Why the Bipartisan Gun Deal Could Still Fall Apart

Washingtonians stopped by Sunday to look at breaking news reports reporting that Senate negotiators appeared to have reached a bipartisan solution to gun violence. The savvy ones read between the lines—or, in some cases, what aides were saying explicitly—and understood that the first significant change to gun laws since the 1994 crime bill wasn’t going to be anything approximating smooth.

Even the most skeptical of gun politics felt that something could be different after the recent mass shootings. On May 14, white nationalists attacked a Buffalo grocery store, killing 10 and injuring three more. A mass shooting in Uvalde (Texas) left two teachers and 19 students dead ten days later. By Sunday evening of this week, activists and policy aides were circulating broad documents about what was coming—and what was not—as lawmakers and their aides struck an ambitious informal deadline of passing this before the July 4 holiday recess.

Twenty lawmakers said they came to a deal that included gun control restrictions, but also unspecified funds for school safety and mental health. The Democrats’ demands for universal background checks and an increase in the minimum age that some weapons can be purchased, as well as a ban against assault rifles, were dropped by negotiators. No one admittedly loves the result, but as President Joe Biden says often, it’s better to judge an outcome based not on the Almighty but on the alternative, and in this case, that means more years of nothing.

Biden stated that he is looking forward to signing this deal. However, this optimism is contrary to reality and goodwill, which are in short supply.

The tentative agreement does not contain any legislation text. This means that the framework of the bill remains pliable. In a process of drafting that can take weeks, there are many things that could go wrong. Even though 10 Republicans have signed the release, bipartisan efforts to make minor changes in the agreement are not uncommon once the GOP base has been activated.

Lest anyone in either camp starts celebrating, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s statement said he supported the effort, but stopped well short of saying he would back the end result. “I continue to hope their discussions yield a bipartisan product that makes significant headway on key issues like mental health and school safety, respects the Second Amendment, earns broad support in the Senate, and makes a difference for our country,” McConnell said.

This is despite the fact that there are many grumbles from Democrats regarding the terms of the compromise. Despite Nancy Pelosi (House Speaker), Chuck Schumer (Senate Majority Leader) and Biden all stating that they would like to see the final result become law, Democrats have very narrow margins. The seven House vacancies mean that they cannot afford to lose even five votes, which puts all of their efforts in danger.

It is still missing 10 Republicans from the Senate, which has a 50-50 split. This will allow it to pass almost all pieces of legislation through the hurdle of 60 votes and then vote.

While the tentative agreement commits to spending “billions” on school safety and a national network of mental health clinics, the exact funding number is still unknown. Other money, as agreed to on Sunday, will be available for states to implement their own programs to temporarily take away guns from an individual who may pose be a risk—a non-starter in a lot of the country states, much as Obamacare’s Medicare expansion is still absent in 12 states. So states with gun limits can tighten them up, but states who embrace firearm culture can ignore a lot.

As for background checks beyond gun stores—such as private sales or gun shows—they would remain a mixed bag. Some private sellers will have to begin background checks while others could still avoid them, according to the proposal. With the current state of affairs, universal checks will be something Washington may need to reconsider. (It’s not like the FBI can even keep up with its current background check log.)

Finally, the rosy hopes assume the negotiators themselves fully understand what they have drawn up, and have faith that unhappy constituents won’t punish them too harshly. A top McConnell whisperer, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, joined the talks on the Republican side, and he’s about as attuned to the party’s sentiments as they come, so it’s a good bet the framework doesn’t go too far—at least at the moment. The GOP’s back-and forth with Sen. Chris Murphy, the Connecticut lead Democratic negotiator was led by Sen. Thom Tillis, North Carolina. He will soon be retiring and will miss Washington.

Actually, the voters will not see any of the 10 Republicans that backed the framework. Four are leaving Congress when this term ends, and another five aren’t up for re-election for at least four more years. Utah’s Sen. Mitt Romney is the sole lawmaker to have backed the agreement and will be on 2024’s ballot.

That space gave Republicans some insulation from the inevitable heat that is on deck from fellow lawmakers—and their allies and lobbyists—who see any erosion of gun rights as unacceptable. While the NRA is not as powerful as it once was, the gun industry’s favorite vehicle or its allies can still complicate GOP primaries with plenty of its ferocity. Guns are an excellent option for a group outside looking to get the GOP base excited.

Washington seems to love this gun debate. In a country that has more guns than people, it’s clearly a resonant issue. After every one of these mass shootings, there’s a call for more protections for bystanders, especially children. Very little changes, though, and the reason is simple: it’s risky.

While the Republicans involved won’t have to face voters soon, it’s a different story for Democrats. This year, two senators will face voters: Senator Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut and Sen. Mark Kelly in Arizona. Democrats seldom punish their own for wavering on Second Amendment rights, especially when it’s personal. Blumenthal represents a state that saw 20 students and six teachers fatally shot in Newtown, Conn., and Kelly’s wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords, survived an assassination attempt. For them, the risk with voters would be inaction, and until that’s the case with more lawmakers, half-measures might be as good as Washington can muster.

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