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U.S. senators reach deal on gun legislation in aftermath of Uvalde shooting

FILE - Protesters chant slogans outside the George R. Brown Convention Center to protest the National Rifle Association annual meeting in Houston, May 27, 2022.
Jae C. Hong
Associated Press
FILE - Protesters chant slogans outside the George R. Brown Convention Center to protest the National Rifle Association annual meeting in Houston, May 27, 2022.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, was one of the lead negotiators for the proposal, which would expand background checks for people under 21 and encourage states to enact “red flag” laws. President Joe Biden and House Democrats had wanted to go further.

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of U.S. senators, including Texan John Cornyn, announced Sunday the framework for a legislative deal to address gun violence in the aftermath of the May 24 mass shooting that left 19 children and two teachers dead at a Uvalde elementary school.

The tentative deal, for which Cornyn was the lead negotiator, includes a mix of modest gun control proposals and funding for mental health. It would incentivize states to pass “red flag” laws, which are designed to keep guns out of the hands of individuals who pose a threat to themselves or others; boost funding for mental health services, telehealth resources and more school security; permit juvenile records to be incorporated into background checks for purchasers under the age of 21; and crack down on the straw purchase and trafficking of guns.

“Today, we are announcing a commonsense, bipartisan proposal to protect America’s children, keep our schools safe, and reduce the threat of violence across our country,” read a joint statement from the bipartisan negotiating group that included Cornyn and nine other Republican senators. “Our plan increases needed mental health resources, improves school safety and support for students, and helps ensure dangerous criminals and those who are adjudicated as mentally ill can’t purchase weapons.

“Most importantly, our plan saves lives while also protecting the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans,” the news release stated. “We look forward to earning broad, bipartisan support and passing our commonsense proposal into law.”

Sources involved with the negotiations caution there is not yet legislative text to the deal and its prospects remain fragile as the Senate heads into what is expected to be a frenetic week. That 10 Republican senators signed onto the plan adds confidence that a potential bill will overcome the 60-vote threshold needed to bypass a filibuster threat.

The 10 Republican senators are Cornyn, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Rob Portman of Ohio and Mitt Romney of Utah.

On Twitter, President Joe Biden signaled support for the proposal.

“It does not do everything that I think is needed, but it reflects important steps in the right direction,” he said. “With bipartisan support, there are no excuses for delay. Let’s get this done.”

Cornyn, who touts an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association, on Sunday seemed eager to defend the package from any potential conservative pushback. On Twitter, he accepted an invitation to appear on the radio show of conservative commentator Dana Loesch, a former NRA spokesperson who is opposed to red flag laws, to discuss the proposal. He also seemed to suggest that the measure might have prevented the Uvalde shooting.

“Enhanced background check of juvenile court, police, and mental health records likely would have disclosed what everyone in the community knew,” he wrote. “The shooter was a ticking time bomb.”

By leaving the issue of red flag laws to the state, the senators made it unlikely that one would go into effect in Texas. Gov. Greg Abbott briefly floated the idea after the 2018 mass shooting at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas. But he soon abandoned it after he said he observed a “coalescence” in the Texas Legislature against the proposal. Since then, the Legislature has been aggressive in expanding gun rights, including passing a law allowing people to carry handguns without a license.

Over the last two decades, there are few challenges that have stymied the U.S. Senate quite on the scale of regulating firearms. But in the weeks since massacres in Uvalde and Buffalo, many senators have professed a determination to find a path to pass a gun bill.

The proposal falls short of gun control advocates’ calls for measures like raising the age at which people can buy AR-15-style weapons from 18 to 21. But it won praise for many groups, given how hard it has been to pass any kind of gun control legislation in recent years. The groups Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action said in a press release that the framework “would provide the basis for the first major federal gun safety law in nearly 26 years.”

The U.S. House passed last week a package of gun regulation bills that are all but certain to fail in the Senate. The measures would have raised the purchasing age for semi-automatic rifles and banned high-capacity magazines.

Democrats are signaling that nearly any Senate-passed gun bill — even a modest one — will receive a positive reception in the House chamber. On Sunday afternoon, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released a statement confirming as much.

“While more is needed, this package will take steps to save lives,” she said, praising the red flag component specifically. But she also indicated a desire for measures that are not in this deal.

“As we move forward on this bipartisan framework, we are continuing to fight for more life-saving measures: including universal background checks, banning high-capacity magazines and raising the age to buy assault weapons, which must also become law,” she said.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he would bring the bill to the Senate floor as soon as possible.

Abby Livingston joined the Tribune in 2014 as the publication's first Washington Bureau Chief. Previously, she covered political campaigns, House leadership and Congress for Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper. A seventh-generation Texan, Abby graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. She grew up in Fort Worth and has appeared in an episode of "The Bold and The Beautiful." Abby pitched and produced political segments for CNN and worked as an editor for The Hotline, National Journal’s campaign tipsheet. Abby began her journalism career as a desk assistant at NBC News in Washington, working her way up to the political unit, where she researched stories for Nightly News, the Today Show and Meet the Press. In keeping with the Trib’s great history of hiring softball stars, Abby is a three-time MVP (the most in game history —Ed.) for The Bad News Babes, the women’s press softball team that takes on female members of Congress in the annual Congressional Women’s Softball breast cancer charity game.