What is happening with gun safety legislation in Washington? The truth is, no one really knows.
Proposals are circulating on Capitol Hill, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated he won’t put forward a vote on any measure that didn’t have the president’s signoff. Members in both parties are waiting for President Donald Trump to clarify his position on background checks — an announcement that could come as soon as this week.
Despite deeply entrenched differences on gun regulations and stiff opposition from the NRA and gun rights activists, Republican and Democratic senators alike told the PBS NewsHour they were optimistic that a deal can be reached. They insisted talks with Trump administration officials have been productive and are ongoing.
“Yesterday I wondered whether [the White House] had completely given up — I don’t think they have given up,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who has been at the forefront of the negotiations, said Tuesday.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who is leading the Republican push for gun safety in the Senate, agreed. “I think it’s just a matter of time,” he said.
But that timeline remains unclear, as Congressional negotiations will stall without a signal from Trump, who has said conflicting things about the proposals Congress is considering.
Here’s a look at what is being debated.
Universal background checks
Implementing universal background checks on all gun sales, private and commercial, has long been the goal for Democrats. Passing a measure to that effect was one of the first things they passed after taking over the majority.
In February, the Democratic-controlled House passed the Bipartisan Background Checks Act. The bill, known as H.R. 8, closes the existing loopholes that allow individuals to purchase guns online, at a gun show or through a private seller without undergoing a federal background check. Just eight Republicans supported the measure, which was backed by all but two Democrats.
But the measure has little chance of getting through the Senate, which has refused to vote on it. And it is unclear if Trump would sign it.
Murphy, a leading advocate for enhanced gun control since the 2012 shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, cited the proposal’s overwhelming public popularity in pushing for a vote. In the most recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll, 83 percent of respondents, including 72 percent of Republicans, said they would support closing private and gun show loopholes.
“If the White House can’t give us some sense that they’re willing to negotiate,” Murphy said, “let’s just have a vote on universal background checks. Let’s just put that up for a vote.”
The Manchin-Toomey bill
This bill, named for its original sponsors Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V. and Toomey,. would expand the scope of background checks to include all commercial sales, at gun shows or on the Internet, but does not require them for private gun purchases, such as between friends or family.
Designed as a compromise, the Manchin-Toomey bill could face steep opposition from both sides of the political aisle.
Among Republicans, the bill is too tied to the bitter, partisan fight for stronger gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, when the Manchin-Toomey bill was originally proposed. At the time, it failed by a six-vote margin in the Senate.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who voted against the measure then, said Tuesday while he was open to considering some of the Manchin-Toomey proposals, the bill itself was a “heavy lift” to pass.
“It’s already been branded,” he explained.
Toomey believes Republicans would ultimately back his bill, but when pressed on whether McConnell was behind it, Toomey deflected. “He is supportive of the underlying policy,” Toomey said. McConnell also voted against the Manchin-Toomey bill in 2013.
If Republicans do unite behind Manchin-Toomey, it’s still in question whether Democrats would accept a measure that is less restrictive than H.R. 8 and still allows for loopholes in the federal background check system.
Murphy, however, hasn’t taken Manchin-Toomey off the table. “We want a vote on expanded background checks,” he said, adding, “I, of course, would like a vote on H.R. 8, but I’m willing to negotiate with the administration to find something that Republicans and Democrats will support.”
Red flag laws
In the immediate aftermath of the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings that together killed more than 30 people, Trump announced his support for so-called red flag laws, which allow for families to petition a judge to remove firearms from individuals who are deemed a risk of hurting themselves or others.
“We must make sure that those judged to pose a grave risk to public safety do not have access to firearms and that if they do, those firearms can be taken through rapid due process,” Trump said in early August.
Since then, Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., have been working on a bill to incentivize the expansion of red flag laws in the states. Already, 17 states and the District of Columbia have these policies, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
“There’s a determination by the president to act this time,” Graham told Fox News in August. The bill, he stressed, would allow for “robust due process,” addressing concerns that the legislation infringes on gun owners’ civil liberties.
For Democrats pushing for expanded or universal background checks, however, red flag laws miss the mark.
When asked if he would accept a red flag law bill without background checks, Murphy sighed.
“I don’t think we should have a debate on gun violence if we’re not going to have a vote on something that, at the very least, expands background checks to commercial sale,” he said.
It is possible the impasse will be broken by packaging some of these proposals as something new. The Trump administration is crafting its own proposals on gun safety legislation, though it’s unclear where those proposals would go.
Attorney General Bill Barr and White House Legislative Affairs Director Eric Ueland went to Capitol Hill on Tuesday and held meetings with a handful of conservative members on the issue, including Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas., and Josh Hawley, R-Mo.
Barr reportedly brought an outline of potential proposals to expand background checks on all commercial sales, including at gun shows. But sales that are not “advertised,” including private sales between family and friends, would not be subject to regulation.
However, the Trump administration said Barr’s outline does not indicate where the president will fall on background checks, stressing that his position is not yet made.