Senators usually on opposite sides of the gun-control debate are teaming up on bipartisan legislation to improve the national background-check system by increasing how often states and federal agencies report offenses that would legally prohibit individuals from buying a firearm.
Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.) are the main forces behind the legislation, which Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) also played a role in crafting. The trio is expecting to pull more Republican support for their measure before formally releasing it.
Their bill is narrow in its focus, reiterating and reinforcing the requirement that federal agencies report all infractions to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), and creating financial incentives for states to do so as well.
The deficiencies of the NICS database have come into sharp focus since it was revealed that a 2014 domestic violence conviction should have prevented the shooter in this month's fatal attack on a church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., from buying a firearm. But the Air Force never reported the conviction to the background-check system.
The problem isn't confined to the military: The NICS database is missing millions of such records, according to an estimate by the National Rifle Association, citing a 2013 report from the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics that found "at least 25% of felony convictions . . . are not available."
"What our bill does is it attempts to fix that both at the federal level and provide additional incentives to the local states," Cornyn said Wednesday. "It may be as simple as just getting them to do what they're already required to do."
Federal agencies are required to report various felonies, indictments and other crimes — including domestic assaults — into the federal database, but Congress has no power to compel states to do the same. The Murphy-Cornyn legislation would offer direct financial incentives, as well as favorable future access to other federal assistance programs, to states that report infractions into the system.
Cornyn offered to work with Murphy on the measure last week, after Murphy complained on the Senate floor about Congress's inaction in the wake of mass shootings, stressing that lawmakers must at least be able to fix the background-check system to reflect existing law.
Murphy has been one of Congress's most vocal advocates for expanding background checks and other gun-control measures since he joined the Senate just a few weeks after a shooter killed 26 teachers and schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School in his home state. Cornyn, on the other hand, is considered a reliable ally of the NRA. Their partnership suggests a broad coalition could form around the bill.
But Congress has had difficulty joining forces around gun-control legislation, even when lawmakers in both parties believe regulation is needed. Last month, in the wake of a mass shooting that killed 58 concertgoers in Las Vegas, Republican and Democratic lawmakers called for a restriction on bump stocks — the attachment that can turn a semiautomatic weapon into a nearly automatic firearm. But the effort to consider a bill has faltered — and an opening Judiciary Committee hearing on the matter has been delayed until December.
The Senate's appetite for addressing Cornyn, Murphy and Blumenthal's bill may be somewhat better, as the NRA has long been clamoring for the federal government to do a better job of enforcing existing gun laws before they discuss expanding them. But the forthcoming bill's authors do not appear to want to take any chances that their efforts run aground: Blumenthal said the senators are trying to expedite the measure to the Senate floor, instead of putting it through the Judiciary Committee.
They are not the only senators to propose gun legislation in the wake of the Sutherland Springs shooting. Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) responded to the event with a bill requiring the military to report domestic violence misdemeanors to the NICS database, even if they are classified under a general assault category in the military; Blumenthal said Wednesday that he is also working on a bill directing a rewrite the Uniform Code of Military Justice so that domestic violence cases are catalogued as separate from other assaults and reported to the NICS database as such.
Several senators have also called for the military to conduct a thorough review of its reporting policies. On Wednesday, Flake, Heinrich and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) also called on the Defense Department to publicize statistics about the number of unreported domestic violence cases that have gone unreported to the NICS database since 2007. To date, the military has reported only one domestic violence offense into the system.
Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.