Senate Democrats acknowledge bipartisan gun safety talks will fall far short of what they want. They’re desperate for a deal anyway — and seem willing to take whatever the GOP will give them.
Whatever the negotiations among a handful of members in both parties amount to, this much is already assured: There will be no assault weapons ban and no universal background checks. Expanded background checks are a long shot, as is raising the age needed to buy firearms to 21.
And while Democrats surely want those policies to become law, they are not dictating what the bare minimum on gun safety should be. Asked why not, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) replied: “I don’t think that’s a productive way for us to look at it.”
“There are no red lines … I give my proxy to both Chris Murphy and Martin Heinrich on the two different working groups to speak for me,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who is urging those two Democratic senators to prioritize gun trafficking in negotiations.
“I will fully support anything they get done. Because at this point, we just have to move something forward. And I want anything that’s positive to move forward,” she added. “And I think now is the time to do whatever can be done and then work on a larger majority to do the rest.”
After already forcing the GOP to publicly reject voting rights and abortion access legislation this year, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is giving Murphy (D-Conn.) an enormous amount of breathing room to cut a guns deal with Republican senators. It’s a pragmatic turn, reflecting how differently the guns issue plays among a 50-member Democratic caucus that’s tried to attract GOP support to gun legislation for nearly a decade now.
Though they don’t emphasize it publicly, Democrats believe there’s a good chance that internal GOP divisions scuttle any gun safety deal in the end. That means they barely have to lift a finger to watch the issue vex Republicans.
And so Democratic leaders are placing no limits on the negotiations, despite their strong feelings about approving more restrictive gun laws. Schumer allows that getting GOP buy-in is a “difficult hurdle to overcome” but is not setting hard deadlines.
“I know the reality of the politics. A 50-50 Senate, a 50-50 committee, a divisive issue. It’s not going to give me, and I think … the American people [what we] are asking for. But if it’s a step forward and makes us safer as a nation, we’ve got to do it,” said Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who is also the majority whip.
For Democrats facing perhaps just a few more months of full control of Washington, responding to a shooter who killed 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, is proving a complex balancing act. And though Democrats are outwardly deferential to Murphy and his negotiating partners, Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), they are still pushing behind the scenes to shape the legislation.
Tillis and Cornyn are entertaining enhanced background checks for prospective gun buyers younger than 21, hoping they can encourage states to put juvenile criminal records into the federal background system and potentially prevent people charged with serious crimes as children from buying guns as adults. Democrats are privately advocating to add a federal waiting period for people younger than 21 that seek to purchase firearms, trying to push Republicans out of their comfort zone, according to a person familiar with the negotiations.
Though significant, that wouldn’t come near what most Democrats see as the baseline for negotiations.
“I don’t think that Mitch McConnell wants anything in it. It should be an assault weapon ban. It should be people under 21 shouldn’t be able to buy any kinds of guns like that. It should be a three-day waiting period. It should be background checks and red flag laws,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “But McConnell won’t.”
That’s in part because the GOP will struggle to find the votes to even strengthen background checks on some young people. Republicans expect a significant portion of their 50-member conference will oppose anything that the bipartisan group comes up with, no matter how minor.
At the moment, Tillis said he is not receiving “significant pushback” to the idea of enhancing those background checks. Both Tillis and Cornyn are close to McConnell, who has encouraged the negotiations.
“You have tens of thousands of [offenses] that, had they been committed 18 or over, would have been a disqualifying event,” Tillis said, emphasizing negotiators were closing in on a broad agreement. “When I talk to folks who are concerned about expanding the background check, they weren’t aware those kind of crimes weren’t relevant in issuing an approval to purchase a firearm.”
At the same time, there’s some fear among Democrats that the horrific school murders are already fading in the minds of Americans as negotiations play out. There is some evidence that mass shootings fade from collective consciousness in a matter of days; the killings in Uvalde were nearly two weeks ago.
Moreover, Republicans may use any modest gun safety deal to argue for years to come that Congress has dealt with the issue already. That brings a significant political risk for Democrats looking to pave the way for a narrow firearms proposal, testing their ability to embrace piecemeal legislation that would not satisfy their base but would allow Republicans to claim a bipartisan accomplishment.
But Democrats doubt they’ll even get to that point — and if they do, they see it as a risk worth taking. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said “the hard question is whether or not the Republicans will go along with anything that will make a meaningful difference.”
Republicans “want to close this book as fast as they can by focusing on mental health,” Durbin said, arguing that Democrats can both cut a deal with the GOP and campaign on what got left on the cutting-room floor: “The bipartisan negotiation will give us some progress, and people will say, ‘Wait a minute, it didn’t cover assault weapons as it should have. You should have extended background checks further.’”