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WASHINGTON — The announcement Sunday of a tenuous deal on gun control legislation in the U.S. Senate is the culmination of a decade-long effort by gun control activists to wrest political power away from the National Rifle Association and conservative politicians who the lobbying group has supported.
“This is historic. It's a first-in-a-generation framework for a bipartisan compromise,” progressive organizer Shannon Watts of Moms Demand Action told Yahoo News on Sunday night, hours after details of the deal were announced. It includes expanded background checks, incentives for red flag laws and closure of the so-called "boyfriend loophole."
In an evenly divided Senate, 10 Republicans were needed to advance the measure. As of Sunday, the working group led by Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, had managed to achieve that feat in the wake of horrifying mass shootings last month in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas, not to mention the equally horrifying prospect of more mass shootings to come.
“Families are scared,” Cornyn acknowledged in a Sunday statement announcing the deal.
The fragile coalition he and Murphy have cobbled together could shatter as legislators fill out the proposal with details. But if the coalition holds, President Biden will sign the first major gun control bill since the assault weapons ban that Bill Clinton ushered into law 28 years ago.
“Let’s recognize that today’s announcement doesn’t mean we have a solution, but it does support more responsible gun ownership, actor Matthew McConaughey said in a statement. A native of Uvalde, McConaughey visited the White House last week to plead for stronger gun control measures.
In many ways, a Democratic victory on gun control — however modest, relative to the kind of restrictions progressive activists would like to see — represents the culmination of a lesson 10 years in the making, a lesson that began on a day that is among the most tragic in recent American history.
After a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012, in what was the worst school shooting in the nation’s history, President Obama vowed to enact stricter gun control laws.
“I will use all the powers of this office to help advance efforts aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.” he said a week after the shooting. Standing beside him was the man Obama would appoint to head his gun control task force, a veteran legislator who had been instrumental in the passage of the 1994 assault weapons ban: then-Vice President Joe Biden.
In the months that followed, senators from both parties engaged in talks to impose universal background checks on gun purchases. But despite an initial gust of optimism, those negotiations failed in the face of determined opposition from conservatives and gun rights advocates.
“All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington,” Obama said on April 17, 2013, as it became clear that the Senate’s efforts had failed. Standing next to him, again, was Biden, arms crossed. Next to the vice president stood the families of children who had been slain in Newtown.
“We got close,” says Eric Schultz, who was a deputy White House press secretary at the time. “There wasn’t anything left on the field.”
The emotional intensity of the moment, which turned from sorrow to hope to bitter disappointment, led many liberals to believe that if the slaughter of 20 children could not compel Congress to act, then nothing would. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 only seemed to bolster the conventional wisdom that gun control was not so much a losing issue as an issue that had already been lost.
At the same time, however, activist groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and March for Our Lives (founded after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla.) were beginning to do the kind of work that pro-gun activists had been doing for years.
“Things did change after those shootings,” says March for Our Lives press secretary Noah Lumbantobing, noting that after the Parkland massacre, Florida passed new gun laws including raising the age for rifle purchases to 21. They were signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican.
“It’s simply the right thing to do,” said the state’s attorney general Pam Bondi, an ardent supporter of President Trump who would go on to work in his White House, as the state was sued by the NRA.
Florida became a model for what successful activism would look like in a country where most ordinary citizens agree on the need to enact stricter measures. Enough pressure had to be put on Republicans to help them overcome fear of the NRA, which would fight any new laws regardless of their popularity.
(Scott is now a U.S. senator; he was not among the Republicans who worked on the deal announced on Sunday.)
In the six months after Parkland, Pew found that 50 new gun control laws had been passed across the country. The new gun activists were young, having come of age after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. They were disenchanted and unwilling to take promises at face value. They marched on Washington. They released a video called "Generation Lockdown," a devastating look at how normal school shootings had become.
They promised, as the NRA long had, to let voters know where candidates for elected office stood.
Even as Washington seemed unwilling to act after Sandy Hook, increasingly emboldened activists pressured state legislatures into enacting new restrictions. “Congress is not where this work begins — it’s where it ends,” Watts says. She points to Virginia, where 10 new gun-control laws went into effect two years ago. Those laws ranged from the big-picture (universal background checks) to the small (banning trigger activators), and they went into effect in a state where the NRA is headquartered.
“That's the trajectory,” she told Yahoo News in a phone interview. “And that took close to a decade.”
Though he had been one of the senators primarily responsible for the 1994 assault weapons ban, Joe Biden did not have gun control as a priority when he was inaugurated in 2021. There was the coronavirus pandemic, above all, but also the Afghanistan war he had promised to end. Then came the war in Ukraine and inflation.
But then came May. The month began with a racist massacre in Buffalo (10 dead) and ended with a massacre in a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school (21 dead). On June 2, just one day after a gunman opened fire in a Tulsa hospital (four dead), Biden used a White House address to lay out a gun control vision vastly more ambitious than Obama’s a decade before.
“We need to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. And if we can’t ban assault weapons, then we should raise the age to purchase them from 18 to 21. Strengthen background checks and safe storage laws and red flag laws. Repeal the immunity that protects gun manufacturers from liability. Address the mental health crisis,” the president said.
Biden has often positioned himself as the scrappy underdog able to achieve what his more celebrated onetime boss could not. It was Biden who ended the war in Afghanistan, however chaotically, and it was Biden who successfully convinced Congress to allot more than $1 trillion to repair American infrastructure.
Enacting significant gun reform would surely restore at least some of the transformational luster Biden enjoyed early in his presidency. Failure to do so would only build on the narrative that took hold after the collapse of his Build Back Better domestic spending agenda — that of a president whose rhetoric is not accompanied by legislative results.
“Speeches are nice, but it’s time for action,”a March for Our Lives press statement warned after Biden’s speech on June 2, a not-especially-subtle allusion to the disconnect between what the White House says and what Congress does.
After outlining his vision, Biden let the Senate do its work. The year before, he had taken a leading role in trying to persuade recalcitrant centrist Democrats to back his Build Back Better agenda. The regular White House visits of Sens. Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema became the stuff of intrigue, even as the actual contents of the multitrillion-dollar proposal mystified many Americans. In the end, the talks with Manchin and Sinema collapsed in a heap of inscrutable Beltway intrigue.
This time, the White House took a more relaxed approach.
“We’re going to give it the space that it needs,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on June 6. Murphy kept the White House apprised of the talks, which hinged on Cornyn’s ability to attract enough Republican support to overcome a certain challenge from the right wing of the GOP conference. The talks also received a tacit blessing from Sen. Mitch McConnell, whom Cornyn would like to succeed as the chamber’s Republican leader.
Cornyn’s fellow Texan McConaughey — the Academy Award winning actor who had grown up in Uvalde and traveled there after May’s massacre — brought star power to the proceedings without maligning Republicans. In an impassioned White House speech, he begged Congress for action. He met with Cornyn and other Republicans.
"Murphy and Cornyn both wanted to get a deal," says a person familiar with the negotiations. “They've been at this since Uvalde.”
The results of post-Sandy Hook activism now seemed to bear fruit. Sen. Cynthia Lummis, a Republican from gun-friendly Wyoming, said on June 6 that she was struck by her constituents’ vehement support for action.
"I've been a little surprised at the phone calls we've been getting and how receptive Wyoming callers seem to be to address guns in some manner," she confessed to CNN.
Critics have said that the new measures do not go nearly far enough. Reinstituting the assault weapons ban remains a top ambition for some, despite the fact that handguns are used far more frequently to kill or injure people. The framework revealed by Murphy and Cornyn does not universalize background checks. And though it incentivizes the passage of red flag laws on the state level, it enacts no federal mandate.
“Each step we take will be progress,” says Schultz, who keenly remembers the disappointment that followed Sandy Hook. Speaking to Yahoo News as negotiations were beginning, he praised the Biden administration for allowing senators to craft a compromise free of White House interference.
Schultz and others say that the near-certain confirmation of federal prosecutor Steve Dettelbach as head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is another auspicious sign that an important shift is underway. The agency has not had a Senate-confirmed director since 2015.
For activists like Watts, whatever the Senate does in the coming days is only the beginning. “And then it's on to the midterm elections," she told Yahoo news on Sunday evening. "This is an issue that is important to suburban women and moms,” she said, suggesting a potential peril for Republicans seen as unwilling to stand up to the NRA.
“We have this grassroots army that didn't exist after Sandy Hook that will make sure there are consequences for inaction,” she said.