WASHINGTON ― The Senate left town on Thursday for its Memorial Day recess amid a renewed push for gun control following the devastating elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
Before senators headed to the airport, a small group met to begin work on a bipartisan federal response to help prevent mass shootings ― something that has eluded them for a decade.
With pessimism running high, Democrats are clear-eyed about the chances of convincing enough Republicans to accept legislation addressing gun violence, which they’ve blocked in the past. Lawmakers say gun violence victims and their families deserve another try, no matter how wide the divide over guns may be in Congress.
“We need at least a week to work through these tough issues. Frankly, sometimes, it’s easier to work those issues outside of Washington rather than when we’re here,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said Thursday in response to calls for senators to stay in town and vote on legislation to expand background checks on gun purchases as soon as possible.
“If we don’t succeed, we’re having votes. We’re putting people on the record,” Murphy vowed at a rally with gun control activists outside the Capitol.
The Senate isn’t scheduled to return to Washington until the week of June 6. Congress rarely does anything unless there’s a sense of urgency, and activists fear the break could deflate momentum gained for gun reforms following the deaths of 19 children and two teachers in Texas, as well as the racially motivated shooting in Buffalo, New York, last week that killed 10 people.
But Democratic legislation to expand background checks, which the House passed earlier this year, would fail in the Senate due to GOP opposition whether a vote happens this month or next.
A bipartisan group of senators ― including Murphy, Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ― began meeting this week to see if there is any room for a deal. Possible solutions include more stringent background checks, proposals to bolster school safety, different age requirements for federally licensed firearm sales, and “red flag” laws, which allow authorities to temporarily seize firearms from people who are found to be a danger to others or themself.
Graham told reporters Thursday that the group is discussing creating a federal grant program to incentivize states to adopt “red flag” laws. Many states already have such laws on the books. But a federal “red flag” law is not on the table, Graham said.
“The idea seems to be for Republicans that they’ll just run out the clock here.”
“Red flag statues are proven to save lives. They save thousands of lives,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said.
Previous efforts to find common ground on gun reforms have failed repeatedly. The most recent one was led by Murphy and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and focused on closing loopholes in the gun buyer background check system. It stalled last year. After the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, three years ago, Republicans held similar conversations about proposing background checks and “red flag” laws. They went nowhere.
“We are under no illusions that this will be easy. We have been burned in the past when Republicans promised to debate only for them to break their promise,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Thursday.
Republican leaders are keeping their powder dry for the moment, at least. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters he had encouraged his members to participate in the talks with Democrats.
One idea Democrats have discussed is setting higher age requirements for federally licensed firearm sales. Federal law allows gun dealers to sell shotguns and rifles to 18-year-olds while restricting handgun sales to those over 21. The shootings in Texas and Buffalo were both perpetrated by 18-year-olds using assault rifles.
But most Republicans are skeptical of adjusting the age limit. “When you’re 18 you’re able to serve our military and put your life on the line for our country,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) told HuffPost.
Manchin, who has been unsuccessful in convincing GOP senators to vote for just about anything Democrats have proposed, sounded an optimistic note as he left the Senate on Thursday.
“This feels different right now,” he said. “It should never be open season on children.”
Not every Democrat seemed as confident about the prospects for a bipartisan deal on gun legislation.
“The idea seems to be for Republicans that they’ll just run out the clock here,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told HuffPost.
“They want to talk about 10 other topics, they want to engage in finger-pointing and the blame game, but at the end of the day, they do not want to deal with gun violence,” Warren added. “Until we can get some Republicans in the Senate who are willing to address that problem head-on, we’re not going to make any real progress on this at all.”