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Senators release text of bipartisan gun bill, seek final passage this week

The U.S. Capitol, photographed on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Kent Nishimura | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

A bipartisan group of senators overcame some last-minute hurdles and released legislative text Tuesday on a narrow set of provisions to combat gun violence, including state funding to implement “red flag” laws and enhanced background checks.

“Today, we finalized bipartisan, commonsense legislation to protect America’s children, keep our schools safe, and reduce the threat of violence across our country,” Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a joint statement along with Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C.

“Our legislation will save lives and will not infringe on any law-abiding American’s Second Amendment rights. We look forward to earning broad, bipartisan support and passing our commonsense legislation into law,” they added.

Shortly after the text was released, the Senate voted 64-34 to formally begin debate, with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., saying he hopes to pass the bill this week before the chamber is scheduled to break for a two-week July 4 recess. The legislation is still subject to a threshold of 60 votes to end debate before passage.

If the legislation passes the Senate, it would then head to the House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi has praised the outline of the deal as a step forward.

Cornyn said earlier Tuesday that the senators agreed to address the so-called boyfriend loophole by limiting gun rights for non-spouse dating partners who are convicted of domestic abuse.

“Unless someone is convicted of domestic abuse under their state laws, their gun rights will not be impacted,” he said on the Senate floor. “Those who are convicted of non-spousal misdemeanor domestic abuse–not felony, but misdemeanor domestic violence–will have an opportunity after five years to have their Second Amendment rights restored. But they have to have a clean record.”

The legislation will offer red flag grants to every state, including those that do not adopt red flag laws, which can be used on other crisis prevention programs designed to prevent individuals in crisis from resorting to violence, said Cornyn, the chief GOP negotiator.

The boyfriend loophole and red flag provisions were the last two major sticking points between the core senators: Murphy, Cornyn, Sinema and Tillis.

“We are closing the boyfriend loophole,” Murphy said. “This provision alone is going to save the lives of so many women who unfortunately die at the hands of a boyfriend or an ex-boyfriend who hunts them down with a firearm.”

A Sinema aide said the Arizona senator first brought up the idea of eliminating the boyfriend loophole in these negotiations, drawing on her past experience as a social worker in a domestic violence shelter.

The bill also enhances background checks for people between the ages of 18 and 21, Murphy said, allowing up to three days to conduct checks, and an extra 10 days if there are signs of concern. He said it will contain tougher penalties for gun trafficking and “clarify” which sellers must register as a federal firearm licensee, which would force them to conduct background checks. And he said the bill expands money for mental health and school-based health.

The National Rifle Association quickly announced its opposition to the bill, arguing in a Tuesday statement that the legislation “does little to truly address violent crime while opening the door to unnecessary burdens on the exercise of Second Amendment freedom by law-abiding gun owners.”

Schumer praised the bill as “life-saving legislation,” saying he is “pleased that for the first time in nearly 30 years Congress is back on the path to take meaningful action to address gun violence.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has long opposed tougher gun laws, issued a statement saying he supports the bill, calling it “a commonsense package of popular steps that will help make these horrifying incidents less likely while fully upholding the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.”

The group worked over the weekend after negotiations hit a snag over a dispute on how to close the so-called “boyfriend loophole” involving gun rights for abusive partners. As recently as Thursday, Cornyn said he was “frustrated” at how the talks were progressing.

The bipartisan group of negotiators struck a deal on a framework for the legislation last week, but had been struggling on the exact language for the bill.

The talks were prompted by mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, that killed a combined 31 people, including 19 school children.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, told reporters that all 10 Republicans who originally signed on to the bipartisan framework held a call with McConnell on Monday and “went through the bill, item by item.” He said “all that spoke were satisfied” with what had been developed.

He also pushed back on Republican colleagues who, he predicted, would complain that the bill is moving too quickly.

“I know there are some who will say, ‘Gosh, we haven’t got the bill and we want to read it,'” Romney said. “You can be part of the drafting, or if people are concerned about a provision you could have been part of the negotiations. The door is open. Anybody that wants to be part of the discussion can join in.”

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