Nine years after Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (DW.Va.) struck an agreement to expand background checks that most Republicans rejected on the Senate floor, the current bipartisan group is focused on significant yet more modest reforms that can win 60 votes in the chamber. One proposal under discussion is changing background checks for people younger than 21 — by opening up their juvenile records to more scrutiny or enacting a waiting period for their firearm purchases — according to one person with direct knowledge of the talks.
“It seems to me that if … you have mental health problems, if that happened when you’re a juvenile … maybe there’s some way to get access to that information to inform the background check system,” Cornyn said in an interview Monday. “It’s a little tricky because obviously in many states those records are sealed and even expunged. But there’s 100 different ideas out there and that’s just one of them.”
The small-group talks are fluid, and no final decision has been made. But if successful, such an idea would amount to the most substantive reforms to the background checks system in decades. In the evenly divided Senate, any such proposal would need the support of at least 10 Republican senators, a high bar that members in the gun safety group still think could be achievable.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is close to Cornyn and on Monday continued to encourage the talks, meeting with the Texan one-on-one in the afternoon. McConnell said “I hope so” when asked about the prospects of an agreement this week.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Monday stressed the importance of a deadline on the negotiations, referencing the still-stalled talks on Democrats’ signature climate-and-jobs bill. He said “the failure to have a real finite deadline led us on and on and on month after month and we ended up empty handed.”
“I’m trying not to be cynical about it,” Durbin added of ongoing negotiations. “The problem is so overwhelming, I’m afraid we are going to fall short of what I believe we should do. But I don’t want to give up on any step forward to reduce gun violence.”
The group is also looking at providing states with more resources to set up so-called red flag laws that allow law enforcement to temporarily confiscate firearms from any individual deemed a threat to himself or others. Lawmakers are also discussing how much money to provide for new mental health programs and to increase school security.
There are other senators involved in the talks. A larger group includes Murphy, Sinema, Manchin, Toomey as well as Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Martin Heinrich (DN.M.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Lindsey Graham (RS.C.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). The Democratic caucus and Republican conference will hold larger discussions on the topic starting on Tuesday.
Some Republicans might be able to stomach portions of a gun package, though perhaps not all of it. In a recent interview, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said that he could support expanding threat assessments, making it easier for states to pass their own red flag laws and making permanent federal guidelines for safe schools.
But he dismissed the impact of expanded background checks and said raising the age to buy some firearms to 21 could prompt constitutional questions: “We don’t even know if this is constitutional, it can be struck down. So I don’t think there’s any single proposal that solves all of this.”
“What I’m arguing is that the things the other side is proposing wouldn’t stop any of these things,” Rubio said. “We already have background checks, all these guns are being bought at licensed retailers.”
Murphy suggests over the weekend on CNN that the group needs to make a decision “in the next five days” about whether or not a package can come together. Urgency to act often subsides on Capitol Hill as memories fade over recent shootings, and it’s been nearly two weeks since the shooting of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas.
“Time is their biggest enemy, because there are so many other issues that the public is concerned about,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) in a recent interview. “There’s the onrush of the fall elections, there’s the natural difficulty passing any compromised legislation in the Senate and there’s the distraction of lots of other issues.”
Democrats are worried that Republicans will want to hold negotiations open longer than Democrats believe is necessary to clinch a deal. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said last month that he would give senators some room to work out a compromise, but also said the Senate will eventually vote on gun safety legislation.
Cornyn on Monday warned against setting an “arbitrary” timeline.
“My hope is that, in the next couple of weeks, we could do something but around here it’s like pushing a wet rope, you can’t dictate the timetable,” he said. “I get the sense that there is some urgency felt … This is very much on people’s minds. And so I think that will help us get to a result.”