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How the Senate broke through 30 years of gridlock to reform gun laws

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Except for a relatively modest fix to the federal background check system in 2018, Congress had not passed meaningful legislation to curb gun violence in nearly 30 years when an 18-year-old gunman entered a school in Uvalde, Texas, and killed 19 children and two teachers.  

It was the worst school shooting since the massacre of 20 kids and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. Lawmakers had made almost no progress in the decade since on restricting access to firearms or addressing gun violence.  

Yet senators defied the odds this month by putting together a bipartisan bill that passed the Senate Thursday with 65 votes, a large bipartisan majority, less than five months before a hotly contested election. The House passed the bill on Friday and President Biden signed it into law Saturday.

What seemed unthinkable only a few months ago — passage of significant gun control legislation in an election year — happened because of a perfect storm of events that brought together a handful of key senators together with a single-minded purpose: to pass legislation that would help prevent what happened at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde from ever happening again. 

The first key moment happened on the evening of tragedy at Uvalde, on May 24, when Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the Senate Democrats’ leading advocate for gun safety, gave a rousing speech on the Senate floor, demanding his colleagues do something to respond to the cold-blooded murder of two rooms of nine-, 10- and 11-year-olds in Texas.  

“What are we doing? What are we doing?” Murphy asked his colleagues on the Senate floor. “There were more mass shootings than days in the year. Our kids are living in fear everytime they set foot in the classroom because they think they are next.” 

As mad and frustrated as he was by his colleagues’ inaction, Murphy wanted to take a different approach to the issue of gun violence this time.

While some of his Senate colleagues were calling for putting legislation on the floor immediately designed to show voters that Republicans opposed expanded background checks or banning assault weapons, Murphy said he wanted to find something that could get to President Biden’s desk.  

“This is all about what can get 60 votes,” he told The Hill the evening of the Uvalde shooting. “Let’s see what public demand for action arises in the next few weeks but we need to work with Republicans.”  

Two days later Murphy convened a bipartisan group of seven senators in his Capitol basement hideaway office for what participants described as an “orientation” meeting to divvy up responsibilities for a negotiation on a gun safety package.  

The other senators in the room were Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) participated by phone.  

But the more important development came later that day when Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) announced he would tap Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) to lead the negotiations for Republicans.  

Cornyn wasn’t available for the first meeting in Murphy’s hideaway because he was in Uvalde, donating blood and taking briefings from local law enforcement officials.  

Murphy said he met with Cornyn face-to-face upon his return as well as with Sinema and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) who would become the “core four” negotiators.  

McConnell’s decision to give the lead responsibility to Cornyn and Tillis instead of the Republicans who first met in Murphy’s hideaway earlier on May 26 was a signal that he wanted a bill that had a good chance of getting more than 10 Republican votes and passing the Senate.  

Republican senators were less confident that a bill negotiated by the more centrist group that first met in Murphy’s office could pass muster with enough Republicans to overcome a filibuster.  

McConnell explained his thinking in an interview with reporters shortly before the bill passed Thursday evening.  

“My view is this was time to act. We had a number of these mass shootings over the years. We’ve never been able to ask afterwards because Senate Democrats always insisted on amendments that I and others simply couldn’t support,” he said.  

But he said the bill that Cornyn negotiated included “nothing that we thought infringed on individuals’ Second Amendment rights.”  

He said if Congress could pass “legislation that actually targeted the problems, which is schools and mental health, why would we not want to do that.” 

A Republican senator close to McConnell thought his choice of Cornyn and Tillis to lead the negotiations was a sign that he wanted a result.  

“Thom was interested in getting an outcome and he dealt with John, which I thought made sense. We were trying to get a result here and I think we got an important result for the American people,” he said. 

McConnell also thought that passing a bill that could prevent future mass shootings without making it tougher for law-abiding citizens to buy guns would help Republicans win back suburban voters, a crucial bloc of the electorate.  

“I hope it will be viewed favorably by voters in the suburbs we need to regain in order to hopefully be in the majority next year,” he said shortly before the bill passed.  

Tillis immediately removed from discussion Democratic proposals to raise the minimum age for buying AR-15-style rifles from 18 to 21. He also took a possible federal red flag law off the table at the start.   

Democrats agreed to make those concessions right away.  

“When we started … I wasn’t that optimistic but shortly after the first meeting, I was,” he said.  

Tillis said Democrats agreed to his concerns about giving people who might lose access to their fire arms under state red flag laws due process. He said the final bill included more than two pages of explicit due process provisions. 

The other important boost to the negotiations came from Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who gave space to Murphy and Sinema, despite pressure from activists and progressives to bring a bill to the floor immediately.  

Schumer argued on the floor the morning after the shooting that there was no need to force an immediate vote on universal background checks or an assault weapons ban because voters already knew where Republicans stood on the issue.  

“Americans can cast their vote in November for senators or members of Congress that reflect how he or she stands with guns,” he said. “In the meantime, my Republican colleagues can work with us now. I know this is a slim prospect, very slim, all to slim. We’ve been burnt so many times before. But this is so important.”  

Murphy kept in close touch with Schumer throughout the negotiations and had already spoken to him a few times the day of the shooting in Texas.  

After meeting with Cornyn, Tillis and Sinema in Sinema’s office a few days after the shooting, Murphy continued to talk with them throughout the Memorial Day recess.  

Murphy said “it was clear from that first meeting in Sen. Sinema’s office that we had a chance to do something really important.” 

“We really never wavered from the outline, the set of ideas we talked about in that first meeting. Almost every idea that ended up in the bill was on the table in that meeting and we just worked every single one of them for four weeks to land them on paper,” Murphy said.  

All four core negotiators said the rapport they had with each other was a big reason why the talks succeeded.  

Murphy said he “hit it off” with Tillis when they traveled together on a congressional delegation trip in April to Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Belgium.  

“We left that week with the idea that it would be great to work together on something,” Murphy said. 

But it wasn’t an easy negotiation and Murphy acknowledged “there was a half dozen moments where this could have fallen apart but it didn’t because people were convinced was the time to do something.”  

When senators got back to Washington on Monday June 6 after the Memorial Day recess, Murphy, Sinema and Cornyn met in Sinema’s office for a dinner and discussion that lasted more than two hours.  

“We made slow steady progress from the beginning because everybody realized the space we could operate within and Sen. Murphy was very pragmatic in his approach. Sen. Sinema was a force of nature. She’s very smart and she’s very well prepared and she wants to get something done,” Cornyn said.  

Cornyn described the Monday dinner meeting as a chance for three of the core four negotiators to hash out some of the issues at length.  

“I thought it was helpful to have an extended period of time. Everybody’s got five things to do at one time around here. So to have a time where we could sit down and talk for a while, share a meal and see what the lay of the land is” was helpful, Cornyn said. 

A big moment came the following Sunday when Murphy, Sinema, Cornyn and Tillis released a nine-point framework of principles endorsed by sixteen other senators, eight Republicans and eight Democrats. 

The support of 10 Republican senators for the principles meant that any bill based on them had a good chance of winning 60 votes, enough to overcome a filibuster, because all 50 Democrats had signaled they would support any gun package that Murphy endorsed.  

The framework got a political boost two days later when McConnell said he supported it and would vote for a bill based on its core elements.  

McConnell also noted that Cornyn shared a poll at the weekly lunch meeting that showed strong support for the principles of the framework among gun owners.  

The GOP leader later broke down the poll results to reporters right before the final vote.  

He said that 79 percent of gun owners support federal funding for states to implement red flag laws, 86 support prohibiting someone from purchasing or owning firearms who has been convicted of domestic violence against an intimate partner and 87 support giving the National Instant Criminal Background Checks System access to juvenile records.  

McConnell played an active role in the talks behind the scenes, talking to Sinema, one of the lead Democratic negotiators, as well as to the National Rifle Association (NRA), the nation’s preeminent gun-rights group.  

Cornyn said the legislation was negotiated with input from both the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation.  

The NRA eventually put out a public statement opposing the bill but didn’t make a lobbying blitz as they have in past years against legislation it wanted to kill, GOP senators said.  

The talks bogged down on Wednesday, June 15 and Thursday, June 16 as lawmakers squabbled over the language of the red flag provision and closing the “boyfriend loophole,” which would prohibit romantic partners convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors of purchasing or owning guns. 

One person familiar with the talks said Democratic staff on the Judiciary Committee who were brought in to help draft the text insisted on language that Republican negotiators felt didn’t represent what they agreed to in the framework of principles.  

The negotiators met in Murphy’s Capitol basement hideaway Thursday afternoon to hash out the differences but made little progress, prompting a frustrated Cornyn to walk out of the room and declare to reporters: “It’s fish or cut bait.”  

Cornyn later said that dramatic move might have lit a fire under some of his fellow negotiators and fellow staff to put aside some of their differences and agree on language.  

“I literally had to catch a plane that was the main reason,” he said. “Maybe that helped give people a greater sense of urgency.” 

The staff worked through the following Juneteenth long weekend and by Tuesday morning they had settled just about every difference except for the thorny issue of how to apply the Hyde Amendment to make sure that none of the money spent would possibly cover abortion services.  

By 6:23 pm on Tuesday, the negotiators finally released the long-awaited final text — an 80-page bill — and both Schumer and McConnell endorsed the legislation with press releases sent out minutes after colleagues got the text of the bill.  

Schumer arranged to use a message from the House as the legislative vehicle to move the bill, allowing senators to vote to proceed to the measure just more than an hour after the legislation and its details became public.  

When 64 senators including 14 Republicans voted to advance the measure, it was clear to everyone that the bill would be on Biden’s desk by the weekend.  



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