the inside game

How 4 Senators Finally Got Gun Control Done

“I’m so sick of thoughts and prayers.”

Senators Kyrsten Sinema, Tom Tillis, Chris Murphy, and John Cornyn were key to getting the bill negotiated and past key hurdles. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images
Senators Kyrsten Sinema, Tom Tillis, Chris Murphy, and John Cornyn were key to getting the bill negotiated and past key hurdles. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

The scene in downtown Houston threatened to topple the delicate work that had put the U.S. Senate on the cusp of passing the country’s most important gun bill in three decades.

Texas senator John Cornyn was walking onto the stage at the state Republican Party’s convention last Friday, and the dark, red-lit room was turning hostile, filling with boos and furious chants of “Say no to Cornyn!” The conservative had been leading the GOP’s negotiations on a round of gun-control proposals following the mass killings in Uvalde and Buffalo that had surprisingly coalesced in a viable framework rather than following the usual pattern of collapsing into failure. Still, the whole endeavor was delicate. Cornyn had been quietly meeting with his Republican colleague Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Democrats Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to try and see if they could write a law that would satisfy everyone. The basic outlines of these meetings were known to the outside world, but it wasn’t yet obvious how the negotiations would conclude or when.

The senators themselves weren’t quite sure, either, and they entered the weekend of the Texas convention even more stuck than the public appreciated, struggling to find acceptable funding for a “red flag”–law grant proposal and wording for the “boyfriend loophole” measure. Cornyn, a fourth-term senator with an A+ rating from the NRA and a history of destroying primary opponents, had been shouted down by his own party’s activists, who insisted, “No red flags!” It wouldn’t have shocked anyone, not least some of Cornyn’s colleagues back in Washington, if this political pressure was the final straw that broke the negotiations.

The Capitol Hill chatter was, at that point, mostly about how unexpected it was that the four had even gotten to the point where a compromise might be in sight. They had started their conversations in person, sometimes in Sinema’s hideaway on the Hill, but they quickly started making progress over Zoom, on phone calls, and in text messages, the four lawmakers not always finding themselves in Washington at the same time. Much of the work on the Republican side happened in that party’s lunches and meetings on the Senate side, too. There, Cornyn and Tillis heard out and talked down skeptical right-wing colleagues. On the Democratic side, Murphy, who has been a face of his party’s gun-control pushes ever since he was a congressman representing Newtown in 2012, took the lead on publicly communicating their positions, confident his party would be behind him. By last weekend, the four were in constant contact about the final details, trying to wrap up the text in time to secure a vote before the Senate dispersed for its Fourth of July holiday. Even after the Texas GOP formally voted to rebuke Cornyn for his work on the negotiations, the senators searched for an acceptable end-game. By the time he was back in D.C., they had one, resolving the key points of difference on red-flag laws and the boyfriend loophole. The scene at the Houston convention “happened at an incredibly important part of the negotiations,” said Murphy. “And he never wavered.”

In the wake of Buffalo and Uvalde, there was plenty of reason to be skeptical that the Senate would actually pass a law — after all, mass school shootings like Parkland and Newtown had not nudged the upper chamber into serious action, nor had catastrophes in Las Vegas or Pittsburgh. “I spoke to a lot of reporters immediately after the shooting in Uvalde who asked me do I think we can get anything done, and I was despondent,” said Delaware senator Chris Coons, a Democrat. “I said, ‘No, I don’t think we can get anything done.’ I’m so sick of thoughts and prayers and explaining to Delawareans why we were not getting anything done. I don’t want to stir up false hope.”

At first, events followed a familiar trajectory: Democrats almost uniformly called for fundamental change to gun laws, and most Republicans fell silent or began ruling out obvious policy responses. Little about today’s atmosphere in the capital — an unpopular president, two mistrustful parties with negative appetite for cooperative give-and-take on headline issues, one of them still knee-jerkily opposed to firearms restrictions — provided much reason for hope. Even when Murphy and Cornyn started meeting to look for a way forward, their options seemed impossibly narrow. Cornyn promised from the start he wouldn’t restrict access to guns; Murphy acknowledged he couldn’t tick items off his party’s wish list but pledged real progress.

Yet one month since 19 children and two teachers were killed in Uvalde, the Senate has passed the historic bill — one that falls short of Democrats’ (and President Joe Biden’s) stated goals like universal background checks and a reimposed ban on assault weapons but that would nonetheless expand background checks, send states funding to implement red-flag laws and mental-health programs, crack down on straw purchasing, and, after intense negotiations, close the boyfriend loophole.

What was different this time? The about-face can, in large part, be attributed to quirks of timing.

Some were of a short-term nature. Murphy and Sinema worried that senators were set for a vacation from Washington so soon after they began meeting with their Republican counterparts. “When Congress goes on break, momentum for big things stalls,” Murphy told me this week. This time, however, that ended up helping their effort: When senators got back to their home states, they found their constituents were demanding action. The level of emotion among the American people had reached what Michigan senator Debbie Stabenow described as “a fever pitch.”

“There was a level of fear and anxiety in the voices and faces in people after Uvalde that I have not seen before,” Murphy explained. “Maybe it was that people were already strung out after two years of the pandemic, there’s just no answers to your kids anymore, no way to guarantee that you’re going to be safe. And the desperation for Congress to act in the wake of Buffalo and Uvalde just felt much more real and much more immediate.”

Still, the simple fact of constituent anger has not before been enough to sway, let alone fully convince, Republican senators to take action. But this week, 14, including their leader, Mitch McConnell, voted to consider the bill — four more than would be needed to pass it and a full dozen more than many Democrats expected a month ago. Fifteen signed on for the final vote to pass the law. (This likely would have been heralded as an even bigger deal if not for its bizarre surprise juxtaposition with the Supreme Court’s dramatic decision that Thursday morning to limit local governments’ powers to restrict gun carrying.)

A series of longer-term, slower-burn trends also became tailwinds for this particular bill. Gun-control groups are today better funded and better organized than in the past. Mass rallies, marches, and planned confrontations at home were impossible to ignore. Murphy has long argued that “we are in the process of building political power as a movement, and that process would take time before we were able to see success, and I still believe that theory to be true.” Now, “this happens to be a moment where the anti-gun-violence movement is mature and strong and was ready to meet this moment.”

But the shape of the behind-closed-doors negotiations in Washington helped: Early in the process, multiple small groups of senators who had been working on gun-adjacent matters saw a chance to bundle their priorities into the wider legislative package. “In one way or another, a number of us have been working on pieces of this for over a decade,” said Stabenow, who worked with Missouri Republican Roy Blunt to ensure the inclusion of a mental-health program they had been working on since 2014. That Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics scheme had been fully funded in eight states since then, and in the intervening years, Stabenow and Blunt had detected interest in the program from Cornyn, so the guns package felt like an obvious opportunity to get it passed.

As the bill came together, Murphy started to believe that the years of stops and starts on gun-control measures had become an unexpected positive: He felt that he and Cornyn had built up trust after working on a proposal to close the gun-show background-check loophole last year, even though it had failed, and that a similar dynamic held for Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, who worked on red-flag-law funding in 2019.

At this key bipartisan moment, though, the president — elected in part on promises of cooperation and political healing — was mostly absent from the process. This is, in large part, because Biden knows from experience that such laws fail when they are attached to unpopular or polarizing presidents. In 2013, he tried to create space for bipartisan negotiations by foregrounding his position as the White House’s point person on post–Sandy Hook legislation, figuring (with prodding from conservative Democrat Joe Manchin) that Barack Obama’s direct involvement might inflame Republicans.

This time, Biden and Murphy met about the path forward for the bill early on, and the president’s “view was simple: He was going to do as much or as little as necessary to get a deal,” Murphy told me. “We were given enormous space by our leadership and the White House, and that accrued to our benefit. The White House prime-time speech that the president gave was really effective — it came at a time the country needed a moral call to action. He effectively used his voice while understanding it wasn’t going to be constructive for the White House to micromanage the process.” Stabenow, who overlapped with Biden on Capitol Hill for a dozen years, has been talking to him about her and Blunt’s program since he was a candidate for president. In recent weeks, she kept White House aides in the loop about its role in the legislation, but Biden stayed away from those details.

And while pro-gun groups like the NRA have mounted intense lobbying and national pressure campaigns against previous rounds of gun-safety talks, the embattled organization offered no such massive effort this time, even as it made its opposition clear as soon as the legislative text was released. This relatively meager response suggested that the GOP side had kept the group in the loop on their progress, so it wasn’t surprised. The lack of a full-scale national campaign from the right likely made Cornyn’s position tenable. Any more well-funded pressure, and he may have felt that he had less space to maneuver, especially after the Houston convention.

If the bill passes, a significant question will be where, precisely, gun-control advocates on the left can go from here and when. With the political appetite for any sort of major legislation waning by the second in Washington ahead of a midterm election cycle that’s likely to be brutal for Democrats, it might be reasonable to assume the window for continued movement on gun safety has closed for the time being. If Republicans take charge of Congress, as expected, it may be nailed shut for longer, no matter how clear the polling is that voters support broader measures like universal background checks and higher age limits on gun purchases. Murphy’s counterargument is a long-term one: “There’s nothing in the history of social-change movements to suggest that everybody packs up and goes home after the first victory. In fact, the opposite happens,” he said. “We’ve had ten years of inaction at the federal level on guns. That can be dispiriting to the movement. This vision of how advocacy turns into change is addicting.”

The impetus for further change, then, will likely come from outside Washington. “I thought after Sandy Hook it was a political epiphany, and I was wrong,” Murphy said. “I’ve learned there are no moments of epiphany in American politics. It’s about power, and how it shifts.”

How 4 Senators Finally Got Bipartisan Gun Control Done