WASHINGTON — Senators buckled down Tuesday for days of additional negotiations on a response to recent high-profile mass shootings, retreating from earlier calls for quick action even as they expressed optimism that a long-elusive deal to address gun violence might eventually be possible.
The calls for patience came as a small bipartisan group of senators continues delicate talks on a legislative package that could include the first significant new federal gun restrictions in three decades, along with provisions dealing with school security and mental health. But they are fighting a tide of recent history demonstrating that Congress’ appetite for action tends to quickly fade as tragedies such as the killings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas, last month fade from the headlines.
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 Chuck 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, telling reporters only that the Senate would vote “in the near future.”
“This issue is too important not to do everything we can to find a bipartisan way forward,” he said. “We’re giving [Republicans] the opportunity, the chance, to say yes – we’re ready and eager to find common ground on something that can actually help address gun violence.”
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also gave an upbeat appraisal of the talks but said it was “way too soon” to predict how many Republicans might ultimately come along. “We don’t have an agreement yet,” he said, adding, “I personally would prefer to get an outcome, and I hope that we’ll have one sooner rather than later.”
McConnell’s remarks came after the top Republican negotiator, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., issued his own plea for patience Monday, counseling his colleagues against setting “artificial deadlines” and warning that consensus legislation would not be ready for a vote this week.
“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 while he still aimed to strike a deal this week, the Senate may need extra time “to dot the I’s and cross the T’s.”
“Every day we get closer to an agreement, not further away,” he said.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre repeatedly declined to engage in specifics when asked about Biden’s position on the negotiations but signaled Biden is opening to signing whatever the negotiators come up with, saying “any step is a step forward.”
“His message to negotiators is: We have to do something,” she said.
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 remain 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, have no hope of passing 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.
Miah, 11, has publicly described smearing herself in her best friend’s blood and playing dead in order to survive the shooting. She is being represented by Josh Koskoff, a lawyer who successfully represented nine Sandy Hook families in a $73 million settlement with a firearms company that manufactured the weapon used in the 2012 school shooting.
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, spoke at Tuesday’s White House press briefing – delivering an emotional appeal for action that drew on his recent travels to Uvalde and conversations with survivors and responders.
“Responsible gun owners are fed up with the Second Amendment being abused and hijacked by some deranged individuals,” he said. “These regulations are not a step back – they’re a step forward for a civil society and the Second Amendment.”
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.”
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.
Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., for instance, said he was not convinced that raising the minimum age for rifle purchases made any sense, and he expressed sharp skepticism about red-flag laws.
“We have an amendment, a Second Amendment, that guarantees the right” to purchase firearms, he said. “And I just don’t see how you say, well, except if you’re in this category of age. … I just think, you turn 18, you have the right – all the rights afforded adults.”
But Sen. Cynthia M. Lummis, R-Wyo., said she had been struck by the number of calls she had received from constituents wanting to see some action regarding guns and mental health issues.
“Even though our gun culture is strongly pro-hunting and is deeply ingrained in our social fabric, the suicide rate in Wyoming is high,” she said, adding she was “a little surprised … how receptive Wyoming callers seem to be to address guns in some manner.”
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.”
But another high-profile GOP senator, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), has emerged as a vocal proponent of red-flag laws – touting Florida’s 2018 law, passed by a Republican legislature after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, as a model.
“I think it’s an effective law,” he said Tuesday. “I don’t know of anyone who is in favor of dangerous people being able to walk into a school and shoot it up. And so there are laws that work that could prevent that from happening, and I think almost everybody that I know would be for it.”
The Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.