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Opinion Why the gun deal won’t trigger a conservative revolt

Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on June 22. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
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One lesson of Donald Trump’s rise is that Republican leadership, if it is seen as ignoring rank-and-file conservatives as it tries to cut deals with Democrats, can lose its grip on the party. Anger at the bipartisan push for immigration reform in 2013 helped fuel Trump’s anti-immigration campaign in 2016.

So Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) know they are taking a political risk in supporting a gun-control compromise, which advanced in the Senate on Tuesday with the support of all 50 Democrats and just 14 Republicans. Populists on the right are blasting the legislation as a surrender to liberals and infringement on Second Amendment rights, and activists booed Cornyn at the recent Texas GOP convention.

But here’s a prediction: The GOP won’t muster a significant grass-roots political backlash to this bill, for the simple reason that it will have a minimal effect on the great mass of legal gun owners and buyers. Over the long run, the bill’s punitive sentencing provisions might be more likely to prompt a progressive backlash.

The gun buyers most directly affected by the legislation are those ages 18, 19 and 20 — a small group that is not a driving force in GOP politics. If the bill passes, buyers under 21 will be subject to a more intensive background check process, which could increase their wait time to 10 business days (from three) between buying a gun and picking it up.

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Some conservatives are denouncing the bill’s funding for red-flag laws — legal processes currently in effect in 19 states to remove guns from people deemed a danger to themselves or others. After local officials restricted liberty during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s understandable that GOP voters would be wary of expanding those officials’ prerogatives over Second Amendment rights.

Paul Waldman

counterpointBuried in the gun deal is a significant advance

But the legislation might not lead to a proliferation of red-flag laws beyond states that would have adopted them anyway. The bill also authorizes funding for mental health courts, drug courts and other “crisis intervention” programs, so states that decline to enact red-flag laws won’t have to lose out on federal cash. And those states that do use the money for red-flag laws will be required to rely on “heightened evidentiary standards and proof” and may not deny respondents the right to a lawyer.

The fact that the legislation is advancing just as the Supreme Court expands the scope of the Constitution’s Second Amendment protections also improves the political position of the GOP compromisers. The court’s decision striking down New York’s restrictions on concealed-carry licenses could allay conservative concerns about overweening local officials. It also implicitly puts McConnell and Cornyn back on the side of the GOP base in defending gun rights against progressive criticism.

The Supreme Court on June 23 said New York's gun law was too restrictive and violated the right to carry firearms outside the home for self-defense. (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post, Photo: Erik S Lesser/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock/The Washington Post)

Most legislation has unforeseen consequences, and this gun-control bill could increase incarceration, especially among minorities. Lying on federal forms to get a gun is punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment under current law, but the Senate bill explicitly makes buying a gun for someone who is ineligible (an overlapping offense) punishable by up to 15 years. It also bars more people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from gun ownership. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, 56 percent of those convicted in 2021 of unlawfully possessing a firearm were Black. Don’t be surprised if a handful of House progressives balk on principle at this increased criminalization.

Of the 14 Republicans who voted to advance the gun bill, 12 are either retiring or not up for reelection until 2026, reflecting the GOP electorate’s coolness toward the initiative. That Republican leadership is willing to help it pass anyway contradicts progressive mythology that McConnell’s caucus is incorrigibly obstructionist and hyperpartisan. It’s hard to imagine a comparable contingent of Senate Democrats backing a GOP-driven policy change on a major culture-war issue.

McConnell likely hopes that the political effect of the gun bill will be similar to that of the Senate’s 2018 criminal justice reform or 2021 infrastructure package. Those centrist compromises were supported mostly by Democrats, but — in contrast to the ill-fated immigration compromise of 2013 — did not divide the Republican electorate in a lasting and explosive way. Early polling suggests he is right: The gun talks have not changed Cornyn’s approval rating among Texas Republicans, according to Morning Consult, though his disapproval rating in that group ticked up six points.

One major question, then, is how the passage of this legislation would affect the politics of gun control in the Democratic Party. It’s a terrible fact of American life that mass shootings will continue, even if the new gun-control measures and mental health resources help on the margins. Those tragedies will still create opportunities for liberals to accuse the Republican Party of complicity. But to moderate voters, after this compromise, those familiar accusations might look more like opportunistic bullying than they did before.


An earlier version of this column misstated the results of a U.S. Sentencing Commission report on the number of individuals in federal prison for unlawful possession of a firearm. This version has been updated.