week that there is emerging consensus on finding a way to search sealed juvenile justice and mental health records for gun buyers under 18. But doing that search, Tillis said, would take time, raising the prospect of a waiting period for those buyers — something that gun rights groups including the National Rifle Association have fiercely opposed.
The NRA has also opposed red-flag laws, working against their enactment at the state level and seeking to repeal those that have already been passed. “The real purpose of these laws … is simply to empower judges to nullify Second Amendment rights with the stroke of a pen,” the NRA’s lobbying wing wrote in a June 2 article.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has long taken a hard line on gun rights, did not categorically rule out federal red-flag legislation in comments to reporters Monday. But he said that “the details matter” and that those laws “are better considered at the state level.”
“There’s a lot we can do to stop dangerous criminals and protect the most vulnerable among us,” he said. “However, if the Democrats follow the same pattern they have in the past, if they focus on a partisan political agenda to try to disarm law-abiding citizens, that will do nothing to make Americans safer. It will do nothing to stop these horrific crimes. And an agenda that undermines the Second Amendment is very unlikely to pass.”
Cornyn — who like Cruz enjoys an A-plus rating from the NRA’s political wing — on Monday sought to defuse concerns about the negotiations from the right, saying that any deal he struck would not ban any weapons or high-capacity magazines, nor would it expand federal background checks to include additional disqualifying factors.
“I’m a proud supporter of the Second Amendment, period,” he said. “Those sorts of things will stand no chance of passing the Senate. Instead, we’re talking about common-sense, targeted reforms that are responsive to the tragedies in Uvalde and elsewhere and that will, I believe, save lives.”
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.