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Senate negotiators are racing to finalize an agreement on a narrow set of gun control proposals with a goal of finishing their work before the week’s end.
Members of a bipartisan group of senators on Tuesday shuttled between negotiations, party briefings and White House conversations under intense political pressure to get a deal.
Negotiators have narrowed their talks to a slim set of proposals to address school safety and set standards for safe gun storage while providing some federal support for mental health programs and incentives for states to create so-called red flag laws to remove guns from potentially dangerous owners . The talks also included some possible expansions to federal background checks for younger people seeking to buy guns.
The talks played out behind closed-doors on Capitol Hill while families and victims of gun violence testified in public hearings about the damage guns wreaked on their lives.
Garnell Whitfield Jr., the son of Ruth Whitfield, who was killed by a gunman last month in the mass shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo, NY, was among family members who began a two-day stretch of testimony and appearances on Capitol Hill . As lawmakers talked, he pleaded for them to do more than stand idly by as gun violence ruins lives.
“My mother’s life mattered,” Whitfield told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “You are actions here today would tell us how much it matters to you.”
As Whitefield spoke, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., one of the lead negotiators for Democrats, traveled to the White House to brief President Biden on their progress. Murphy later told reporters that his goal was to keep Biden in the loop but lawmakers themselves are in control of the negotiations.
“He’s giving us the space to negotiate the deal but we obviously need the president’s support and signature,” Murphy said. “We don’t have an agreement, we don’t have anything to present to our colleagues or the White House. Yet.”
earlier in the day, Murphy told ABC’s The View that there is support among members for raising the legal age for purchasing semiautomatic weapons to 21, though he is “sober-minded” about the challenges of reaching a bipartisan deal.
“We are trying to figure out if there is something we can do with this population that is 18 to 21, that tends to be the profile of a mass shooter, to make sure there is the ability to find out if there are any red flags or warning signs before they get their hands on a weapon,” Murphy said.
Also on Tuesday, lawmakers gathered on the National Mall and called for gun reform beside a memorial of flowers commemorating the 45,000 lives lost to gun violence each year.
And actor Matthew McConaughey, a native of Uvalde, Texas, where a shooter killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school two weeks ago, made an emotional call for Congress to act on guns at the White House daily news briefing.
“We are in a window of opportunity right now that we have not been in before. A window where it seems like real change, real change can happen,” McConaughey said. “I’m here today in the hopes of applying what energy, reason and passion that I have into trying to turn this moment into a reality.”
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Schumer expects an agreement by the end of the week
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters on Tuesday that Murphy expects to come to an agreement with Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas by the end of the week “and I expect to give him that time.”
“I have a lot of faith in Senator Murphy and the other Democrats who are negotiating. I don’t think that they would bring us a deal that has no teeth,” Schumer said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters that he hopes Murphy and Cornyn come up with a measure that tackles mental health and school safety, but it’s too soon to speculate how many GOP senators would be on board with what they propose.
Biden himself has issued a high bar for what he wants to see pass out of Congress, including a ban on assault weapons, a ban on high-capacity magazines, background checks, red flag laws, and a repeal of the immunity that protects gun manufacturers from legal liability if their weapons are used in violence.
In the Senate, lawmakers are beginning to negotiate some of the ideas that Biden laid out, like incentives for states to implement their own red flag laws.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told reporters grant money for red flag laws is intended to encourage states to pass the legislation and to give them the tools and funding they need to actually implement the laws once they are on the books. Blumenthal said even states that already have red flag laws, like New York, need more resources to make sure the programs do an effective job of getting guns out of the hands of people who should not have them.
“The law in New York probably was not implemented as effectively as it should be because they didn’t invest in it,” Blumenthal said. “So the money is important not just as an incentive but as an implementing enabler.”
Lawmakers are also attempting to reach a deal on changes to the National Instant Background Check system, known as NICS. One proposal is to include previously sealed juvenile criminal records in the overall vetting process. Some lawmakers say that could help ensure the system has a better picture of a young would-be gun buyer. Aides say adding juvenile information is a way of addressing concerns about the minimum age for purchasing weapons without actually changing the requirements.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of the Republican negotiators, said that information is already included in background checks in South Carolina but he would not say if he supports adding the measure to any federal legislation.
Lawmakers are still working on the details of how to fund the programs in the bill and whether Republicans will require the money to be offset with cuts to spend on other programs.
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Conversations continue on the House side
The House Oversight and Reform Committee will hold a hearing on Wednesday morning to “examine the gun violence epidemic in the United States” featuring two panels of witnesses from Uvalde and Buffalo.
Slated to speak before the lawmakers are Zeneta Everhart, mother of a survivor of the Buffalo shooting. Also on the list are Felix and Kimberly Rubio, parents of Lexi Rubio — a 10-year-old killed in the Robb Elementary mass shooting in Uvalde — and Miah Cerrillo, a fourth-grade student at Robb Elementary who survived the attack.
The hearing will also feature testimony from New York City Mayor Eric Adams and National Education Association President Becky Pringle.
The hearing comes after members of the House advanced their own gun reform bill, HR 7910, out of the Judiciary Committee last week as Biden addressed the nation in a prime-time speech calling for bills to be passed.
The bill, dubbed the Protecting Our Kids Act, and a second bill, the Federal Extreme Risk Protection Order Act, which would nationalize red flag laws, were also being debated by the House Rules Committee Tuesday afternoon.
The full House could vote as early as this week on the bills, according to a letter sent on Friday to members by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. The prospect of those measures making any headway in the Senate are bleak.