There’s public pressure for elected officials to do something after two mass shootings over the weekend.
We should be skeptical about any gun-control legislation making it into federal law — especially because that requires it getting through a Republican-controlled Senate and a Republican president who is close with the National Rifle Association. But there are two ideas that have the potential for compromise, one of which seems to have a decent shot at becoming law.
It's known as a red-flag law.
What is a red-flag law? It’s a policy to allow family members to ask a judge to temporarily prevent someone from having firearms if they are concerned that the person is at risk of committing violence.
This has increased in popularity at the state level, particularly in Florida, where the Republican-controlled government passed it in response to the shooting at a Parkland high school last year. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have such a law in place, according to the Giffords gun-control group.
Why is Congress considering a red-flag law? Because one senator in particular has had his eye on this legislation even before the El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, shootings. A Republican senator.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) is a powerful proponent of some variant of this law, also known as an extreme risk protection order. He is head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and under him, in March, Senate Republicans held a hearing on it. Graham has argued that it’s a sensible solution to keep guns out of the wrong people’s hands.
"[W]hat’s clear to me is that recent tragedies in the United States are examples of a common problem — a failure to identify and lessen risk from individuals who may be showing signs of distress and the willingness to hurt themselves or others,” he said at the hearing in March.
How could a red-flag law get passed? The answer lies at the intersection of President Trump and Graham. Graham, perhaps most important, is a Trump ally.
As Trump addressed the nation Monday and floated the idea of a red-flag law, Graham said he is planning to introduce a bipartisan proposal with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) that would create incentives to help more states pass such laws.
One reason Republicans like this proposal is because it doesn’t create a federal law restricting gun access. It creates grants to help states set up these laws, and each state can adjust the restrictions to what it believes is best.
Congress hasn’t passed a law limiting people’s access to guns in more than two decades, since it created a national federal background check system in 1993.
What about expanding background checks? This is Democrats’ dream gun-control proposal, and it’s a potential — if faint — possibility.
Earlier this year, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed legislation to expand the federal background check system to include private gun sales and to extend the length of time the FBI has to conduct these background checks before a gun sale can happen. But it hasn’t even come up for a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Still, Trump opened the door slightly when he tweeted earlier Monday morning that “Republicans and Democrats must come together and get strong background checks.”
Also Monday, the authors of a bipartisan background-check bill said they talked with Trump about reviving their legislation to strengthen background checks. Sens. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) wrote a background-check compromise bill in 2013 that got a vote in the Senate. (It failed by six votes then.)
But Senate Republican leaders had no intention of taking up House Democrats’ background-check bill, so unless they are under intense pressure from Trump to consider something, it’s hard to see how that dynamic changes.
Trump has flip-flopped wildly on whether he wants tougher background checks. After the Parkland shooting in 2018, Trump went from wanting to “strengthen background checks” to wanting to arm teachers in a matter of days.
On Monday, after his tweet on background checks, he didn’t mention the legislation at all in his public remarks.
And as Laura Olson with the Morning Call pointed out, about one-quarter of senators who did vote for the Manchin-Toomey compromise in 2013 are no longer in the Senate. Most have been replaced by more conservative lawmakers.
Still, it’s rare after these not-so-rare mass shootings to have any significant prospect for a policy change. That it’s being called for by a Republican president and a prominent Republican senator represents an opening that could turn into a defining moment in the gun-control debate.
Correction: This post originally said mental illness is a factor used to take away someone’s gun, which is not usually the case in red-flag laws.