Senate gun deal closer to reality after ‘boyfriend loophole,’ other snags resolved

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A tentative deal in the Senate that would toughen federal gun laws and provide billions of dollars in new money to prevent future mass shootings moved closer to reality Tuesday after negotiators settled key disagreements that had delayed the drafting of a bill, putting it on a glide path to be passed into law by the end of the month.

The breakthrough came more than a week after 20 senators — 10 from each party — signed on to a framework agreement that coupled modest new gun restrictions with some $15 billion in new federal funding for mental health programs and school security upgrades.

While agreement from 10 Republican senators on a deal in principle was a clear breakthrough, signaling there could be enough GOP support to beat a Senate filibuster, it did not guarantee that the negotiators would succeed in translating those elements into final text. But with the key disputes resolved, people involved in the negotiations said the text of the bill is set to be released as soon as Tuesday afternoon, with an initial Senate procedural vote coming just hours afterward.

“We’ve talked, we’ve debated, we’ve disagreed and, finally, we’ve reached an agreement,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the lead GOP negotiator, said Tuesday afternoon on the Senate floor. He said the text would be released widely “very soon, not soon enough for me, but very soon.”

Joyful. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who led the talks for Democrats, said much the same to reporters Tuesday, reiterating that an agreement had been reached and the drafting was down to “dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s.”

If passed, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act would enact the most significant new gun restrictions since the 1990s, though it falls well short of the broader gun-control measures that President Biden and other Democrats have called for, such as a new assault weapons ban or restrictions on high-capacity ammunition magazines.

Senators strike bipartisan gun deal, heralding potential breakthrough

One sticking point resolved over the weekend concerned the “boyfriend loophole” — a gap in current federal law that prevents domestic violence offenders from purchasing firearms only if their victims were either their spouses or partners whom they had lived with or had children with. The framework proposed expanding restrictions to include offenders who have been in a “continuing relationship of a romantic or intimate nature” with their victims.

Defining precisely what constitutes such a relationship, however, was challenging, as was addressing GOP desires to create a process allowing offenders to have their gun rights restored.

According to draft text of the provision obtained by The Washington Post, the bill would bar a misdemeanor domestic-violence offender who has a “current or recent former dating relationship with the victim” from owning or buying a gun.

What constitutes a “dating relationship” is not precisely defined in the draft text, which would instead allow courts to make that determination based on the length and nature of the relationship, as well as “the frequency and type of interaction” between the people involved . The text excludes “casual acquaintanceship or ordinary fraternization in a business or social context.”

Those offenders would be automatically entitled to regain their gun rights after five years as long as they do not commit any further violent misdemeanors or other disqualifying offenses.

Negotiations over the legislation have bumped up against a self-imposed deadline of getting the bill written and onto the Senate floor this week so that it can be debated and passed before a scheduled two-week recess that begins Thursday. Although leadership aids say that senators could stay a day or two longer to complete work on the bill, a longer delay has been seen as untenable by senators of both parties.

Despite the broad public popularity of the gun provisions in question, Republicans are facing a brewing backlash from the most conservative elements of their voting base.

Democrats, for their part, are wary of getting mired in protracted negotiations due to deep skepticism of the GOP’s willingness to consummate a gun deal. They also fear that it could sap political capital from their other priorities this summer — including a possible resurrection of Biden’s party-line economic agenda, previously known as Build Back Better.

After their last in-person meeting Thursday, the four lead negotiators — Cornyn, Murphy, Kyrsten Cinema (D-Ariz.) and Thom Tillis (RN.C.) — pledged to work throughout the weekend to bring a deal to fruition.

Murphy, the lead Democratic negotiator, struck an optimistic note, saying progress continued. “We’ll find a way to get this done,” he said. But Cornyn, the lead GOP negotiator, publicly took a harder line, telling reporters on his way out of the room that he was “done” negotiating on key sticking points before he left for Texas for the weekend.

The next day, in Houston, Cornyn was heartily booed as he gave a speech to the Republican Party of Texas’s annual convention — a vivid public display of the considerable political risk he and other Republicans are assuming by merely floating a deal to tighten federal gun laws .

While the subset of party activists who attended the event is not representative of the electorate as a whole, in Texas or elsewhere, the episode illustrated some of the political forces that have made it difficult to forge a compromise on new gun laws over the past three decades — despite the public outcry over the recent spate of mass shootings and persistent street violence involving firearms.

“I will not, under any circumstance, support new restrictions for law-abiding gun owners,” Cornyn told the crowd at the Houston convention. “And despite what some of you may have heard, the framework that we are working on is consistent with that red line.”

The crowd booed nonetheless. Social media postings captured attendees chanting “No red flags!” — a reference to a provision of the tentative deal that is particularly unpopular on the right — as well as garbage cans full of Cornyn lanyards. The state party also adopted a resolution opposing the deal and rebuking the GOP senators involved, on the grounds that “all gun control is a violation of the Second Amendment and our God-given rights.”

Still, Cornyn told the Texas Tribune the same day that the talks were “getting very close” to completion.

“I think we’re going to be on a glide path to have a bill on the floor next week,” he said. Later, he retweeted a report that he had told fellow Republicans, “I’ve never given in to mobs and I’m not starting today.”

In a bid to demonstrate to conservatives that the deal would preserve rather than restrict their rights, Cornyn has focused on the provisions that are not part of it: It excludes bans on assault weapons or high-capacity ammunition magazines, universal background checks and safe- storage requirements.

“The list goes on and on and on,” Cornyn said Friday. “I said, no, no — a thousand times, no.”

As the talks wore on last week, there was reason to think the deal could remain insulated from a right-wing backlash. For one, the framework won tentative backing last week from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — an important public vote of confidence from a powerful GOP player who has played a key role in snuffing out previous attempts at compromise. Of the 10 Republicans who signed onto the framework last week, four are not seeking reelection, and five others are not up for reelection until 2026.

McConnell says he’ll likely back gun deal as Senate rushes toward vote

Still, turning the framework into legislation proved to be difficult.

Besides the “boyfriend loophole” issues, another tricky area concerned federal grants to states that Democrats have publicly pitched as an effort to encourage red-flag laws, which allow authorities to keep guns away from people judged to represent a danger to themselves or others.

Many conservatives are deeply skeptical of those laws, so Republicans insisted on structuring the grants so that the money would be equally available to states that pass red-flag laws and those that do not.

According to a summary of the draft bill, an existing Justice Department grant program would be expanded to allow funding for state “crisis intervention programs,” including not only red-flag laws but also drug courts and veterans’ courts. The bill provides $750 million in new funding for those programs, the summary said.

The third major gun provision concerned how background checks are handled for gun buyers under 21. While that group is already barred from purchasing handguns, people 18 or older can still buy rifles and shotguns, including the military-style semiautomatic rifles that have been used in numerous recent mass shootings.

The framework deal included an agreement to require a search of juvenile justice and mental health records for the youngest gun buyers for the first time. But because of disparate state systems and standards for searching and maintaining juvenile records, negotiators struggled with the mechanics of that provision.

The bill will include an “enhanced search” window for gun buyers under 21, to allow local authorities to scour confidential databases, according to the bill summary, with a total of 10 business days available to complete a review of those young buyers if an initial search raises a potentially disqualifying issue.

While that structure stands to be especially contentious for gun rights advocates, who have long opposed the prospect of creating a de facto waiting period for purchasing a gun, the “enhanced search” provision is set to expire after 10 years — after which, the bill’s architects envision, juvenile records will be routinely incorporated into the existing instant background-check system.

Other provisions include new federal gun-trafficking offenses and a broader definition of which gun sellers are required to register for a federal firearms license, which in turn would require them to conduct background checks on their customers.

Other elements of the framework included creating a broader network of “community behavioral health centers,” more federal support for in-school intervention programs, broader access to telehealth services for those in a mental health crisis and new funding for school security programs.

The new spending is offset through a one-year delay of a Medicare drug-rebate provision. According to the bill summary, the federal savings are estimated at $20.9 billion, which is being used to fund more than a dozen new mental health and school security programs. A Republican aid familiar with the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe the talks said the bill will not spend the full offset, only up to $15 billion.

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