On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators released legislative text for a narrow set of gun safety measures, marking the most significant step towards toughening federal gun laws in nearly three decades.
If passed, the bill would require enhanced background checks for buyers under age 21 and provide some $15 billion in new federal funding for mental health programs and school security upgrades. But the bipartisan compromise falls well short of the broader gun-control measures that President Joe Biden and other Democrats have called for in the wake of recent mass shootings, including an assault weapons ban and restrictions on high-capacity ammunition magazines.
With 10 Republican Senators already announcing support for the original framework—enough to break a filibuster—the legislation is expected to pass the Senate by the end of the week and then head for a vote on the House floor before the July 4 recess. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, signaled last week that the Democratic-controlled House would enact whatever bill the Senate might pass.
“This is a breakthrough,” Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, the lead Democratic negotiator, said Tuesday. “This bill is going to save lives.”
It’s unclear how many Republican lawmakers will ultimately be on board, though the bill got a boost from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky. “Our colleagues have put together 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,” he said in a statement Tuesday evening.
The proposed legislation comes nearly a month after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Tex., the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. That massacre occurred just 10 days after a racially-motivated mass shooting at a Buffalo, N.Y. supermarket. There have been 278 mass shootings in 2022, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which defines a mass shooting as an incident where four or more people are shot or killed, not including the shooter.
But gun reform is one of the most contentious issues in American politics. The last time the federal government passed laws aimed at limiting the spread of guns was in 1994, the same year The Lion King was released in theaters.
Here’s a look at the major elements of the new bipartisan gun bill.
State incentives for ‘red-flag’ laws
The bill provides $750 million in new federal funding over five years to help states implement crisis intervention programs or so-called “red-flag” laws, which allow authorities to temporarily confiscate guns from people deemed to represent a threat to themselves or others. These laws currently exist in 19 states and Washington, D.C.
The final days of negotiations over the bill centered around this provision, as Republicans expressed concern that red-flag laws violate the due process rights of those accused of being a threat. The bill addressed those concerns by requiring the accused to have the right to an in-person hearing, the right to know opposing evidence, and the right to be represented by counsel at no expense to the government, according to the legislative text.
“Under this bill, every state will be able to use significant new federal dollars to be able to expand their programs to try to stop dangerous people, people contemplating mass murder or suicide, from being able to have access to the weapons that allow them to perpetrate that crime,” Murphy said on the chamber floor.
Protections for victims of domestic violence
The bill would close what’s known as the “boyfriend loophole,” a gap in current federal law that bars those convicted of domestic violence from purchasing a firearm only if the victim was either a spouse or partner with whom they lived or had a child. Under the new provision, for the first time, anyone convicted of abusing a current or former dating partner will also be added to the FBI’s National Instant Background Check System and unable to purchase firearms.
The bill defines a dating relationship as a “relationship between individuals who have or have recently had a continuing serious relationship of a romantic or intimate nature.” It would be determined based on the length and nature of the relationship, as well as the frequency and type of interaction between the individuals involved, according to the legislative text.
After arduous discussions about how or whether to close the loophole, negotiators agreed to allow dating partners convicted of a misdemeanor to regain the right to purchase a gun after five years if they were first-time offenders and not found guilty of any other violent misdemeanor or offense.
Clarification of licensing requirements and illegal ‘straw’ purchases
The legislation would tighten gun purchasing laws by narrowing the definition of a federally licensed firearms dealer in an attempt to crack down on those who illegally evade licensing requirements. It clarifies that an individual who repeatedly buys and sells firearms “to predominantly earn a profit” must register as a Federal Firearm Licensee. It also mandates that dealers conduct background checks and keep appropriate records.
According to Murphy, this provision could get thousands of additional gun sales into the background check system.
In addition, the legislation would toughen the criminal penalties for third party gun sales, known as “straw” purchases. Anyone convicted of selling or buying could be fined and imprisoned up to 15 years, according to the bill.
Under 21 enhanced review process
The bill would enhance background checks for gun buyers under the age of 21. If the legislation passes, authorities would have up to 10 business days to review the juvenile and mental health records of potential gun purchasers in that group, in addition to the standard records from state databases and local law enforcement.
The mechanisms of this provision were thoroughly discussed by the group of lawmakers, since state records could be missing information or vary by state. In order to facilitate this process, the provision would provide grants to help states maintain criminal and mental health records.
Under current law, anyone 18 or older can buy rifles and shotguns, including the military-style semi-automatic rifles used in numerous recent mass shootings, as well as the ammunition for both.
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“I know this bill is not going to please everyone,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the lead Republican negotiator, said on the chamber floor after referencing the proposed background checks. “Some think it goes too far, others think it doesn’t go far enough… But the nature of compromise and the nature of actually wanting to get a result requires that everybody try to find common ground where we can.”
Investments in mental health services and school security
Senators also agreed to invest roughly $15 billion over the next five years in expanding mental health resources and upgrading school security. The bill would launch more than a dozen new initiatives, including one that would create a broader network of “community behavioral health centers” and another that would increase access to telehealth services for those in a mental health crisis.
The federal spending would be offset through a one-year delay of a Medicare drug-rebate provision, according to the bill summary, with federal savings estimated to be roughly $21 billion.
Several billion dollars would go towards funding for schools with investments aimed at enhancing safety measures. The legislation includes five new areas of spending, including early identification and intervention programs, school-based mental health and wrap-around services, and improvements to school-wide learning conditions and school security. Funding for school security upgrades stands at $300 million, aimed at instituting safety measures in and around schools and providing training to school personnel and students.