Senate negotiators have sketched the outlines of a bill to address gun violence and respond to recent mass shootings in Buffalo, NY, and Uvalde, Texas, but they haven’t yet nailed down the crucial details that will determine whether the legislation can get 60 votes to pass.
There’s rough consensus among a group of Democratic and Republican senators that the legislation should encourage states to set up red flag laws to remove guns from dangerous people, strengthen the national criminal background check system and provide money for mental health treatment.
There’s also bipartisan discussion about encouraging safe storage of firearms and further regulating people who sell large numbers of weapons without obtaining a Federal Firearms License, which would require them to conduct background checks for all sales.
Members of the extended bipartisan negotiating group on Wednesday expressed optimism about agreeing to a framework of principles by week’s end.
“It was a constructive conversation. I’m optimistic we have a path forward,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said after emerging from a midday meeting in the Capitol basement.
“I’m hopeful,” he added. “A series of concrete proposals were discussed that will make a significant difference, and I’m hopeful that in the next day that will all be reduced to a framework that includes [a] broad range of commitment in terms of dollar amount [and] purposes.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), a member of the negotiating group, estimated the mental health section of the bill is 80 percent resolved.
Negotiators say they want to “scale up” the pilot program created by the 2014 Excellence in Mental Health and Addiction Treatment Act to fund community behavioral health clinics.
Statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services show that people who receive services at these clinics are much less likely to spend time in jail or become homeless.
Republican and Democratic negotiators say there is strong support for giving the National Instant Criminal Background Check System access to the juvenile crime records of people between the ages of 18 and 21.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) on Wednesday suggests that Salvador Ramos, the 18-year-old gunman who killed 21 people in Uvalde, was able to pass a background check because his juvenile record was not flagged.
“Because there was no look back at his juvenile record, he passed a background check. It’s as if he was born on his 18th birthday and nothing that happened before was important. That’s obviously a problem,” Cornyn said on the floor.
The senior Texas senator highlighted mental health treatment as one of the negotiating group’s top priorities.
“To me, the shootings are a symptom of a larger problem, which is the failure of our mental health system in America,” he said.
Cornyn later cautioned that a proposal sponsored by Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) to scale up funding for community mental health and addiction services will cost a lot of money.
Sen. Thom Tillis (RN.C.) said negotiators are looking at $7 billion to boost mental health services and to strengthen and reform the criminal background check system, but other senators say the numbers are still fluid.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who is working on a proposal to encourage states to set up red flag laws, said that section of the bill will send “hundreds of millions of dollars” to the states.
Republicans in the group say they will insist on offsetting the cost of the gun violence package with reductions in other federal spending.
“If we can find offsets for the spending then I think that helps us get the votes we need, and plus I think that’s fiscally responsible,” Cornyn said.
While there is a growing consensus among the bipartisan group of Senate negotiators about what should be in a bill that comes to the floor, other Republicans are starting to push back against the talks.
Several GOP senators on Wednesday raised concerns about the direction of the talks, signaling that a large number of Republicans will likely vote against the bill.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) on Wednesday said putting new restrictions on gun ownership would be the wrong approach. He argued that restricting access to guns would be tantamount to banning planes in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“Airplanes were used that day as the weapons to kill thousands of people and inflict terror on our country. There wasn’t a conversation about banning airplanes,” Scalise said at a press conference.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (DN.Y.) said he will give negotiators at least until the end of the week to come up with a bipartisan framework to address gun violence.
“These bipartisan talks deserve the space they need to produce meaningful results, and so I hope my colleagues continue to make progress towards an effective agreement, hopefully by the end of the week,” he said Wednesday.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that many members of his conference want to see the bipartisan group reach a deal, but he cautioned, as he has before, that the proposed reforms must respond directly to the mass shooting in Uvalde.
Sen. Chris Murphy (Conn.), the lead Democratic negotiator, told reporters: “We’re in the process of bringing everybody together around a common set of reforms.”
“I remain confident we can get an agreement,” he said. “Red flags, improving the background check system, mental health funding remains the framework.”
“There’s the most common ground around the mental health spending because it’s not as politically complicated,” he added.