WASHINGTON – A group of Republicans and Democrats in the Senate on Tuesday released a compromise bill aimed at keeping firearms out of the hands of dangerous people, taking a substantial step to break a yearslong impasse in Congress over how to address gun violence.
While the legislation falls short of the sweeping gun control measures Democrats have demanded, if passed it would amount to the most significant action in decades to overhaul the nation’s gun laws.
The 80-page bill would enhance background checks, giving authorities up to 10 business days to review the juvenile and mental health records of gun purchasers younger than 21, and pour federal dollars into helping states implement so-called red-flag laws, which allow authorities to temporarily confiscate guns from deemed dangerous people. The measure would also, for the first time, ensure that serious dating partners are included in a federal law that bars domestic abusers from purchasing firearms.
Senators also agreed to provide millions of dollars for expanding mental health resources in communities and schools in addition to the funds devoted to boosting school safety. In addition, the legislation would toughen penalties for those evading licensing requirements or making illegal “straw” purchases, buying and then selling weapons to people barred from purchasing handguns.
The Senate is expected to take up the legislation Tuesday evening, with lawmakers hoping to approve it before a scheduled Fourth of July recess. With the framework publicly backed by 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats, as well as President Biden and Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, the measure appeared to have enough support to clear the 60-vote threshold needed to move forward in the evenly divided chamber. But aides cautioned that the details would be crucial in determining the final vote.
Both Senate leaders swiftly issued statements of public support for the legislation. Mr. McConnell called it “a common sense package of popular steps that will help make these horrifying incidents less likely while fully upholding the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.”
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, vowed to press forward with a quick test vote on the package. “This bipartisan gun safety legislation is progress and will save lives,” he said. “While it is not everything we want, this legislation is urgently needed. ”
The flurry of negotiations was spurred by two mass shootings in the last two months: a massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, which left 19 children and two teachers dead, and a racist attack that killed 10 Black people at a Buffalo supermarket. The human devastation brought the issue of gun violence back to the forefront on Capitol Hill, where years of efforts to enact gun restrictions in the wake of such assaults have fallen short amid Republican opposition.
Since announcing their agreement on a bipartisan outline less than two weeks ago, lead negotiators – Senators Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, both Democrats, and John Cornyn of Texas and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, both Republicans – have spent hours hammering out the details and toiling to keep their fragile coalition together.
“Obviously these have been difficult negotiations, but they’ve been incredibly productive and meaningful.” Murphy said on Tuesday ahead of the release of the legislation. “And, you know, I’m proud of the place that we’re getting to.”
Talks teetered on the brink of failure repeatedly last week, however, as lawmakers, in late night meetings and calls, wrestled with how to translate their outline into a legislative text. The group spent the three-day weekend haggling over the details of the measure.
“It’s been maddeningly slow for everybody, but I think we’re ready.” Cornyn said, heading into an evening Republican leadership meeting.
Two provisions proved particularly frustrating in the final days of talks: whether to extend funds for the implementation of red flag laws to states that do not have such laws, and exactly how to define a boyfriend or intimate partner, as lawmakers sought to close what has come to be known as the “boyfriend loophole.” Current law only bars domestic abusers who have been married to or lived with the victim, or have had a child with them, from buying a firearm.
Negotiators agreed to allow dating partners convicted of a misdemeanor to regain the right to buy a gun after five years, provided that they were first-time offenders and not found guilty of any other violent misdemeanor or offense, Mr. Cornyn said on the Senate floor.
And lawmakers agreed to allow states access to federal funds either to implement red flag laws or establish what Mr. Cornyn described as “crisis intervention programs.”
“Under this bill, every state will be able to use significant new federal dollars to be able to expand their programs to try to stop dangerous people, people contemplating mass murder or suicide, from being able to have access to the weapons that allow them to perpetrate that crime, ”Mr. Murphy said in a speech on the Senate floor.
The path to President Biden’s desk remains rocky. Republicans on and off Capitol Hill have expressed consternation over the measure’s scope, and Texas Republicans have booed Mr. Cornyn and moved to formally “rebuke” him and eight other Republicans for their role in the negotiations. And some Democrats, particularly in the House, where they have advanced far more ambitious gun reform legislation, have expressed uneasiness about the notion of “hardening” schools, or stigmatizing mental health struggles.
Gun safety activists praised the agreement, even though it fell short of many of their goals.
“This bipartisan legislation meets the most important test: it will save lives,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, in a statement. “We are now moving one big step closer to breaking the 26-year-old log that has blocked congressional action to protect Americans from gun violence.”