A bipartisan group of senators on Sunday announced a framework for federal gun control legislation, a remarkable breakthrough after years of stasis and obstruction on the part of Republican senators to pass any restrictions on gun ownership. Despite the bipartisan cooperation, the framework is not yet formal legislation — and focuses primarily on mental health and school security interventions, rather than meaningfully restricting access to firearms.
The announcement comes after two horrific mass shootings: one at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, which killed 10, and the other at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, which killed 19 children. As mass-casualty events continue to mount, the country has seen a renewed demand for a significant response on the federal level. March for Our Lives, the gun control activism group founded after the deadly shooting in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, held a rally in Washington, DC, on Saturday, calling for congressional action in the wake of the recent shootings.
“The injustices we see on the daily are being blatantly ignored by those on Capitol Hill. The cries of the nation’s children can be heard across the world, and you choose to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the lives being taken,” March for our Lives board member Trevon Bosley said in a speech during Saturday’s rally, highlighting the lack of political will to pass federal gun control legislation even during the wake of the Parkland shootings, which killed 17. “Your job is to represent and serve all the people who call this country home, and so far you’ve shown us you only represent the pockets of whoever donates the most to your campaign,” Bosley said.
Parkland survivor X González echoed that sentiment in an interview with the Atlantic about their return to activism after the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings. “I definitely lay the blame on the naysayers within Congress who are against passing gun laws for any reason,” they told interviewer Elaine Godfrey. “They legitimately somehow believe that having guns will make people safer, which has statistically proven over years and years and years to have especially negatively impacted children. Or they just don’t seem to care.” In 2020, the latest year for which there is data, 4,368 children 19 and under were killed by firearms in the US, making firearms the leading cause of death for this age group.
While the legislative framework introduced Sunday is nowhere near what activists and President Joe Biden are calling for, there is a sense that the announcement is a step in the right direction; as Gonzáles said in their Atlantic interview, “It’s definitely a start. We’ve got to begin somewhere.”
The framework has a heavy focus on mental health and school interventions
Perhaps what is most surprising about the framework is that it exists at all, and that it’s the product of a bipartisan group of legislators — Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), John Cornyn (R-TX), and Thom Tillis (R-NC) are the lead negotiators on the framework, with a larger group including Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), Chris Coons (D-DE), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) also engaged in talks.
The framework itself is heavy on mental health interventions, like setting aside funding for in-school mental health and support services, as well as telehealth services for individuals and families in mental health crisis. It also calls for a national expansion of community mental health services for children and families.
Those measures echo some of the right-wing talking points that have historically emerged after past mass shooting incidents — that guns are not responsible for gun deaths, but instead, mental illness, the perceived lack of Christian influence on society, inadequate school security, and a host of other social ills are to blame.
While expanding access to and investment in mental health services is useful regardless of the reason, that alone can’t stop mass shootings. Nor can the proposed expansion of security measures in schools; although the framework is thin on details, it suggests investing in “programs to help institute safety measures in and around primary and secondary schools, support school violence prevention efforts and provide training to school personnel and students.” Theoretically, that could mean increasing the number of police officers at schools — who, as reporting continues to show, did not prevent the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, even as students called 911 from inside the school and parents tried to get in to help their children.
The framework also shows a strong focus on schools, though mass shootings can and do happen anywhere — grocery stores, concerts, and nightclubs included. “It’s frustrating to see people only reach out and care about things when it happens in school and to children,” González said in their Atlantic interview. “They’re like, ‘This is especially heinous!’ Well, it’s equally heinous when it happens in a synagogue. It’s equally heinous when it happens in a Walmart. It’s equally heinous when it happens to one person on the street. And it’s all the fault of Congress.”
How can we tease meaningful change out of the legislative framework?
There is meaning to be found in the proposal, as Eric Ruben, a professor at SMU’s Dedman School of Law and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, explained to Vox. Although legislation is still in the draft phase and it’s not clear at all whether the final bill could even pass the highly divided Senate, the aspects of the framework that does address firearms could be significant.
For example, state crisis intervention orders are already enacted in some states and, thus far, “don’t represent Second Amendment problems,” according to Ruben. ‘‘There are two lines of constitutional attack here. One would be the Second Amendment, the other would be the Due Process Clause,” he said, explaining that the crisis intervention orders, which allow a civil court to remove firearms or ammunition from people determined to be a danger to themselves or others, “require an initial showing to get a temporary removal order, and then it becomes final only after a hearing, where whoever is petitioning to have the firearms removed has to establish that the person presents a danger to themselves or others — and that person can challenge that effort in court during a hearing.” Expanding crisis intervention orders, then, could prove to be a meaningful, if incremental, step in gun control policy, and one that can withstand constitutional challenges.
Other elements of the framework, like closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole,” could present big wins, too, according to Ruben. That loophole refers to the Lautenberg Amendment, which prevents some domestic violence offenders — but not all violent domestic partners — from owning firearms. Extending that provision to abusive domestic and dating partners who aren’t spouses could make massive inroads in preventing gun violence, especially violence against women. According to a 2020 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, “when women are killed, they are more likely to be killed by an intimate partner than anyone else.” Research suggests a strong correlation between firearm use and intimate partner violence. Better definitions of domestic violence offenders would certainly serve to curb gun-related intimate partner homicides.
“One thing I will be interested to see, this enhanced background check for under-21 gun buyers... I’ll be really interested to see how that looks,” Ruben said. “The whole idea of the juvenile delinquency system is, these aren’t criminal proceedings, these find young people delinquent, we have a whole different lingo. But this one could be interesting, because in response to the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings, one thing that was notable was that those young men followed the law. They lawfully purchased the gun they purchased, and they bought them at 18.” Extending the background check period for under-21 gun buyers would actually provide adequate time for the background checks to be completed, since the current statute provides a three-day window for background checks. If nothing is flagged on a purchaser’s record within that timeframe, even if the background check is incomplete, a dealer is allowed to complete the sale.
Despite the potential that the framework holds, there’s still the matter of finding 10 Republican senators who could provide a filibuster-proof majority and pass the resulting legislation, which is no small feat. Already, MAGA supporters in the House of Representatives are deriding the framework, falsely claiming that it impinges on Second Amendment rights and calling the Republican legislators working on it RINOs.
MAGA reaction to today’s news of a bi-partisan compromise in the Senate for gun control bill. pic.twitter.com/ZsnJ8gNM8Y— Ron Filipkowski (@RonFilipkowski) June 12, 2022
The Senate also has limited time to draft and vote on the legislation before its two-week July recess — very little time, given the contentious nature of gun control legislation. But if it does happen, the House of Representatives — which already passed a broad gun control package earlier in the week — will likely pass whatever is able to make it through the Senate, marking some actual momentum to enact legislation that will curb gun violence and will save lives.