Tens of thousands of people showed up Saturday for more than 450 March for Our Lives rallies around the country, where speakers called for universal background checks and a ban on the sale of assault weapons ― or, at the very least, a requirement that Americans to be at least 21 years old before being able to buy an assault rifle.
On Sunday, the student-led group behind the rallies somewhat reluctantly endorsed an emerging Senate gun violence deal that would accomplish none of those things.
“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,” David Hogg, the group’s co-founder and a survivor of the massacre of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in 2018. “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.”
As a bipartisan group of 20 senators works to finalize what is likely to be the first major piece of gun control legislation in three decades, Democrats are resigning themselves to take a small victory, hoping it could minimize the GOP’s fear of political blowback and pave the way for future action toward gun control. Democratic support for the legislation in Congress will be almost unanimous.
“We could maybe score more political points against Republicans, but we wouldn’t save lives, and that’s my priority,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who helped negotiate the package. “If Republicans learn that history and good politics err on the side of saving lives and they want to do more because it will actually get them both, OK.”
Still, a small group of Democratic operatives and strategists are worried about the downsides of taking such an incremental deal, fearful it will allow Republicans to claim they’ve taken action on a key issue while doing little to actually lower the 45,000-a-year death toll from gun violence or decrease the number of weapons in America.
“This is absolutely not worthless. This is a strong package. This is going to save lives,” Robin Lloyd, the managing director at the gun control group Giffords, told reporters on a conference call Sunday afternoon as details of the deal emerged. “Even if this does not have everything in it that a lot of folks would like to see, it is still really important to do.”
Senators are still ironing out the final details of the agreement and writing the legislation, but an announcement on Sunday indicated the proposal would incentivize states to pass so-called “red flag” laws to keep guns out of the hands of people who are a danger to themselves or others, enhance background checks for buyers younger than 21, close the “boyfriend loophole” that had allowed some domestic abusers to buy weapons, invest in mental health and school safety programs, and increase penalties for straw purchasers who buy guns for others.
President Joe Biden, who has backed expanded background checks, a ban on assault weapons and the elimination of a liability shield for gun manufacturers, is supporting the deal despite playing little role in its development.
“Does this framework have everything that the president wants or everything that the president has called for? It does not,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at Monday’s press briefing, noting that the families of gun violence victims in Texas and New York had pleaded with the president to “do something” when he met with them.
Momentum built for this legislation following the massacre of 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, and the racist killing of 10 people at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, on May 14.
But a prior wave of mass shootings in 2020, in the midst of the Democratic presidential primaries, brought far more ambitious proposals: Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas endorsed mandatory gun buybacks to shrink the number of guns in the United States (there are now roughly 121 guns for every 100 Americans) and Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts proposed gun licensing programs. Warren backed stiff increases in the taxes on guns and ammunition.
In an interview Monday, Warren supported the current deal and said the party needed to continue to apply political pressure on congressional Republicans, most of whom are not expected to back even the bipartisan deal.
“These are people who haven’t moved in decades on guns,” she told HuffPost. “It’s a sign of how much heat they’re feeling that they move even an inch. Our job is to push these Republicans as hard as we can. No one’s giving up. Once this bill passes, we’re going to get right back at it asking for a ban on assault weapons, asking for raising the age on gun ownership.”
Years of gridlock have also taken a toll on progressives, who are eager to embrace any progress.
“Even moving the ball forward a few yards is worth doing,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said. “I’ve been in Congress six years. We haven’t done anything for six years of any substance.”
Gun control remains politically popular: An NPR/PBS/Marist poll conducted earlier this month found that 59% of Americans say preventing gun violence is more important than protecting gun rights, the highest that number has been in a decade, while 35% say protecting gun rights is more important.
The same survey found many of the proposal’s provisions were popular with the public: 86% of voters said they would definitely support a candidate who wants to increase mental health funding, while 82% said the same of a candidate who supports background checks and 78% would back a candidate who supported red flag laws.
Various gun violence proposals not included in the package were less popular. The public was split on an assault weapon ban: While 56% of all voters said they would vote for a candidate who backed one, the proposal was underwater among independent voters. Allowing teachers to arm themselves was flatly unpopular, with just 38% of voters saying they would support a candidate who backed the idea.
The popularity of gun control measures is part of the reason some Democrats fear a deal could be a risk, potentially letting the GOP, which has held up any serious action on gun violence for decades, off the hook politically while doing little to solve the problem.
“The real question is whether this deal advances the cause of passing something that actually matters or sets it back,” Adam Jentleson, a top staffer for the late Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, wrote on Twitter. “The illusion of progress can be a net negative.”
There’s also reason to be skeptical the coalition passing this legislation can stick together: Of the 10 Republicans publicly backing the deal, five are in what they say will be their last term in office.
Senators are hopeful for a final vote later this month, but wrangling over the bill’s text and how to pay for the legislation could still derail the process. Blumenthal noted the gun lobby has yet to attack the legislation.
“It’s hard for them to oppose motherhood and apple pie. Once they see the language, they will try to eviscerate it,” he said.
Igor Bobic and Arthur Delaney contributed reporting.