Republicans and Democrats have found gun legislation both sides agree on. But that doesn’t mean it will pass.
In the wake of mass shootings in Nevada, Texas, and California, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, an outspoken advocate of gun control, introduced a bill to strengthen the federal background-check system for gun sales. Debates over gun control on Capitol Hill nearly always give way to inaction in the face of Republican opposition. But Democrats aren’t alone in supporting this new legislation: It is also backed by Republican Senators John Cornyn, the second highest-ranking Republican in the Senate, Orrin Hatch, Tim Scott, and Dean Heller.
The legislation doesn’t call for expanding restrictions on gun purchases; it’s meant to stop people from buying guns when they were never supposed to be able to in the first place. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, relies on state and federal officials to report mental-health and criminal-conviction records that legally bar individuals from purchasing firearms. But those records don’t always make it into the system.
After a gunman killed 26 people in Sutherland Springs, Texas, earlier this month, the Air Force conceded that it failed to report the shooter’s prior domestic violence conviction, an action that if it had been taken might have prevented the purchase of the firearms used in the shooting. The new legislation is intended to make sure that something like that never happens again.
Any Republican who decides to back the legislation can argue that they just want existing laws to be enforced. And it looks like the GOP won’t have to fear backlash from the gun lobby. “We applaud Senator John Cornyn’s efforts to ensure that the records of prohibited individuals are entered into NICS,” Chris Cox of the NRA said in a statement. “The National Rifle Association has long supported the inclusion of all legitimate records in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.” The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for the firearms industry, put out a statement on Thursday in which it “praised U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) for his leadership” on the bill.
Gun-control advocates support the bill too, and say it’s evidence that common ground between Republicans and Democrats in the gun debate is possible. “This is both parties affirming that there are people that we believe should not have access to guns, and we want to make sure that the system is set up in such a way that we prevent access to guns for those people,” Christian Heyne, the legislative director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which supports the legislation, said in an interview. “This is a real, genuine effort from people who couldn’t be further from each other on the other side of the aisle.”
In addition to Senators Murphy, Cornyn, Hatch, Scott, and Heller, Democratic Senators Richard Blumenthal, Dianne Feinstein, and Jeanne Shaheen are also co-sponsors.
But bipartisan support is still no guarantee that the legislation will actually move forward in Congress or ever be enacted. For that, it needs the support of the Republican congressional leadership. In response to a request for comment asking if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has plans to advance the bill, a spokesman for McConnell said, “We’re reviewing it.”
There are countless examples of a debate over guns flaring up in Congress in response to a mass shooting, only to stall out not long after. Some Republicans in Congress expressed a willingness to consider a ban on “bump stocks,” a device that enables semi-automatic weapons to fire faster, after 58 people were killed in Las Vegas, Nevada, in what has been called the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. In mid-October, Republican Representative Carlos Curbelo and Democratic Representative Seth Moulton introduced a bill to ban the use of bump stocks. Weeks later, the legislation had stalled.
Legislation doesn’t always stall out though: In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, Republicans and Democrats came together to pass a bill to improve the federal background-check system after it was discovered that the shooter had a history of mental-health problems that should have barred him from buying a gun. The NICS Improvement Amendments Act, a measure similarly intended to strengthen the background-check system, was later signed into law by Republican President George W. Bush.
Of course, just as the legislation passed in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting has not fixed every problem with the federal background-check system, it’s possible that the current legislation under consideration wouldn’t end every instance where relevant records fail to end up in the national system.
The bill contains a number of provisions designed to ensure that records are reported, including a system of incentives and penalties designed to prevent gaps in the system. States could tap into federal-grant preferences if they implement plans to upload records, while federal agencies would be denied money for political appointees if they fail to report necessary background information.
Po Murray of Newton Action Alliance, a group formed after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, killed 20 children in 2012, said that she “applaud[s] the bipartisan effort” and “agree[s] that NICS needs to be fixed,” but that she wanted Congress to pass other gun laws as well to reduce mass shootings, gun homicides, and suicides.
The Murphy-Cornyn legislation proposes changes that fall short of the full roster of reforms that advocates want to see made to the background-check system, including the implementation of universal background checks to cover private and online sales. Senator Murphy introduced legislation in October that would expand background checks for private sales. That bill currently has no Republican co-sponsors, though polling indicates that a majority of Americans support universal background checks.
The recent shootings in Las Vegas and Texas are now being counted as two of the five deadliest mass shootings in American history. That might increase pressure on Congress to do something.
“We’re always concerned that momentum can be lost,” said Robin Lloyd, the director of government affairs for Giffords, the gun violence prevention organization founded by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. But Lloyd added that the recent tragedies “may be the catalyst for moving something like the Cornyn-Murphy bill over the finish line.”
This article is part of our project “The Presence of Justice,” which is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge.