Will the G.O.P. Finally Make a Deal on Guns?

At a press conference last Tuesday, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, made a statement that was significant but also oddly cryptic. He acknowledged that there had been an effort to “come to an outcome after these horrible school shootings,” which had resulted in a “coming together,” he said, “behind a framework.” He added, “For myself, I’m comfortable with the framework, and, if the legislation ends up reflecting what the framework indicates, I will be supportive.” Then he stepped away from the microphone, having avoided using the word at the heart of the matter: “guns.” One might not have known, listening to him, that ten Democratic and ten Republican senators—enough, in the evenly divided Senate, to survive a filibuster—had negotiated what could be the most meaningful gun-safety law to get through Congress in a quarter century. He didn’t say the word until later, in answer to a question, when he referred to “off the charts” support for the framework’s measures reflected in a poll of “gun owners only—just people who own guns,” as if that were the only sort of poll that counted.

It may not be surprising that such a poll would get McConnell’s attention, but it’s uncharacteristic of him to admit it. The G.O.P.’s pro-gun orthodoxy can be as irrational as it is remorseless, which is why the bipartisan framework is important. The immediate impetus was a mass shooting. John Cornyn, who has been leading the negotiations on the G.O.P. side, represents Texas, where nineteen children and two teachers were shot dead at an elementary school in Uvalde by a young man who had legally bought an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle a day after his eighteenth birthday. Of course, devastating school shootings are not a new phenomenon. The lead negotiator on the Democratic side is Senator Chris Murphy, of Connecticut. In a speech on the Senate floor after news of Uvalde broke, he spoke about the trauma of the murder, in 2012, of twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in his state, and the shame of the legislative inaction that followed. “What are we doing? Why are we here?” he asked. But something in the usual equation has changed.

One indicator of the shift is the poll McConnell cited, which was conducted for the Common Sense Leadership Fund, a Republican-aligned group that is spending heavily to get G.O.P. candidates elected this fall. It surveyed people in “gun-owning households.” Eighty-four per cent of them said that they would support a package of legislation that includes—as the framework does—requiring more types of gun sellers to conduct background checks, making those checks more comprehensive for people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, and providing money for school security and mental-health counselling. There was similar support for other elements of the framework: Seventy-nine per cent supported giving states financial incentives to implement “red flag” laws, which offer a route to temporarily take guns away from people who are threatening violence or experiencing a mental-health crisis. And eighty-six per cent favored closing the “boyfriend loophole,” which makes it easier for unmarried, non-cohabiting domestic abusers to have access to guns.

It’s possible to have a pessimistic view of the deal. Eighteen-year-olds will still be able to buy semi-automatic assault weapons, even if the federal background check extends, for the first time, to their juvenile records (and thus should create a brief waiting period while those records are searched). It does not stop the drive in an increasing number of states to loosen gun laws and permit carrying guns in more public places. Nor can it stop the Supreme Court from ruling, in a decision expected in the next two weeks, that a New York law restricting open carry is unconstitutional. And it won’t stop interstate gun trafficking, although it does give authorities more tools to combat it.

After Uvalde, one option for Democrats was to hold a vote on a more comprehensive bill that would have shown where each party stood, but that, because of the filibuster, would have had no chance of becoming law. Chuck Schumer, the Majority Leader, said that Murphy had instead asked him for “space” to try to find whatever common ground there might be. The second lead negotiator on the Democratic side is Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, whose relationships with Republicans are, Murphy told the Times podcast “The Daily,” valuable for getting the deal done. (The Republicans’ second negotiator is Thom Tillis, of North Carolina.) On MSNBC, Murphy said that the framework, despite its shortcomings, would save lives—for example, it could “stop a lot of suicides.”

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People who try to kill themselves are often acting impulsively, and, thankfully, the majority of them survive—unless they pick up a gun. According to Giffords, the gun-control organization, “Firearms account for 5% of life-threatening suicide attempts in the United States but over 50% of suicide deaths.” The framework means that Congress is doing something, rather than just continuing to be the passive observer of a national shootout. But Murphy is also making an argument for the power of what might be called radical incrementalism to effect major change, by breaking down resistance, allowing children’s voices to be heard, and, now, offering Republicans the novel experience of running on a record of having acted to ease the gun crisis. The struggles after Sandy Hook may not have been as futile as they felt.

Still, a measure of the pressures within the Republican Party is that four of the G.O.P. senators who have been part of the negotiations are retiring this year. On Fox News, Tucker Carlson framed the deal as a dictatorial “gun grab.” He played a video of what appeared to be gang members, some of them Black, brandishing firearms, and then demanded, “Hey, John Cornyn, will your legislation do anything about that? . . . Fix those things and get back to me about the AR in my closet!” (Carlson, in a 2019 interview, said that he owns an AR-style weapon and that “all my guns are working-class guns.”)

The hedging, deference to extremism, fearmongering, firearm fetishizing, and moral timidity that have resounded in the Republicans’ approach to the country’s gun problem over the years have not gone away, in other words, and will no doubt be part of this fall’s midterm campaigns. Murphy’s hope is to get a vote on a finished bill this week, ahead of the July 4th recess. The deal could still fall apart; McConnell left himself plenty of room to reject it. But it’s also possible that a note of common sense, however faint, has broken through. ♦

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