A bipartisan group of Senate negotiators is set to announce Sunday that it reached a tentative agreement on legislation that would pair modest new gun restrictions with significant new mental health and school security investments — a deal that could put Congress on a path to enacting the most significant national response in decades to acts of mass gun violence.
The framework deal was confirmed Sunday by three people involved in the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss their status ahead of a formal announcement, which is expected midday.
While substantially weaker than the assault weapons ban, high-capacity ammunition magazine restrictions and broad background check expansions that most Democrats support, the gun provisions set out in the framework could, if enacted, represent the most significant new federal firearms restrictions enacted since the mid-1990s.
Under the tentative deal, a federal grant program would encourage states to establish “red flag” laws that allow authorities to keep guns away from people found by a judge to represent a potential threat to themselves or others, while federal criminal background checks for gun buyers under 21 would include a mandatory search of juvenile justice records for the first time.
It does not include a provision supported by President Biden, congressional Democrats and a handful of Republicans that would raise the minimum age for the purchase of at least some rifles from 18 to 21. Handguns are already subject to a federal 21-and-over age limit.
Other provisions could funnel billions of new federal dollars into mental health care and school security programs, funding new campus infrastructure and armed officers. Several senators last week said they expected one cornerstone of the deal would be legislation sponsored by Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) to establish a nationwide network of “community behavioral health clinics.”
The announcement Sunday represents the fruit of a crash bipartisan effort launched in the days after the May 24 killing of 19 children and two teachers inside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex., which itself came 10 days after another shocking mass shooting inside a Buffalo supermarket.
It also comes one day after thousands attended pro-gun-control rallies across the country organized by the student-led March for Our Lives group, including a Washington event on the National Mall.
Ahead of Sunday’s announcement, senators publicly sketched out a negotiating position in general terms.
Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who has led Democrats’ efforts on gun legislation since the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., said during an anti-gun-violence rally Friday that he was determined to break congressional stasis on gun legislation, but not at any cost: “I’m not interested in doing something unless that’s something is going to save lives, unless that something’s going to be impactful and meaningful.”
Meanwhile, John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who has an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association, said last week that he is interested in forging a compromise, but only if it preserves gun owners’ rights under the Second Amendment.
“This is not about creating new restrictions on law-abiding citizens,” he said. “It’s about ensuring that the system we already have in place works as intended.”
Key pitfalls remain: Only a handful of the 50 Republican senators were involved in the negotiating group, and under the Senate’s filibuster rule, at least 10 would have to join with the 50 members of the Democratic caucus to advance any legislation. Red-flag laws, in particular, have raised many conservative Republicans’ hackles, though negotiators said last week they believed there would be sufficient GOP support to pass any deal.
The people involved in the talks said it remained unclear how many senators would ultimately sign the statement Sunday morning. One said there were still hopes of having at least 10 Republicans on board, signaling a clear path to passage.
Furthermore, the framework set to be announced Sunday amounts to a statement of principles, not a fully written bill. While people involved in the process said last week that significant chunks of the legislation have already been written, new points of friction frequently arise in Congress as the drafting process is finalized.
“The details will be critical for Republicans, particularly the firearms-related provisions,” said a GOP aide familiar with the talks. “One or more of these principles could be dropped if text is not agreed to.”
Biden, who gave a White House address earlier this month calling for tough new firearms restrictions, voiced support for the rallies and for “commonsense gun safety legislation” Saturday in a Twitter post: “I join them by repeating my call to Congress: do something.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) signaled Friday that the Democratic-controlled House would move to enact whatever bill the Senate managed to pass. “If it’s life-saving and can make a difference, and they have bipartisan support for it, then we would welcome it, even though it won’t be everything that we want,” she said at a news conference.
The House has already passed four gun-related bills that go considerably further than the tentative Senate deal. Last year, lawmakers passed a bill expanding federal background checks to all commercial transactions, including those conducted at gun shows and over the internet, as well as a measure extending the period the FBI has to complete background checks for gun buyers.
Also last week, in response to the recent shootings, the House passed bills that banned sales of many semiautomatic rifles to those under 21, banned high-capacity magazines and promoted red-flag laws in both state and federal courts.
None of those bills has the requisite Republican support to pass the Senate.
The last substantial new federal gun control laws were passed in the mid-1990s — the “Brady bill” of 1993, which created the national instant background check system, and the assault weapons ban of 1994, which outlawed some military-style semiautomatic rifles and handguns. The latter bill expired 10 years later and has not been renewed.
In recent decades, Washington has acted mainly to expand gun rights. In 2005, for instance, Congress immunized the firearms industry against product liability lawsuits, and in 2008, the Supreme Court enshrined an individual’s right to possess guns in the landmark case D.C. v. Heller. A 2013 push in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting to expand background checks to cover more gun transactions, including gun-show and internet sales, fell six votes short in the Senate.
The Senate returns to session Monday, and while Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) did not lay out any ultimatums last week on timing, he urged the negotiators to act quickly.
in an interview Thursday, Murphy said he believed that the chamber had two weeks left to act — before lawmakers leave Washington for a two-week Independence Day recess.
But meeting even that timeline would require a framework for a deal to be put in place quickly, Murphy said, citing the likelihood that gun-rights supporters in the Senate would seek to erect procedural hurdles to any potential legislation.
“We can’t come to agreement the last week we’re here,” he said. “There are people in the Senate that are no doubt going to use every rule available to them to hold this up and slow it down.”