Congress has spent decades trying, and failing, to agree on major gun reforms, but some lawmakers say now is a time to try again.
The chances of success are extremely slim, despite the horrific murder Tuesday of at least 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. There is little agreement between Democrats and Republicans on fundamental changes to background check laws, let alone broader measures to limit access to guns in the country.
Still, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told NPR’s All Things Considered that he was working with both sides to try to find common ground.
“Maybe I’m a fool to be the eternal optimist, but I’m going to stick with it for the next few days, next week,” Murphy said.
The senses. Susan Collins, R-Maine and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., are among the Republicans who say they are talking to Murphy about taking action. Murphy says it’s a start, but he’s far from convinced he can find enough Republicans to join Democrats in securing the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
“As we speak, we’re trying to find a process by which over the next week Republicans and Democrats — a group of us — can sit down and try to find a compromise,” Murphy said. at NPR. “The odds are, well, less than 50-50 that we’ll find that compromise because there’s probably four or five Republicans who would quite easily support some common sense measures. It’s harder to find the next five.”
Murphy said one option could be a federal law allowing police or family members to request the temporary removal of firearms from a gun owner who may pose a threat. Some states have enacted different versions of these so-called “red flag” laws, but there is no nationwide option.
Limited changes to background check laws are another possible target for bipartisan talks.
“Maybe a small expansion of a background check system that would generate more sales, but not all sales, would check people’s criminal and mental health backgrounds,” Murphy said. “You know, those are the places where we might be able to get some compromise and I understand that’s not enough.”
A story of failure, despite repeated tragedies
Murphy has worked for a decade, since the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, to advance gun control measures in Congress. He was elected to the Senate a month before 26 people, including 20 children under the age of seven, were shot and killed at the school in the district he had represented in the House.
Murphy said he had “no idea what to say to these parents.”
“Unfortunately, there is a community of victims from Sandy Hook to Parkland to Charleston who can help you understand how they are dealing with this grief,” Murphy said. “But I also want them to know that there are people here in Washington who are not going to give up, who are going to try to honor the memory of these children through action.”
Sandy Hook Promise, a group founded and led by families of victims of that shooting, estimates that about 12 children die every day from gun violence in the United States. Nearly 950 school shootings have occurred since the Sandy Hook shooting.
Gun laws in the country have remained virtually unchanged since that time.
Frustrated senators struggle to find common ground on guns
Many senators, Democrats in particular, were furious that gun control still had virtually no chance of success.
Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Arizona, fumed to reporters on Capitol Hill on Wednesday at the prospect of further congressional inaction.
“How many parents must have found out yesterday that their child was murdered in their classroom and to think that the feds wouldn’t do anything about it is just crazy,” Kelly said. “It’s ****** crazy not to do anything about it.”
Kelly has a deeply personal connection to gun violence and gun control advocacy. His wife, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, was shot in the head during a “Congress on Your Corner” event in her home state of Arizona.
Giffords survived but is permanently weakened. Six other people died in the shooting. Giffords and Kelly started the gun advocacy group Americans for Responsible Solutions in 2013, seven years before Kelly ran for the Senate.
Democrats often blame Republicans, saying they need GOP votes to overcome a filibuster. The only other option for legislative action is for the 50 senators who vote with Democrats to unite to end or change the filibuster.
But gun control is another issue — like abortion rights, climate change, police reform and voting reform — where Democrats lack unanimity.
Sen. Joe Manchin, DW.Va., remains opposed to voting to end the filibuster, for whatever reason. He told reporters on Wednesday that he wanted to pass consensual firearms measures. Manchin said eliminating the filibuster for controversial legislation incentivizes Republicans to use that same lower vote requirement to overturn the policy if and when they take control of the Senate in the future.
“Everyone wants to do ‘filibuster, filibuster, filibuster, get rid of it, that’s the easy way out,'” Manchin said. “What makes you say they won’t back down immediately if they don’t like what we’re doing?”
Manchin isn’t the only Democrat who has been reluctant to support more aggressive changes to gun laws, such as banning assault weapons or limiting the capacity of high-volume cartridges.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said lawmakers need to start with small changes, like background checks, because those are the bills that have a chance of passing.
“We’re talking about background checks,” Tester told a group of reporters. “We’re talking about something more than that, I think we’re just being dumb, because it won’t pass if you can’t get a background check.”
When asked why it would be foolish to try more aggressive legislation, Tester became visibly frustrated.
“Children were killed yesterday, for God’s sake,” Tester shouted. “Let’s talk about what can be done. Let’s talk about what can be done.”
A distant hope of consensus
Some Republicans agree with Murphy that red flag laws and background checks are the most likely targets for compromise.
But not all Republicans agree on which elements of these bills should be dealt with at the federal level. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, told reporters that states should consider limits like red flag laws and leave other matters to Congress.
“The federal government should take responsibility for improving our ability to do background checks,” Romney said. “Gun laws and the processes to enforce them should be managed at the state level.”
For Collins, red flag laws and other interventions to get guns out of the hands of people with mental illness would help reduce the number of shootings.
“That’s the kind of law that could have made a difference in this case,” Collins said. “I really think we should focus on what some states have done regarding red flag laws or yellow flag laws.”
Others, like Sen. Mike Rounds, RS.D., were unable to identify which federal interventions they thought would help.
“Congress has tried for years to do different things, but in each particular case, if somebody wants to break a law, they’re going to break a law,” Rounds said. “So if you make a law and they break the law, you’re saying Congress did nothing.”
This lack of agreement has led to a desperation familiar to some. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., was blunt.
“It’s a bad day for anything even remotely resembling hope or optimism around the legislative process or progress,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill. “Usually I want to be more optimistic. But I don’t think that will change.”
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