Brewing Senate deal marks inflection point for gun rights movement

AP Photo / J. Scott Applewhite
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, arrives to meet with Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., for more bipartisan talks on how to rein in gun violence, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday.

When it comes to the negotiations now taking place on Capitol Hill after a recent spate of mass shootings, Congress’s most outspoken proponents of gun control and the devoted cadre of hard-line Second Amendment activists battling against them agree on virtually nothing.

Except for this: Both say that passing even modest new federal restrictions on firearms could be a watershed moment in the long-running battle over Americans’ constitutional right to bear arms.

“This measure has the historic potential effect of breaking the gun lobby’s grip on Congress,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said this week, arguing that passing the modest gun restrictions envisioned by Senate negotiators would demonstrate that lawmakers have nothing to fear politically from passing sensible, popular new gun laws.

Tyler Yzaguirre, president of the Second Amendment Institute, argues much the same. Should lawmakers approve this bill, “they’ll be like: Well, we already have this in place, so an inch further is not going to hurt,” he said. “This is a very slippery slope.”

Those arguments have made the present moment – with a spate of recent mass shootings driving Congress closer to the brink of a bipartisan gun deal – a treacherous one for the gun rights movement. The movement has steadily grown in power over the past three decades, fending off all but the wispiest new gun-control measures while securing major victories in Congress and at the Supreme Court.

Now, however, Senate negotiators are contemplating writing measures into law that could pave the way for new state laws allowing authorities to seize guns from troubled individuals, expand criminal background checks for some gun buyers and disqualify a larger group of domestic-violence offenders from being able to purchase firearms.

Already some hard-line gun rights groups have taken up firm positions against the bill. Gun Owners of America, which bills itself as the “no compromise” gun lobby, told its supporters this week that it was a “do-or-die moment” for the Second Amendment and that they were “being sold out and exploited” by Senate Republicans.

“We will be making sure that both American gun owners and members of Congress know what they’re voting on, we will try to stop it, and should the worst happen, we will hold them accountable in November,” Aidan Johnson, the group’s federal affairs director, said in an interview.

Yet the framework has been embraced by a group of Republicans who appear to see it as a moment of strategic retreat, where lawmakers who have long supported gun rights can respond to the public outrage over the recent shootings – including the killing of 19 elementary school students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas – by embracing marginal new restrictions and leaving stronger measures favored by Democrats by the wayside.

The approach has been embodied by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who launched the talks in the days after the Uvalde massacre with a bipartisan group of senators, consummating a framework deal Sunday.

He has argued that the deal’s provisions would keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of potential madmen without banning any new weapons or unduly burdening law-abiding citizens. In a presentation Tuesday to other GOP senators, he also shared a list of more far-reaching measures that weren’t in the bill – such as a higher minimum age for rifle purchases, bans on high-capacity ammunition magazines and new federal laws dictating gun storage requirements.

The largest and best-funded players in the gun rights orbit, meanwhile, appear to be keeping their options open. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms industry trade group, is signaling tentative support for the Senate framework.

Mark Oliva, the group’s managing director of public affairs, said in an interview that the NSSF was “cautiously optimistic” about what has been proposed, citing “what’s not in there as much as what is in there.”

“I wouldn’t commit ourselves to endorsing anything at this point, but we’re encouraged by what we see,” he said.

And then there’s the granddaddy of gun rights organizations, the National Rifle Association, which despite a recent bankruptcy and leadership upheaval remains the oldest, largest and most powerful player in the Second Amendment sphere. After the framework was released Sunday, the group declined to comment, saying it would await legislative text before weighing in.

“The NRA will continue to oppose any effort to insert gun control policies, initiatives that override constitutional due process protections and efforts to deprive law-abiding citizens of their fundamental right to protect themselves and their loved ones into this or any other legislation,” it said.

That statement and a lack of visible engagement on the bill has left many on Capitol Hill scratching their heads at what role the group intends to play as the Senate moves forward in the coming days, with leaders aiming to pass a bill as soon as next week. The group was key in rallying gun owners against the last major bipartisan push for gun control, in the months after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, and has beaten back many other initiatives since then.

Multiple Republican senators said this week that they had spoken with NRA representatives about the legislation but could not say whether the group had taken a position on any particular element of the proposal. Cornyn said Tuesday he had not spoken to the NRA about the bill personally but said he had gotten some suggestions and “technical pointers.”

“But, you know, we’ve been soliciting that from a . . . broad range of people,” he said.

An NRA spokeswoman, Amy Hunter, declined to comment Wednesday beyond the prior statement.

Experts who have reviewed the Senate framework and the NRA’s previous positions said it would be difficult to envision the group ultimately endorsing a bill that reflects the negotiating principles. For instance, while the NRA has previously issued a general endorsement of red-flag laws, which allow for the seizure of weapons from individuals deemed to represent a threat, it has opposed every state implementation of those laws.

Even more potentially nettlesome is a new proposal that would require a search of juvenile justice and mental health records for gun buyers under 21. To conduct that search in varying state databases, negotiators are considering a three-day search window, according to aides familiar with the pending agreement – something that would resemble the kinds of mandatory waiting periods that the NRA has firmly opposed in the past.

“It would be very hard for me to imagine them not vigorously speaking out and campaigning against a bill that has a de facto waiting period in it,” said Stephen Gutowski, who publishes the Reload, a firearms newsletter. He added that for the negotiating group, “disapproval but not active resistance is probably the best that they’re hoping for.”

Already there are signs that the Republicans involved in the group are trying to minimize any backlash from gun rights advocates. Cornyn on Wednesday warned Democrats that the bill would have to be carefully written to protect Second Amendment rights.

“We’re not going to cut corners or capitulate for the sole purpose of passing something,” he said. “I’m not willing to compromise on some of my basic principles or throw the Constitution out the window so we can have something we can hold up and say, ‘Look what we did.'”

Other Republicans involved in the group, meanwhile, pushed back on the notion that enacting a modest bill along the lines of the framework would represent the “slippery slope” that hard-liners are warning about. “It’s sensible provisions that focus a lot on mental health and a lot on school safety and also keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

Asked whether the NRA’s position on the bill mattered to its success, Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said, “Of course, you want to make sure that it works for them.”

But the fact that the bipartisan talks have proceeded this far is, to many observers, a sign of the waning influence of the NRA – or at least the growing perception that it is a wounded and increasingly ineffective organization.

“I don’t think it means that the NRA is not influential at all, but it’s hard to look at the practical situation right now and not think that they’re less influential than they were,” said Gutowski, who has reported extensively on the group’s infighting and financial woes. “They were the shorthand for gun owners for a long time, and they’re struggling. And so maybe that is part of the reason why the Hill, the Senate, these 10 Republicans in particular, feel like they can do some sort of gun bill.”

Yzaguirre, whose relatively small group includes critics of NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre on its board, said the larger organization has a lot at stake in the outcome of the pending legislation.

“They are still the titan of the industry, and without them, you know, we probably wouldn’t be where we are today on gun rights,” he said. “But you can be damn sure if they don’t change those ratings if these guys vote for red-flag laws or raising the minimum age, their members are going to wake up and smell the roses, and it’s going to hurt their pockets, for sure.”

While those short-term calculations suggest the NRA would be best served by adopting the same hard-line approach it took after Sandy Hook and subsequent tragedies, some say a more nuanced approach could be in the gun rights movement’s strategic interest. Allowing relatively small changes to move forward, the thinking goes, could help convince Americans that the GOP is at least somewhat willing to embrace reforms – thus helping to elect more officeholders inclined to resist broader gun-control measures in the future.

“There really is a feeling in the country right now that just something needs to be done. It seems to be in the atmosphere,” said Robert Spitzer, a veteran scholar of gun politics at the State University of New York at Cortland. “That doesn’t mean that NRA lobbyists would just roll over and not press for their point of view, but in purely strategic terms I think there would be a logic to allowing this to proceed.”

The NRA took one such nuanced stance recently: After the 2017 shooting in Las Vegas, where a gunman killed 60 by using a “bump stock” device that made him able to rapidly fire a semiautomatic rifle, allowing it to mimic a machine gun, President Donald Trump moved to ban those devices by executive order. The NRA did not oppose the move, in an apparent strategic move to forestall legislation. Now, however, a bump stock ban is included in the Senate framework.

Richard Feldman, a gun rights advocate and former NRA lobbyist, agreed that “the wink and the blink” could be the savviest way for the NRA and other groups to proceed – especially with such modest policies at stake and the potential that passing new gun-control legislation could further rouse conservatives in an election year.

“I’d argue that’s smart politics, not dumb,” he said. “Do you want to have, you know, 10 members of Congress that are 1,000% supporters? Or 50% plus one who are 95% supporters? I’ll take the latter.”