J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Congress has spent decades trying, and failing, to agree on any major gun reforms but some lawmakers say this is a moment when they must try again.
The odds of success are vanishingly slim, despite the horrifying killing on Tuesday of at least 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. There is little agreement between Democrats and Republicans over basic changes to background check laws, let alone more extensive measures to curb access to firearms in the country.
Still, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told NPR’s All Things Considered that he is working with both parties to try to find common ground.
“Maybe I’m a fool for being the eternal optimist, but I’m just gonna stay at it for these next few days, the next week,” Murphy said.
Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., are among the Republicans who say they are talking with Murphy about taking potential action. Murphy says that’s a start but he’s far from confident that he can find enough Republicans to join Democrats to get the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster.
“As we’re talking, we’re trying to figure out a process by which over the next week, Republicans and Democrats — a group of us — can sit down and try to hammer out a compromise,” Murphy told NPR. “The chances are, well, less than 50-50 that we will find that compromise because there are probably four or five Republicans who would fairly easily support some commonsense measures. It’s tougher to find the next five.”
Murphy said one option could be a federal law allowing police or family members to petition to temporarily remove firearms from a gun owner who could pose a threat. Some states have enacted varying versions of those so-called “red flag” laws but no nationwide options exist.
Limited changes to background check laws are another possible target for bipartisan talks.
“Perhaps a smaller expansion of a background check system that would get more sales, but not all sales, checked for people’s criminal and mental health history,” Murphy said. “You know, those are the places where we might be able to get some compromise and I get it that that’s not enough.”
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
A history of failure, despite repeated tragedy
Murphy has been working for a decade, since the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, to advance gun control measures in Congress. He was elected to the Senate one month before 26 people, including 20 children under seven, were shot and killed at the school in the district he had represented in the House.
Murphy said he has “no idea what to tell these parents.”
“Unfortunately, there’s a community of victims from Sandy Hook to Parkland to Charleston, who can help you understand how they manage this grief,” Murphy said. “But I also want them to know that there are people here in Washington who are not going to give up, who are going to try to honor the memory of these kids with action.”
Sandy Hook Promise, a group founded and led by families of victims of that shooting, estimates that about 12 children die from gun violence each day in the United States. Nearly 950 school shootings have happened since the shooting at Sandy Hook.
Gun laws in the country have gone virtually unchanged since that time.
Frustrated Senators struggle to find any common ground on guns
Many Senators, Democrats in particular, were enraged that gun control still has virtually no chance of success.
Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., fumed to reporters in the Capitol on Wednesday at the prospect of more inaction from Congress.
“How many parents yesterday had to find out that their child was murdered in their classroom and to think the federal government would do absolutely nothing about it is just crazy,” Kelly said. “It’s f****** nuts to do nothing about this.”
Kelly has a deeply personal connection to gun violence and gun control advocacy. His wife, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, was shot in the head at a “Congress on Your Corner” event in her home state of Arizona.
Giffords survived but is permanently impaired. Six others died in the shooting. Giffords and Kelly launched the gun control advocacy group Americans for Responsible Solutions in 2013, seven years before Kelly ran for Senate.
Democrats often blame Republicans, saying they need GOP votes to overcome a filibuster. The only other option for legislative action is for all 50 senators who vote with Democrats to unite to end or change the filibuster.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
But gun control is another issue — like abortion rights, climate change, police reform and voting reform — where Democrats lack unanimity.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., remains opposed to voting to end the filibuster, for any reason. He told reporters Wednesday that he wants to pass consensus gun measures. Manchin said eliminating the filibuster for controversial legislation gives Republicans incentive to use that same, lower vote requirement to overturn the policy if and when they take control of the Senate in the future.
“Everyone wants to go to ‘filibuster, filibuster, filibuster, just get rid of it, that’s the easy way out,'” Manchin said. “What makes you say they won’t reverse it immediately if they don’t like what we do?”
Manchin isn’t the only Democrat who has been reluctant to support more aggressive changes to gun laws, like banning assault weapons or limiting the capacity of high-volume cartridges.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said lawmakers need to start with modest changes, like background checks because those are the bills that have a chance of passing.
“We’re talking about background checks,” Tester told a group of reporters. “We talk about anything more than that I think we’re just silly, because it ain’t going to pass if you can’t get background checks done.”
When pressed about why it would be silly to try for more aggressive legislation, Tester grew visibly frustrated.
“Kids got killed yesterday for Christ’s sakes,” Tester shouted. “Let’s talk about what can be done. Let’s talk about what can be done.”
Jae C. Hong/AP
A distant hope for consensus
Some Republicans agree with Murphy that red flag laws and background checks are the most likely targets for compromise.
But not all Republicans agree on which elements of those bills should be handled at the federal level. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, told reporters that states should be consider limits like red flag laws and leave other issues to congress.
“The federal government should take responsibility for improving our background check capacity,” Romney said. “The gun laws and processes for enforcing them should be handled at the state levels.”
For Collins, red flag laws and other interventions to get guns out of the hands of people who are mentally ill, would help lower the number of shootings.
“That’s the kind of law that could have made a difference in this case,” Collins said. “I really think our focus should be on looking at what some states have done on red flag or yellow flag laws.”
Others, like Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., were unable to identify any federal interventions they thought would help.
“Congress has tried for years to do different things but in each particular case if someone wants to violate a law they’re going to violate a law,” Rounds said. “So if you make a law and they violate the law then you say that Congress didn’t do anything.”
That lack of agreement led to familiar despair for some. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., was blunt.
“This is a bad day for anything even vaguely looking like hope or optimism around legislative process or progress,” he told reporters in the Capitol. “Usually I want to be more optimistic. But I don’t think it’ll change.”