World·Analysis

U.S. politicians see possible gun deal and wonder: Maybe this time is different

The potential specifics of bipartisan U.S. gun legislation remain murky, as are its chances of passing into law, but here's what we know based on what the negotiators are saying.

U.S. Senate is considering a few limited changes following Uvalde school massacre

A makeshift shrine for the 19 children and two teachers killed at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 30. Public anguish over the tragedy has spurred the most significant effort at national gun reform in years. (Veronica G. Cardenas/Reuters)

A podium-pounding burst of indignation at the White House may have been the scene-stealing highlight of actor Matthew McConaughey's gun-control tour of Washington this week.

But that impassioned appearance before the press corps overshadowed other stops on his itinerary that speak to the detail-laden drudgery of passing a gun bill.

The process is now plodding ahead in the U.S. Congress, where the celebrity son of grief-stricken Uvalde, Texas, has also been holding meetings.

Finally, McConaughey sat for an interview with the one political opinion-maker that may hold more power than any other in shaping the outcome of the current gun debate: Fox News.

That's because the action right now is in the U.S. Senate, a chamber synonymous with inaction. A gun bill can only pass if it gets the votes of 10 Republicans, and their voters disproportionately watch Fox.

WATCH | Actor Matthew McConaughey visits Washington, D.C., to advocate for gun reform:

Matthew McConaughey calls for gun control

2 months ago
Duration 2:23
Actor Matthew McConaughey speaks about the child victims of the school shooting in his hometown, Uvalde, Texas, and appeals for gun control measures, after a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden

The Senate has notoriously demanding procedures that require a 60 per cent vote to pass bills, and it almost never happens on big, controversial issues.

Except this time, maybe, it might.

Hope for a deal

Don't expect a nation-altering gun overhaul. The U.S. won't suddenly become Sweden. But a small, bipartisan circle of senators hopes to reach a preliminary agreement by weekend on elements for a modest gun bill.

The elements potentially include expanded background checks; incentives for state red-flag laws; closer tracking of violent minors; and funding for school security and mental health. 

The Democrat leading the talks comes from a state that suffered its own school massacre, in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.

Chris Murphy says he's had his heart broken before by the U.S. Congress's failure to make progress on gun reform and he can't bear another setback.

"The country's not going to accept nothing as the answer," the Connecticut Democrat told a student rally Monday in Washington.

The Democrat leading gun talks in the Senate, Sen. Chris Murphy, right, met President Joe Biden on Tuesday at the White House to update him on the state of negotiations. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The Republicans sound optimistic, too. Their leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, says an agreement could be within reach: "I hope that'll be sooner rather than later." 

The potential specifics of a deal remain murky, as are its chances of passing into law, but here's what we know based on what the negotiators are saying.

Scope of the deal: limited

At best, any deal will only chip away at the heaping monolith that is the U.S. murder rate, which most research says is at least partly connected to the country's abundance of guns. 

To put it into numerical perspective, the U.S. homicide rate is about 2.5 to 3.6 times Canada's, depending on which data set you're consulting. Put another way, that's 250 to 360 per cent of Canada's rate.

One academic expert on gun policy effects on gun crime says he'd be thrilled if congressional action trimmed gun deaths by 10 per cent. It wouldn't change the U.S.'s status atop developed countries in gun deaths, with 45,000 homicides and suicides in 2020, as gun fatalities surpassed car fatalities.

But it would save thousands of lives per year.

"That's significant," said John Donohue of Stanford University. "You're talking about maybe 4,500 lives saved." 

Whether Congress gets anywhere close is a different story.

The Rand Corporation think-tank has a calculator to help gauge the potential effects of different gun changes.

It's based on a survey of 173 gun-policy experts. They offered predictions about the effect of different policies, and the findings are broken into two separate categories: a low-end estimate from the 26 experts skeptical of gun control and a high-end estimate from the other 147.

Under the most drastic scenario, where U.S. lawmakers enacted every policy on Rand's list — including major gun reforms, like an assault-weapons ban — the calculator estimates U.S. homicides would fall between one-fifth and one-half.

That would still leave the U.S. with a higher murder rate than other developed countries, but the gap would be significantly or almost totally narrowed.

That is, of course, a purely hypothetical exercise. The so-called assault-weapons ban isn't happening, at least not in this Congress.

Republicans say they hope for a gun deal soon. But the top Republican negotiator, senior Texas Sen. John Cornyn, seen here earlier this year, said guns are a polarizing issue and negotiations aren't easy. (Jon Cherry/Reuters)

So, back here on legislative Planet Earth, American lawmakers are looking at more targeted measures designed to get conservative votes in the Senate. 

Background checks: Adjustments possible

Lawmakers are discussing changes to the 24-year-old national background-checks system. 

One likely example: Adding juvenile violent-crime records to the records system, or at least having that juvenile record last a few years after the minor's 18th birthday. 

North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis said the current system won't include, for example, the 44,000 juvenile arrests for violent crime in 2019.

"None of that is in a background check today," said Tillis, one of the lawmakers in the talks. "That's a lot to check on."

There's also talk about closing a loophole in the background-check system, which now works for sales in stores but not for private sellers and gun shows. 

The Rand Corporation survey predicted the impact of universal background checks would range from nothing to a five per cent homicide reduction per year.

Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican leading the talks for his party, said he believed every gun seller should do a background check.

Mourners pay respects at a memorial for the 21 killed in the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. (Lucas Boland/USA Today/Reuters)

But don't expect much on this front.

In a CNN interview over the weekend, the Democrat Murphy downplayed expectations about the scope of the background-check change and said it would not result in universal detailed checks.

Red-flag laws: Potential incentives for states

Red-flag laws could have a more dramatic effect.

Different versions of these laws already exist in 19 states, and Rand's experts said that homicide rates would drop several percentage points if these and other violence-related prohibitions were extended nationally.

A red-flag law allows someone — a family member, loved one or law enforcement — to request that a court temporarily seize weapons from a violence-prone individual. 

The negotiators in Washington are talking about creating financial incentives to help states set up or improve their existing red-flag laws.

But these laws don't always work. 

Take the racist shooting last month in Buffalo. New York State has a red-flag law. The shooter had even been brought in for a police-mandated psychiatric evaluation after making cryptic threats at school about plans involving murder and suicide. But authorities never applied for a gun restriction in his case. 

This issue could become the hottest flashpoint for lawmakers.

We've already seen indications Republican negotiators might need to tread carefully to avoid angering their base — those Fox News viewers McConaughey was addressing.

Actor Matthew McConaughey and his wife, Camila Alves McConaughey, visited Congress on Tuesday and he also sat for an interview with Fox News, in an effort to encourage a bipartisan deal. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Far-right politicians like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Rep. Matt Gaetz have excoriated colleagues for thinking of backing red-flag laws, calling them unconstitutional and unjust.

Republican Sen. Josh Hawley said he fears such laws could be abused and people targeted would have little standing to defend their Second Amendment rights.

Gaetz fumed that Republican voters could have their guns taken away: "You betray your voters [if you back this]," Gaetz warned colleagues. "You are a traitor to the constitution. … These [laws] will be abused."

Of note: Gaetz's home state already has a red-flag law. And it was enacted by his own party.

After the 2018 Parkland school massacre, Florida passed it under a Republican legislature and it was signed by a Republican governor, Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator.

Minimum age requirement a long shot

Democrats hoped to increase the minimum age to purchase an AR-15 rifle to 21; that's already the minimum to purchase a handgun under a half-century old law. 

Extending the rule to rifles would reduce homicides up to five per cent, according to the Rand expert survey. 

It doesn't sound like it's happening.

When asked why that idea appears doomed, Cornyn, the Texas Republican, said some courts have questioned its constitutionality and said it would be a tough sell in Congress.

"This is a big, diverse country," Cornyn told reporters Monday. "And there are differences — on this [guns] issue in particular and it just takes time to build consensus."

Republicans are especially keen on getting other, non-gun provisions into a bill: notably funding for mental health and for school security. 

Donohue, the Stanford analyst, is worried. While polls say the public wants change, he said there's a recurring pattern after horrific massacres.

National politicians talk about doing something, talks drag on, they stall, the public's attention drifts elsewhere and nothing happens, at least not at the national level. Any gun action lately has fallen to the states.

Donohue fears this might just be a Republican stalling tactic. But he's holding out hope.

"I still would like to see us move in the right direction, rather than continuing in the wrong direction, as we've been doing for a while now."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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