House liberals are ready to embrace the modest Senate gun deal as a huge breakthrough after years of rising mass shootings. That is, if a bill actually makes it to them.
Progressives said they are encouraged by the announcement over the weekend of 20 Senate supporters for a gun-safety framework that Democratic leaders are now racing to bring to the floor as soon as this month. But many of them also remain dubious that those senators can finish the painstaking work of turning their baseline agreement into detailed legislative text.
They’ve been burned by the Senate before. And House liberals are eager to avoid déjà vu after the upper chamber released its last big “framework” on social spending, only to watch centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) tank President Joe Biden’s signature domestic policy bill months later.
“The difference between a press release and a bill could be a big difference,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), who noted he is undecided on how he’d vote on the Senate framework. He said the deal appears to rely too much on individual states taking steps on their own to expand so-called red flag laws or to allow access to juvenile records for background checks — with tricky legislative language needed to clarify.
“I’m concerned about it. I don’t want to have missed an opportunity, since we’ve done nothing for 30 years,” Doggett said, noting he plans to raise some of those issues with fellow progressives this week.
For now, senior Dems think progressives will ultimately back a bipartisan deal if it does pass the Senate. Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), for instance, said she imagined she would back a Senate-passed gun bill but stopped short of full-throated support until she saw the details.
“I just want to make sure we’re not putting more guns on the street or, you know, into the hands of people in schools. … I hope they don’t put things in there that would force people to vote against it,” she said.
The Senate’s gun-safety dealmakers, led by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), are only just beginning the work of turning their broad-strokes deal into legislation. Senators hope to finish bill text by the end of the week.
Getting to legislation will be extremely complicated: Senators in both parties have generally agreed to incentivize “red flag” laws that allow temporary confiscation of guns from people deemed a danger to themselves or others; to crack down on “straw purchases” of firearms; to fund school safety; and to create a new way to “review juvenile and mental health records” during background checks.
Progressives warn that hiccups in writing out any one of those policy changes could unravel the entire accord. And they worry the effort could fall apart completely if lawmakers don’t get it to Biden’s desk before leaving for the next lengthy break — the July Fourth recess, which starts at the end of next week.
“Once the text of this agreement is finalized, and I hope it will be as soon as possible, I will put this bill on the floor quickly so the Senate can move quickly to make gun safety reform a reality,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.
House progressives are particularly concerned about school security funding: While many of the conversations have been about “hardening” schools with locks and gates, Democrats are worried that it could also mean paying for more cops in schools. That could be a nonstarter for the Congressional Black Caucus, as well as some progressives.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said she wanted to see the details of the agreement and had concerns about “criminalization,” including the language about reviewing juvenile records for gun buyers under 21.
“I want to explore the implications of that, and specifically how it’s designed and tailored,” she said. “You know, after Columbine we hired thousands of police officers into schools, and while it didn’t prevent many of the mass shootings that we’ve seen now, it has increased the criminalization of teens in communities like mine.”
Disputes over legislative language are precisely the kind of thorny details that have derailed Congress’ previous attempts at expanding gun-safety laws in the wake of horrific mass shootings. That includes senators’ last effort to expand background checks in 2019, which included some of the same players.
The Senate’s deal falls far short of House liberals’ priorities, which would include universal background checks, magazine limits and raising the age for the purchase of certain types of weapons.
Still, many progressives were pleasantly surprised to see at least one category in the framework: expanding federal background checks to cover the so-called boyfriend loophole, which broadens restrictions for individuals who have abused their romantic partners. Democrats had been working to resolve the issue for years in the Violence Against Women’s Act, always encountering GOP opposition.
Under current law, a person convicted of domestic violence is prevented from purchasing firearms only if they have been married to, live with or have a child with the victim. Murphy and Cornyn’s deal, according to their statement, would expand that to abusers who “have or have had a continuing relationship of a romantic or intimate nature.”
But again, progressives are eager to see what the final language is on that provision. In Jayapal’s words: “It’s the question of: Is there teeth in some of this?”
House Democrats may be largely in wait-and-see mode as senators craft text, but many progressives were still optimistic that Congress is in position to pass its most substantial gun package in decades.
“It’s a good start. I don’t think any of us want to stop a conversation from beginning,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn). “I’m happy with what they are proposing so far, if that’s what it ends up being.”
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), whose home state is largely controlled by Republicans, said he, too, was concerned whether the deal puts too much onus on states to take action, rather than enacting federal laws. Still, he said incremental change is “better than no change.”
“I’ve been here almost two decades. This is the first time that we have ever been in agreement with any Republican group on gun reform,” Cleaver said. “I think it would be tragedy on top of tragedy if we backed away from this. … Like, hey, those knuckle buckets in Congress finally got something done.”