The Senate's Gun Control Deal Falls Short. Here's Why Activists Are Excited About It Anyway

June 14, 2022

When a group of 20 senators announced a framework of “commonsense” gun reforms on Sunday evening, the most surprising thing about it was that it came into existence at all. A decade of demands for stricter gun laws in the wake of tragedies like those in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, have been met with shrugs from Republican lawmakers, who have always sided with the guns after massacres.

But gun violence prevention advocates cautiously welcome the agreement as a sign their movement is entering a new era — one that might make these sorts of agreements less rare. “I believe this signals a political shift,” says Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, a grassroots gun violence prevention group. “I’m not arguing lawmakers are having a change of heart, if folks are doing this political expediency, that’s fine too.”

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A lot needs to go well in order to realize the promise of that framework. The group needs to hammer out the actual bill, a stage at which fragile agreements often shatter. They’ll also need to find a way to pay for it, a must-have for the GOP co-signers. They’ll need to do all of this soon, before a slew of news cycles soften the visceral anger that propelled action. But “if Republicans vote for these policies and the sky doesn’t fall, it will prove there are ways to balance individual gun rights with public safety,” says Christian Heyne, the vice president of policy at Brady, a gun violence prevention organization.

The framework proposes strengthening background checks for younger gun buyers, disarming domestic abusers, punishing gun traffickers, and funding to encourage states to pass “red flag” laws, which allow a judge to seize firearms from those who pose a risk to themselves or others. That list is a far cry from the stricter reforms Democrats and their gun control allies have demanded over the last decade. The framework doesn’t expand which gun sales are subject to a background check, for example, the movement’s top priority since the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. It’s also heavy on mental health interventions and school security measures, a nod to right-wing talking points that emerge after tragedies like Uvalde but don’t meaningfully address them.

Nevertheless, gun control advocates call the framework “life saving,” and indeed, it is. Roughly 70 women are shot and killed by their domestic partners each month, for example, and the proposal would disarm those convicted of domestic abuse. The framework’s enhanced penalties for gun traffickers and straw purchasers would also help address the illegal weapons used in shootings that are common enough that they don’t make national news.

“What’s in this package helps those communities most traumatized by gun violence,” says Greg Jackson, the executive director of the Community Justice Action Fund, a group focused on reducing shootings in communities of color.

Which makes the framework’s bipartisan support all the more surprising. Its provisions buck the known desires of many of their fellow Republicans — disarming domestic abusers, for example, had been a sticking point for GOP senators during the Senate’s reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. “These are things Republicans had walked away from previously,” says Christian Heyne, the vice president of policy at Brady, another gun violence prevention organization. “That there are ten GOP senators signing onto this is progress.”

Negotiations unfolded in good faith, according to sources familiar with them. Those involved in the talks reached out to advocates to learn which state-level regulations, which have proliferated in a decade of congressional inaction, had won bipartisan support or had been signed into law by Republican governors. The weeklong congressional recess that followed the Uvalde shooting, a break from Washington that often kills momentum on the heels of tragedy, seemed to accelerate it, as GOP lawmakers heard from constituents about the need to do something back home. ”It’s a significant achievement, in relative terms, to the political context,” says Peter Ambler, the executive director of Giffords, a gun violence prevention group. “You don’t see 60 votes on anything.”

Indeed, gun violence prevention advocates couldn’t find 60 votes in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy, when most Republicans and a handful of Democrats rejected a modest expansion of background checks. Resistance slowly thawed on the Democratic side in the years that followed. Hillary Clinton made her passionate plea for gun control — the first of its kind for a Democratic presidential nominee — just weeks after a gunman killed nearly 50 clubgoers in Orlando, Florida. The Democratic party followed Clinton’s suit in 2018 after the 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. Formerly National Rifle Association-friendly Democrats embraced the party’s call for stricter gun laws as the party’s new pro-gun control recruits flipped GOP-held suburban districts to regain control of the House.

“If Republicans get wiped out in 2018, guns have gotta be part of their postmortem,” Murphy told me that year. The wipeout happened; the post-mortem did not. During the 2020 election, the parties clung to the same positions they’d embraced the previous cycle. Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke vowed to “take your AR-15” from the Democratic presidential debate stage, the Republicans invited a Missouri couple who’d turned their guns on protesters to defend the right to firearms at their August convention.

The recent shift “speaks to our theory of change over the last decade,” says Watts of Moms Demand Action. Major gun violence prevention groups stuck its neck out for gun control-friendly Republicans over a decade of increasing political polarization, rewarding GOP incumbents who supported even the most basic gun reforms with endorsements. That practice occasionally drew the ire of grassroots activists, who viewed the whole GOP too beholden to gun rights to make those endorsements worthwhile, no matter how sympathetic the recipient was to their cause.

Carrots over sticks sets the movement up for its potential new era. “Winning the argument with the Democratic party was Phase One,” Ambler says. “Being able to further fracture the Republicans is Phase Two.”

“Phase Two” will be harder to come by. None of the GOP senators who negotiated the framework are up for reelection this year;  the four who would have been announced their retirements months ago. The NRA, rife with financial woes and legal struggles, has seen its stature weaken, no longer poses the lobbying threat it once did. Even so, “guns rights have become part of the political iconography of the right,” says Ambler, pointing to the raft of GOP primary ads that feature guns as a mascot. Defeating the NRA’s influence is one thing, but dislodging the right’s fealty to guns will be another. “The NRA’s agenda lives on because we didn’t realize that guns would become an organizing principle,” Watts explains.

The movement’s best proof of concept will be any House Republicans who ultimately vote for the Senate’s framework, should the Senate framework survive. So, too, may be the additional GOP senators that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), one of the lead negotiators, believes will vote for this. And if those Republicans do survive the midterms, there might just be a chance for more gun bills in the future.

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