It would be premature for those of us who regard new gun safety legislation as an urgent national and state priority to assume a deal reached by a bipartisan Senate negotiators is certain to become law.
Democrats and Republicans are still worlds away from one another on the issue of gun violence in America. Those differences — and a general lack of trust and goodwill among Washington officeholders — could undermine the looming possibility of a deal.
Still, I am cautiously optimistic that some small first steps in the direction of addressing America’s unprecedented level of gun violence in a democracy are about to be taken.
The Senate version of the proposed legislation, as presented Sunday by the two parties, pales when compared to the version passed by the House last week, which would have stopped people under the age of 21 from legally buying assault weapons and would have banned the sale of high capacity ammunition magazines.
Why Republicans believe it is important for teenagers to be able to buy weapons originally designed for military use and unlimited amounts of ammunition, all without any training or accountability, is beyond me.
But they are not budging on the subject.
Even Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the lead Republican negotiator on the Senate version, arrived on the Senate floor Tuesday with a large poster titled, “Ideas Rejected in Negotiations,” that took credit for his party opposing Democratic efforts to raise the age from 18 to 21 and to outlaw magazines that enable shooters to rapidly fire off dozens of rounds without reloading.
What the proposed Senate deal will do is include juvenile records in background checks. Assuming federal and state databases can incorporate that data effectively, that should help prevent teens who have committed crimes or demonstrated disturbing behavior or violent tendencies to be stopped before they arm themselves.
It also will incentivize states to pass “red flag laws” that authorize state courts to prevent individuals deemed a danger to themselves or others from purchasing or possessing firearms. As I write, four days have passed since Senate negotiators released the broad outlines of their deal, yet the state’s top elected leaders who control the political agenda, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan have been conspicuously silent on the matter.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) reacted Tuesday with statements that fell far short of support for the matter.
“We’ve seen consistently whenever there is a horrific criminal event that Democrats’ top priority is not stopping the bad guys, not stopping the criminals, but rather disarming law-abiding citizens,” Cruz told the Texas Tribune. “If that’s what they try to push with this proposal, I think that would be a serious mistake.”
One fair question for both sides to answer to the American people is this: would the proposed new legislation prevent the kind of mass shootings that occurred in Buffalo, NY and Uvalde?
A key to strengthening background checks, the evidence repeatedly shows, is timely identification of individuals, especially aggrieved young men, who broadcast threats of violence or other disturbing behavior on social media in advance of murderous sprees. To accomplish that, authorities will have to rethink how law enforcement gathers and shares intelligence, and community and school leaders will have to devise mechanisms that encourage and protect young people who alert authorities to threats made by their peers on social media.
Any bill that passes both the Senate and House and is signed into law by President Joe Biden will include new funding for mental health services, school counselors, and to make campuses safer. It’s uncertain whether such funding will enable authorities to better monitor social media channels and identify individuals who pose a threat.
For the surviving family members in Uvalde, and in all the other Texas communities traumatized by mass shootings in recent years, the proposed legislation will seem like politics once again has trumped the inclination or ability of elected leaders to do what is right and address the problem comprehensively, as long advocated by experts who study the issue and do not have to run for elected office.
I share their frustration, but faced with the past failures of conservative lawmakers here and in Washington to address gun violence in America even as it worsens, I will welcome any legislation that begins to address the problem. Even then, it won’t mean much in Texas if Republican leaders decide to opt out.