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Cruz, Cornyn in lockstep on gun votes but diverge on tone

Republican Sens. John Cornyn, left, and Ted Cruz, far right, both of Texas, arrive at a news conference at Uvalde High School on May 25. (Sergio Flores/FTWP)
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Texas’s two senators — Ted Cruz and John Cornyn — have similar positions on gun legislation. Both have received “A+” ratings from the National Rifle Association’s political arm. Both have opposed efforts to tighten restrictions on firearms, including the banning of assault rifles and the limiting of high-capacity magazine sales.

But in the wake of Tuesday’s mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex. — the second-deadliest K-12 school shooting in American history — Cornyn and Cruz have struck markedly different tones while adopting contrasting roles.

Cornyn, 70, the state’s senior senator, had been scheduled to speak at Friday’s NRA annual meeting in Houston. He pulled out ahead of the shooting for personal reasons requiring him to be in Washington, a spokesperson said.

Cruz, 51, went ahead with plans to speak at the event Friday. In his remarks, he called the Uvalde shooting “the ultimate nightmare for every parent” and accused Democrats of seeking to use the massacre as a pretext to “disarm Americans.”

“Ultimately, as we all know, what stops armed bad guys is armed good guys,” he said.

Cruz also hailed the “Border Patrol tactical unit who finally killed the Uvalde monster” — but did not address the questions at the heart of the authorities’ shooting response, including the fact that armed officers waited outside the classrooms for more than 50 minutes while the shooter was still inside.

State and local lawmakers on both sides of the aisle commented on the events surrounding a mass school shooting in Uvalde, Tex., on May 24. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

One day earlier, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had tapped Cornyn to negotiate with Democrats on possible but not probable gun legislation, deputizing the former member of Senate GOP leadership.

“Maybe this will provide some impetus” for compromise, Cornyn told reporters at the Capitol on Thursday. “This is horrible. Hard to imagine anything that could be worse than parents worrying about the safety of their kids going to school.”

Cruz, meanwhile, was making international headlines for storming away from a British journalist after being asked why mass shootings take place “only in America.” The exchange took place as Cruz was attending a vigil in Texas for the 19 children and two adults killed in the massacre.

Pressed on restrictions on guns, Cruz said this week: “That doesn’t work. It’s not effective. It doesn’t prevent crime.”

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After mass shootings in previous years, both Cruz and Cornyn have issued statements that have almost always omitted the mention of guns. But Cornyn — a former Texas attorney general and state Supreme Court justice who has long courted and enjoyed strong support from gun rights organizations — has in the past been open to working across the aisle on certain gun-related legislation.

Cornyn is the lead author of the bill that the NRA considers to be one of its most important congressional priorities — the Constitutional Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, which would allow gun owners who are permitted to carry a concealed weapon in their own state to do so in any other state, as well.

While gun-rights supporters say the bill is necessary to safeguard gun owners from a patchwork of varying state laws, supporters of gun control argue that the bill would effectively gut state laws restricting concealed carry.

Still, Cornyn has been a frequent and willing interlocutor for Democrats on potential gun compromises. He was, in fact, the architect of the only remotely significant gun-related legislation to emerge from the Senate in the past decade, 2018′s Fix NICS Act.

In November 2017, a former Air Force airman opened fire at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., killing more than two dozen people. The Air Force came under scrutiny after it was discovered that the gunman, Devin Patrick Kelley, had been convicted of domestic assault but that the military had never reported that conviction to the FBI for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, as was required. If they had done so, Kelley would not have been able to pass a background check and likely “would have been deterred from carrying out the Church shooting,” a federal judge wrote last year.

In the months after the Sutherland Springs shooting, Cornyn teamed up with Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, both of Connecticut, to craft and push the Fix NICS bill to reinforce that reporting requirement to the FBI’s background check system and to create financial incentives for states to do so. Then-President Donald Trump signed the bill into law in March 2018.

The bill was carefully written and messaged as a strengthening of current law, not an expansion of it.

Murphy said when it was introduced that “much more needs to be done” but that the bill “represents the strongest update to the background checks system in a decade and provides the foundation for more compromise in the future.”

While some hard-line groups such as Gun Owners of America came out strongly against the bill, the NRA quietly supported it, noting that it would “not add any new disqualifications to federal law” and was “concerned entirely with enforcing the current prohibitions.”

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“After the tragedy in Sutherland Springs, I vowed to that community to do what I could so no family, school, or congregation would have to go through that again,” Cornyn said in a statement at the time. “While it’s not the only solution, I’m confident this bill will save lives. I’m grateful for the many advocates and families affected by gun violence who came together behind this effort to finally fix and strengthen the criminal background check system.”

It would not, however, be the last time a family, school or congregation in Texas would suffer through a mass shooting. Less than two months later, in May 2018, a 17-year-old student with a shotgun and a pistol went on a rampage at Santa Fe High School, outside Houston, killing eight students and two teachers. And in August 2019, a gunman who later said he was targeting “Mexicans” drove to El Paso and opened fire in a Walmart, killing 23 people.

Cornyn was a key backer of another bill aimed at federal background checks, which would require the Justice Department to notify local law enforcement of a failed background check within 24 hours for further investigation. That measure attracted bipartisan co-sponsors and was included in the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization bill that President Biden signed into law in March.

But another recent effort, launched last year after Democrats won the Senate majority and threatened to pass more expansive gun control bills, did not pan out.

It was aimed at expanding the universe of federal background checks by clarifying the definition of who is required to register as a federal firearms dealer and thus process background checks. This would go some way toward closing what is frequently called the “gun show loophole” or “private seller loophole” that has been exploited by some mass shooters, such as the gunman who killed six people in 2019 in West Texas.

Cornyn and Murphy engaged on the topic in March 2021 and expressed optimism that a deal was in sight. But some gun rights groups told their members that Cornyn was preparing to sell them out behind closed doors.

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“If John Cornyn, who represents the state of TEXAS, is already considering stabbing gun owners in the back, then you know that we’re truly in a DIRE situation,” one email from Gun Owners of America read.

By June, Murphy told reporters that a deal simply was not going to come together: What Cornyn was willing to give on would not “meaningfully increase the number of gun sales that require background checks.” And so died the last significant bipartisan gun talks in the Senate — until this week.

“I’m not taking anything off the table except for denying people their constitutional rights who are law-abiding citizens,” Cornyn said Thursday.

In contrast to Cornyn, Cruz has taken a more combative approach in the days since the Uvalde massacre. The junior senator from Texas ran unsuccessfully for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 and has hinted that he may pursue another bid in 2024. Cornyn, the former Senate Republican whip, was reelected in 2020 and has not signaled any ambitions beyond possibly succeeding McConnell as Senate GOP leader someday.

As Texas solicitor general in 2008, Cruz led 31 states in an amicus brief opposing the District of Columbia’s handgun ban. And after joining the Senate in 2013, he frequently touted his efforts to oppose Democratic-led gun control proposals spurred by mass shootings.

Last year, Cruz joined more than two dozen House Republicans in asking the Biden administration to lift sanctions on ammunition imported from Russia, according to a letter obtained by The Washington Post. The group accused the administration of using the sanctions as a means to enact gun control measures and argued that it would exacerbate a shortage of ammunition.

“Until we receive a response, we will have to presume that this ban is an attempt to restrict Americans’ right to bear arms — bypassing Congress to implement gun control,” they wrote.

On Wednesday, while attending a vigil for the Uvalde victims, Cruz upbraided a British journalist who had pressed him for answers on why mass shootings are a problem in America.

“Why only in America? Why is this American exceptionalism so awful?” asked the journalist, Mark Stone of Britain’s Sky News.

“You know, I’m sorry you think American exceptionalism is awful,” Cruz responded. “You’ve got your political agenda. God love you.” He also accused Stone of being a “propagandist.”

Cruz’s office later defended the senator’s actions, arguing that “contrary to a reporter’s assertion that suggested mass shootings are a uniquely American problem, the data shows that is not accurate.”

“In addition to not being true, making that false argument isn’t actually helpful,” Cruz spokeswoman Maria Jeffrey Reynolds said. She also pointed to legislation Cruz has introduced to reinforce school safety and improve background checks.

Cruz has also been one of several Republicans to come under criticism for seeking to shift the focus away from the number of guns in America to the number of doors at American schools.

“You want to talk about the horror that played out across the street? Look, the killer entered here the same way the killer entered in Santa Fe — through a back door, an unlocked back door,” Cruz told reporters Wednesday outside Robb Elementary School.

He argued that future mass shootings could be avoided by having “one door that goes in and out of the school [and] having armed police officers at that door.”

Timothy Bella, Leigh Ann Caldwell and Adela Suliman contributed to this report.

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