Jtime is the enemy gun control laws, any lawyer will tell you. The outcry for tougher gun laws has always been loudest during times of national horror, in the hours and days after a massacre, when anger is high and the anguish of survivors and grieving families fill the airwaves. This brief window of action quickly begins to close as public attention inevitably drifts to other topics. The opposition mobilizes and the talks fail or run out of steam.
Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut feared this all-too-familiar pattern was repeating itself after the May 24 mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Despite immense public pressure, the bipartisan group of senators negotiating new gun safety proposals left Washington before Memorial Day weekend without reaching a deal. “Normally when there’s a pause in sensitive talks like these, you lose momentum,” Murphy, the Democratic leader of the negotiations, told me this afternoon. On social networks, interest in press articles on the massacre of 19 children and two teachers had already fallen. By the time Congress returned to session, two weeks had passed.
Something had actually changed this time, however. Rather than dissipating after the break, the bipartisan negotiations accelerated. Instead of taking the backlash from voters at home, Republican lawmakers signaled to Democrats that they felt an urgency from their constituents to act. “The momentum has increased,” Murphy said. He looked as surprised as anyone.
Yesterday Murphy and 19 of his colleagues unveiled what could become the most significant changes to national gun laws in more than a quarter century. The framework would expand background checks for people under 21, make it easier for the government to prosecute illegal firearms trafficking, and provide federal funding to support state-level “red flag” laws, which allow the courts to disarm people considered to be a danger to themselves or to others. Other provisions include additional billions in federal support for mental health programs and additional funding for school safety — two items that Republican negotiators, led by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, have prioritized in the talks.
Democrats and gun control advocates, conditioned to expect very little from negotiations like these, were pleasantly surprised by the scope of the proposed package. Each provision, Murphy told me, “represents less progress than I would have liked. But when you put it all together, it’s a substantial set of changes from what I think was possible just 30 days ago.
The Sandy Hook Massacre happened when Murphy served in the House, just a month after he was first elected to the Senate. Nearly a decade later, his sincere outrage at Congressional inaction on guns comes with a heavy dose of tired political realism. Half of his work these days seems to warn against the tendency of voters to become, in his words, “insensitive” to mass shootings, while the other half manages those same voters’ expectations of what is possible in a divided Washington. Murphy is not the kind of Democrat to hope for. “I’ve had football under me enough times before in these negotiations to be realistic about our prospects for success,” the senator said. told reporters in Connecticut last week. “I’m sober about our chances.”
It was therefore remarkable that not only Murphy, but major gun control groups such as Everytown and Brady quickly embraced the bipartisan agreement as something more than a political fig leaf. Unlike past negotiations, Murphy told me, the list of viable proposals actually grew longer rather than shorter as the talks went on. For example, the following provision illegal purchases of strawa major priority for major city mayors seeking to stem the flow of weapons from other states, was not initially under discussion.
Yet many larger ideas never made it to the table. President Joe Biden blessed the framework even though it included virtually none of the changes he called for in his prime time address earlier this month. The deal has no ban on assault weapons, no limits on high-capacity magazines, no universal background checks, no change to the minimum age required to buy semi-automatic weapons. When I asked a Democratic congressional aide last week if those policies were being considered, the answer to each — no — came with what sounded like a hint of an apology.
The passage of time could reduce the compromise even further. The stripped-down framework announced Sunday won the approval of 10 Republicans, indicating that if all 50 Democrats accept, the package could eliminate a filibuster in the Senate and win passage. But the actual bill has yet to be drafted and many details, including how much the legislation will cost and where the money will come from, have yet to be ironed out. Senators hope a bill could be ready for a vote in a few weeks, but similar “framework agreements” have taken much longer to complete in the past.
Murphy and Cornyn have worked together on gun metrics a number of times in recent years. They used as a model their successful talks over small changes to the background check system after another mass shooting in Texas, the church massacre of more than two dozen people in Sutherland Springs in 2017. Those negotiations were successful. to the enactment of the Fix NICS Act as part of a larger spending bill in 2018. The act created carrots and sticks to encourage federal agencies and the military to upload records into the federal system of background check; it also included money that Republicans sought to bolster school safety. That the law has not stopped or even significantly reduced mass shootings is obvious; Cornyn, however, said it led to 11.5 million additional records being uploaded to the federal background check system, which was a 30% increase for one database.
Amid negotiations last week, Cornyn gave a speech in the Senate that made it clear how much of the talks were going on Republican terms. Negotiators, he said, were not considering any proposals that would expand the background check system or in any way restrict “the rights of gun owners and current, law-abiding citizens.” . There would be no new bans on weapons like AR-15s or limits on ammunition, like high-capacity magazines. “What interests me is keeping guns out of reach of those who, under current law, are not supposed to have them,” Cornyn said. The scope of the talks fits squarely with an agenda that conservatives, backed by gun rights groups such as the National Rifle Association, have held to for decades: enforcing existing gun laws rather than to adopt new ones.
Murphy acknowledged that the deal “remains consistent” with Cornyn’s bottom line. “We were able to meet his demands while meeting my demands that the bill could not be a facade,” he said. “These had to be substantial changes that could undoubtedly save people’s lives.” Murphy argued that limiting negotiations from the start proved to be key to their success. “I said 100% that I was not going to have fruitless arguments at these meetings about things that couldn’t get 60 votes,” he said. “We were all very focused on what could get 60 votes from the start, and that helped the discussions move forward.”
The dispute What Democrats now face from the left is that this deal could set back efforts for a real overhaul of US gun policy. By agreeing to modest changes now, Republicans can tell voters they have done something to address gun violence and use that political cover to help regain control of Congress and block more substantial reforms. Murphy defended the framework on substance, saying even those compromises would “save thousands of lives.” He also advanced a longer-term strategy, based on demonstrating to Republicans that supporting new laws won’t doom them and their core voters.
Implicit in his argument is the reality that Democrats won’t have the votes on their own to do what they want anytime soon, and that the kind of atrocity that would cause Republicans to really change their minds on the second amendment is impossible to consider. “Success breeds success,” Murphy said. “Even though we have never passed another gun violence bill, I would say this bill is 100% worth it because it is going to make a difference.
“But,” he added, “I also know that it’s a very bad strategy to wait until you can get everything you want. Because that moment almost never comes.