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Senators strike bipartisan gun deal, heralding potential breakthrough

Sens. Richard Blumenthal, left, and Chris Murphy, both Connecticut Democrats, at the opening of a gun violence memorial installation June 7 on the National Mall. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

A bipartisan group of senators announced Sunday that it had reached a tentative agreement on legislation that would pair modest new gun restrictions with significant new mental health and school security investments — a deal that could put Congress on a path to enacting the most significant national response in decades to acts of mass gun violence.

Twenty senators — 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans — signed a statement announcing the framework deal. The move indicated that the agreement could have enough GOP support to defeat a filibuster, the Senate supermajority rule that has impeded previous gun legislation.

“Families are scared, and it is our duty to come together and get something done that will help restore their sense of safety and security in their communities,” the statement read in part. “Most importantly, our plan saves lives while also protecting the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans.”

Under the tentative deal, a federal grant program would encourage states to implement red-flag laws that allow authorities to keep guns away from people found by a judge to represent a potential threat to themselves or others, while federal criminal background checks for gun buyers younger than 21 would include a mandatory search of juvenile justice and mental health records for the first time.

Other provisions would prevent gun sales to a broader group of domestic violence offenders, closing what is often called the “boyfriend loophole”; clarify which gun sellers are required to register as federal firearms dealers and, thus, run background checks on customers; and establish new federal offenses related to gun trafficking.

The agreement does not include a provision supported by President Biden, congressional Democrats and a handful of Republicans that would raise the minimum age for the purchase of at least some rifles from 18 to 21. Handguns are already subject to a federal 21-and-older rule.

Activists against gun violence said June 11 in Washington that their lives were directly affected by shootings and called for more restrictive gun laws. (Video: Hadley Green, Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post, Photo: Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/The Washington Post)

Sen. Chris Murphy (Conn.), the lead Democratic negotiator, said in an interview Sunday that the compromise would have detractors on both the right and the left but that it would ultimately make a “meaningful difference” in combating gun violence.

“This is also the moment where we break the logjam. This is the moment where this 30-year impasse is broken,” Murphy added. “I think folks are really anxious about the state of violence in this country, and they really want Washington to show that it can deliver.”

Other provisions would funnel billions of new federal dollars into mental health care and school security programs, funding behavioral intervention programs, new campus infrastructure and armed officers. One cornerstone of the deal is legislation sponsored by Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) to establish a nationwide network of “community behavioral health clinics,” though the framework does not yet include an agreed funding level for that program or others.

The announcement represents the fruit of various bipartisan efforts launched in the days after the May 24 killing of 19 children and two teachers inside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex., which itself came 10 days after a mass shooting at a Buffalo supermarket.

It also comes one day after thousands attended pro-gun-control rallies across the country organized by the student-led March for Our Lives group, including a Washington event on the National Mall. And Sunday was the sixth anniversary of one of the country’s deadliest mass shootings, the 2016 killing of 49 people inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

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Ahead of Sunday’s announcement, senators had publicly sketched out their negotiating positions in general terms.

Murphy, who has led Democrats’ efforts on gun legislation since the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., said during an anti-gun-violence rally Friday that he was determined to break congressional stasis on gun legislation, but not at any cost: “I’m not interested in doing something unless that something is going to save lives, unless that something’s going to be impactful and meaningful.”

Meanwhile, lead GOP negotiator John Cornyn (Tex.), who has an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association, said last week that he was interested in forging a compromise, but only if it preserves gun owners’ rights under the Second Amendment.

“This is not about creating new restrictions on law-abiding citizens,” he said. “It’s about ensuring that the system we already have in place works as intended.”

Key pitfalls remain: The framework announced Sunday amounts to a statement of principles, not a fully written bill. While people involved in the process said last week that significant chunks of the legislation have already been written, new points of friction frequently arise in Congress as the drafting process plays out.

Red-flag laws, in particular, have raised many conservative Republicans’ hackles, though negotiators said last week that they thought there would be sufficient GOP support to pass a deal. The boyfriend loophole and firearms licensee provisions have also been subject to previous bipartisan talks that did not produce agreements.

“The details will be critical for Republicans, particularly the firearms-related provisions,” said a GOP aide familiar with the talks. “One or more of these principles could be dropped if text is not agreed to.”

Money also stands to be a sticking point. The framework proposes funding commitments that could easily run into the billions of dollars, and Republicans want any new spending to be offset with cuts elsewhere in the federal budget, people involved in the negotiations said.

Those details have not been finalized, Murphy said Sunday, but he said the framework represented a “pretty good, firm agreement” that would not easily unravel.

Murphy, Cornyn and others had set an informal goal of passing a bill before June 24, when senators are set to leave Washington for a two-week recess, but with the legislation still not fully written, it remains unclear whether that goal can be met. Doing so, Murphy said, would require “herculean work.”

The Republican signers of Sunday’s statement were Cornyn and Sen. Thom Tillis (N.C.), who led the talks for the GOP, as well as Sens. Blunt, Richard Burr (N.C.), Bill Cassidy (La.), Susan M. Collins (Maine), Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), Rob Portman (Ohio), Mitt Romney (Utah) and Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.).

Democrats in the group included leaders Murphy and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), as well as Stabenow, Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Christopher A. Coons (Del.), Martin Heinrich (N.M.), Mark Kelly (Ariz.) and Joe Manchin III (W.Va.). Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, also signed.

Biden also indicated his support. “It does not do everything that I think is needed, but it reflects important steps in the right direction, and would be the most significant gun safety legislation to pass Congress in decades,” he said in a statement released by the White House on Sunday.

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Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he planned to “put this bill on the floor as soon as possible” once the legislative drafting is completed, a process that aides said could take several days or longer.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did not formally endorse the deal in a statement Sunday but offered encouragement to the negotiators.

“I continue to hope their discussions yield a bipartisan product that makes significant headway on key issues like mental health and school safety, respects the Second Amendment, earns broad support in the Senate, and makes a difference for our country,” McConnell said.

The framework also won plaudits from gun-control advocates, including the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Everytown for Gun Safety, which cast the agreement as a historic breakthrough, even though it does not include the tougher measures those groups have long advocated.

Everytown President John Feinblatt said that, if enacted, the framework would be “the most significant piece of gun safety legislation to make it through Congress in 26 long and deadly years,” while Brady President Kris Brown called it “a 30-year breakthrough in the making” and “a historic, new beginning that breaks the stranglehold of the gun industry.”

“In a less broken society, we would be able to require background checks every single time someone wants to buy a gun, and we would ban assault rifles outright,” said March for Our Lives co-founder David Hogg. “But if even one life is saved or one attempted mass shooting is prevented because of these regulations, we believe that it is worth fighting for.”

An NRA spokeswoman said Sunday that the group “will make our position known when the full text of the bill is available for review.”

“The NRA will continue to oppose any effort to insert gun-control policies, initiatives that override constitutional due process protections, and efforts to deprive law-abiding citizens of their fundamental right to protect themselves and their loved ones into this or any other legislation,” said the spokeswoman, Amy Hunter.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) signaled that the Democratic-controlled House would move to enact whatever bill the Senate might pass. “While more is needed, this package will take steps to save lives,” she said in a statement Sunday.

The House has passed four gun-related bills that go considerably further than the tentative Senate deal. Last year, lawmakers passed a bill expanding federal background checks to all commercial transactions, including those conducted at gun shows and over the internet, as well as a measure extending the period the FBI has to complete background checks of prospective gun buyers.

Also last week, in response to the recent shootings, the House passed bills that banned sales of many semiautomatic rifles to those younger than 21, banned high-capacity magazines and promoted red-flag laws in both state and federal courts.

None of those bills has the Republican support to pass the Senate.

The last substantial new federal gun-control laws were passed in the mid-1990s — the Brady bill of 1993, which created the national instant background check system, and the assault weapons ban of 1994, which outlawed some military-style semiautomatic rifles and handguns. The latter bill expired 10 years later and has not been renewed.

In recent decades, Washington has acted mainly to expand gun rights. In 2005, for instance, Congress immunized the firearms industry against product liability lawsuits, and in 2008, the Supreme Court enshrined an individual’s right to possess guns in the landmark case D.C. v. Heller. A 2013 push after the Sandy Hook massacre to expand background checks to cover more gun transactions, including gun show and internet sales, fell six votes short in the Senate.

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