Senators finalize bipartisan arms deal and announce potential breakthrough

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A bipartisan group of senators announced Sunday that they had reached a tentative agreement on legislation that would pair modest new gun restrictions with significant new investments in mental health and school safety — an agreement that could set Congress on track to the most significant national response to enact decades to acts of mass gun violence.

Twenty senators – ten Democrats and ten Republicans – signed a statement announcing the framework agreement. This suggested the agreement could have enough GOP support to defeat a filibuster, the Senate supermajority rule that has stymied previous gun laws.

“Families are afraid, and it is our duty to come together and do something that will help restore their sense of safety and security in their communities,” the statement said, in part. “Most importantly, our plan saves lives while protecting the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans.”

Under the interim deal, a federal grant program would encourage states to introduce “red flag” laws that allow authorities to keep guns away from people determined by a judge to be a potential threat to themselves or others, while the federal government monitors the Criminal background checks for gun buyers under 21 would include mandatory searches of juvenile justice and mental health records for the first time.

Other provisions would prevent the sale of guns to perpetrators of domestic violence beyond the spouse and close what is often referred to as the “boyfriend loophole”; Clarifying which gun sellers are required to register as federal gun dealers and thus conduct background checks on their customers; and introduce new state crimes related to the arms trade.

The agreement does not include a provision supported by President Biden, congressional Democrats and a handful of Republicans that would raise the minimum age for purchasing at least some guns from 18 to 21. Handguns are already subject to a federal 21 year age limit law.

Other provisions would put billions of new federal dollars into mental health and school safety programs, funding behavior intervention programs, new campus infrastructure and armed officers. A cornerstone of the deal is legislation sponsored by Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) to establish a statewide network of “community behavioral health clinics,” though the framework does not yet agree on the level of funding for this or other programs.

Sunday’s announcement comes as a result of bipartisan action launched in the days after the May 24 killing of 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, which itself came 10 days after a mass shooting at a Buffalo Supermarket took place.

Activists against gun violence said June 11 in Washington that their lives were directly affected by shootings and called for more restrictive gun laws. (Video: Jonathan Baran, Hadley Green/Washington Post)

It also comes a day after thousands took part in gun control rallies across the country organized by student-led group March for Our Lives, including an event in Washington on the National Mall. Sunday also marks the sixth anniversary of one of the deadliest mass shootings in the country, killing 49 people in 2016 at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub.

Before the announcement on Sunday, the senators had publicly outlined their negotiating positions in general.

Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who has led Democrats’ gun legislation efforts since the 2012 school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, said during an anti-gun violence rally Friday that he was determined to end Congress’ stasis Breaking gun laws, but not at any cost: “I’m not interested in doing anything unless that something will save lives, unless that something will be effective and meaningful.”

Meanwhile, John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who has an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association, said last week he was interested in forging a compromise, but only if he respected gun owners’ rights according to the second amendment.

“It’s not about creating new restrictions for law-abiding citizens,” he said. “It’s about making sure the system that we already have is working as intended.”

Major pitfalls remain: The framework announced Sunday amounts to a statement of principles, not a fully-written bill. While those involved in the process said last week that significant pieces of legislation have already been written, new friction often arises in Congress once the drafting process is complete.

Red-flag legislation in particular has robbed many conservative Republicans of the hackles, though negotiators said last week they believed there would be enough GOP support to pass a deal. The “boyfriend loopholes” and the provisions on gun licensees were also the subject of previous bipartisan talks, which did not result in an agreement.

“The details will be key for Republicans, particularly the firearms-related provisions,” said a GOP aide familiar with the talks. “One or more of these principles could be dropped if the text is not approved.”

Republican signers of Sunday’s statement were Cornyn and Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), who led the talks for the GOP, and Sens. Roy Blunt (Mo.), Richard Burr (NC), Bill Cassidy (La.), Susan M. Collins (Maine), Lindsey O. Graham (SC), Rob Portman (Ohio), Mitt Romney (Utah) and Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.).

Democrats in the group included leaders Murphy and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), as well as Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Cory Booker (NJ), Christopher A. Coons (Del.), Martin Heinrich (NM), Mark Kelly (Ariz .), Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who sides with Democrats, also signed.

Biden also signaled his support: “Obviously it’s not doing everything I think is necessary, but it reflects important steps in the right direction and would be the most significant gun safety legislation that Congress has passed in decades,” he said in a statement that was released by the White House on Sunday.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) said he plans to “put this bill on the table as soon as possible” once the bills are finalized, a process advisers say will take several days could. Minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did not formally endorse the deal in a statement on Sunday, but encouraged negotiators: “I remain hopeful that their discussions will result in a bipartisan product that will have significant impact on key issues such as mental health and school.” Making progress on safety, respecting the Second Amendment, gaining broad support in the Senate and making a difference for our country.”

The framework was also praised by gun control advocates, including the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Everytown for Gun Safety, who called the agreement a historic breakthrough, though it doesn’t include the tougher measures those groups have long advocated.

Everytown President John Feinblatt said the framework, if enacted, would be “the most significant piece of gun safety legislation to have made it through Congress in 26 long and deadly years,” while Brady President Kris Brown said it called “a 30-year breakthrough” in the making” and “a historic new beginning that breaks the stranglehold of the arms industry”.

“In a less broken society, we could require background checks every time someone wants to buy a gun, and we would ban assault rifles outright,” said David Hogg, co-founder of March for Our Lives. “But if even one life is saved or a mass shooting attempt prevented as a result of these regulations, we believe it is worth fighting for.”

A spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) signaled Friday that the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives would move to pass legislation that the Senate was able to pass. “If it’s life-saving and can make a difference and they have bipartisan support for it, then we would welcome it, even if it’s not going to be everything we want,” she said at a news conference.

The House of Representatives has passed four gun-related bills that go significantly further than the Senate’s tentative agreement. Last year, lawmakers passed legislation that extends federal background checks to all commercial transactions, including those conducted at gun fairs and over the Internet, as well as a measure that extends the period the FBI must conduct background checks on potential gun buyers .

Also last week, in response to the recent shootings, the House of Representatives passed legislation that banned the sale of many semi-automatic rifles to anyone under the age of 21, banned high-capacity magazines and promoted red-flag legislation in both state and federal courts.

Neither of these bills has the requisite Republican support to pass the Senate.

The last significant new federal gun control laws were passed in the mid-1990s — the “Brady Act” of 1993, which created the national instant background check system, and the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994, which banned some military-style semi-automatic rifles and handguns. The latter bill expired 10 years later and was not renewed.

In recent decades, Washington’s main focus has been on expanding gun rights. For example, in 2005 Congress immunized the firearms industry from product liability claims, and in 2008 the Supreme Court enshrined a person’s right to own guns in the landmark case of DC v. Heller. A 2013 push, following the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, to expand background checks to cover more gun deals, including gun shows and internet sales, was six votes short in the Senate.

In an interview Thursday, Murphy said he believes the chamber has two weeks to act — before lawmakers leave Washington for a two-week break on Independence Day.

But even meeting that deadline would require a framework for a quick deal, Murphy said, citing the likelihood that gun rights advocates in the Senate would try to erect procedural hurdles for potential legislation.

“We can’t come to an agreement in the last week that we’ve been here,” he said. “There are people in the Senate who will no doubt use every rule at their disposal to stop and slow this down.”

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