Lawmakers are beginning to see the contours of a gun deal taking shape in the US Senate even as both sides admit there is far more work to do to convince lawmakers to get behind a narrow package that will be far less robust than Democrats had hoped for and a heavy lift for Republicans from red states, where any changes to gun laws can be met with stiff resistance.
On Tuesday during a private GOP lunch, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas walked his members through what could be included in the package, a process that members inside said was cordial and left most members in “listening mode.” But the bigger test has yet to come, as Cornyn and his fellow Republican negotiator Thom Tillis of North Carolina will have to sell any deal to the rest of their conference.
A narrow set of changes to gun laws is still under consideration, including hardening school security, providing more funding for mental health care, ensuring that juvenile records can be considered when a person between ages 18 and 21 wants to buy a high-powered semi-automatic weapon like an AR-15 and providing federal incentives for states to pass so-called red flag laws. Those laws, which currently exist in 19 states, allow a judge to temporarily take away the guns of someone who is deemed a threat to themselves or others.
But it’s still not clear whether there will be enough Republican support to include all of those provisions and the working group, which also includes Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Chris Murphy of Connecticut, has yet to announce a deal.
“I think it’s way too soon to start predicting how many are going to vote for it,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Tuesday about the GOP vote total. “We don’t have an agreement yet, and so I don’t want to speculate about how many of my members might support it. Step 1 is to try to get a deal, as I’ve said repeatedly. I hope that’ll be sooner rather than later.”
Issues with red flag
One area that will test GOP support is red flag laws. Already, a handful of Republicans have expressed concerns with including a federal incentive to pass more state red flag laws. The issue could become a stumbling block in the negotiations.
Sen. Josh Hawley told CNN he has due process concerns around red flag laws and doesn’t support incentivizing states to pass their own versions.
“I don’t support one at a national level, and I can’t say I’m a big fan of them in general,” the Missouri Republican said. “I don’t think we should incentivize it.”
Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota also expressed concerns about passing them.
Tillis defended the effort to find a middle ground on red flag laws to CNN on Tuesday afternoon, saying he’s been talking to fellow Republicans about how to ensure there are guardrails that would guarantee due process.
“The way we are defining it could have a positive effect of some states that have red flag laws with no due process or no back-end redemption or recovery that they wouldn’t be eligible for the federal grants,” Tillis said. “When you explain it that way, you are telling people that you can actually get some of the 19 states that have overreached … to rethink it if they actually want to be eligible for federal funding.”
“I think we’ve seen it work in Florida. It’s worked better than any other state. We’ve seen conservative members, conservative sheriffs and others say it’s working so that is something that has been in practice since 2017,” Tillis said.
Support grows for bolstering checks on 18- to 21-year-olds who want to buy semi-automatic weapons
In recent days, Republican and Democratic negotiators have been working to settle on the best way to ensure that juvenile records are reviewed when a person between the ages of 18 and 21 goes to buy a gun like an AR-15. It’s a loophole that senators like Cornyn and Tillis have said could be closed without delving into a broader expansion of background checks. But the issue has been complicated by the fact that many states expunge juvenile records when an individual turns 18 and in other states juvenile records are sealed.
Only three states – Utah, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – currently require that juvenile court records be considered in background checks, according to Giffords Law Center, which advocates for stronger gun laws in the country.
Making juvenile records available, however, so far has attracted little pushback from conservatives.
“I think it is potentially a promising avenue, but let’s see what they come up with,” Hawley said about ensuring that juvenile records are reviewed as part of background checks.
Tillis told CNN on Tuesday that the working group was still trying to find the best way to incentivize states to make juvenile records part of the consideration and he warned that the extra step could result in a waiting period for people looking to buy guns between the ages of 18 and 21.
“That will naturally probably force a period of time – call it a wait period – or however long it takes to actually have that information,” he said.
In a turnaround from the immediate aftermath of the Uvalde, Texas, shooting, Republican Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming said Tuesday she is now considering voting for a package of legislative remedies that could include changes to red flag laws, mental health programs, school security and opening juvenile criminal records to gun background checks.
“That’s something that I’d be inclined to want to look at. So many juvenile records seem to be expunged and the clock is set back to zero the day they turn 18. So I think that is something worth considering shortly,” she said.
Lummis’ change in posture comes after her office received “so many calls” from constituents pushing for change.
“I’ve been a little surprised at the phone calls we’ve been getting and how receptive Wyoming callers seem to be to address guns in some manner,” said the freshman senator, who served four terms in the House and was a founding member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
“I am of the opinion that it’s more of a mental health issue than a gun issue. But, you know, I’m listening to what people from Wyoming are saying.”
This story has been updated with additional information Tuesday.