U.S. Senate approves first major gun legislation since 1994, one month after Uvalde shooting

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn offers remarks on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, on Nov. 2, 2021. (Reuters/Rod Lamkey - Cnp/Sipa Usa, Reuters/Rod Lamkey - Cnp/Sipa Usa)

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. John Cornyn succeeded Thursday in passing landmark gun legislation in the Senate, an achievement that comes just weeks after 19 children and two teachers were murdered in a school shooting in Uvalde.

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Known as the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, Cornyn expended two decades of political capital toward moving the bill, in what was an almost unthinkable move for a Republican representing a state that often proudly touts that it has the most firearms and some of the loosest gun restrictions.

Cornyn, the bill’s lead sponsor, worked closely with Republican and Senate colleagues garnering enough votes from his own party in the Senate to overcome a filibuster threat with some breathing room.

"While the discussion surrounding this topic causes emotions to run high, and I understand why," Cornyn said in a floor speech ahead of the vote, "for too long, some politicians have tried to pit the right to live in a safe community against the constitutional right to keep and bear arms. They make it seem like our country can only have one or the other."

In a final vote, the bill passed the Senate 65-33. The Senate gave initial passage to the bill Tuesday. It heads next to the House, where it is expected to easily pass. President Joe Biden has signaled he will sign it into law.

The bill is widely viewed as a series of modest changes to current gun regulations, falling far short of proposals pushed by House Democrats and Biden to raise the age to purchase a gun, ban assault weapons and expand universal background checks. Nonetheless, the bill is at the same time poised to be the most significant congressional gun policy achievement in a generation.

One of the Republicans who voted against the bill, however, was Cornyn’s Texas colleague, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

Cruz went to the floor touting his own gun safety proposals dating back several years, most of which focused on securing schools.

Cruz said the gun bill at hand would "strip away Americans' constitutional rights."

"I think the chances that this bill will do anything meaningful, to actually prevent the next mass murder are very low," he said. "That's not what this bill is designed to do. This bill is designed, among other things, to satiate the urge to 'do something.'"

"After every one of these [mass shootings], the call comes out to 'do something,'" he added. "I agree, do something, but do something that works. Something that will stop these crimes.

"This bill ain't that."

Almost exactly two hours later, Cornyn delivered his final speech advocating for the bill. He said politicians have posed “a false choice” between public safety and the right to bear arms.

"Following the shooting I promised to do everything in my power to try to answer that call," he said, while holding up air quotes as he added, "To do something."

"I don’t believe in doing nothing in the face of what we saw in Uvalde, and we’ve seen in far too many communities,” he continued. “Doing nothing is an abdication of our responsibility as representatives of the American people here in the United States Senate,” he added, while stressing he “would not support any provisions that infringed on the rights of law-abiding gun owners.”

The most noteworthy provision of the bill would close what is known as “the boyfriend loophole.” Current federal statutes prohibit firearm purchases for those convicted of committing domestic violence against spouses or partners who live together or share a child.

To close the loophole, the Senate bill will leave to the courts the contours of expanding how to define and include dating partners who commit such abuse. Conservatives previously raised concerns that an expansive definition of a partner could threaten constitutional rights. The new bill will also permit offenders to regain their gun rights if there are no further offenses over five years.

Another conservative objection involved an incentive program to encourage states to embrace red flag laws, which prevent individuals who are deemed dangerous from obtaining guns. In the final language, grants will go toward not just implementing red flag laws but also to courts that handle drug cases or cases involving veterans.

The bill also includes a 10-day window to allow local officials to scour databases for disqualifying information on first-time gun buyers under the age of 21.

The margin of support from GOP senators is noteworthy in that it surpassed the 60 votes needed to override a filibuster. But it also meant that no one Republican senator can be categorized as “the deciding vote” in future political campaign advertising, which would have been the case had Cornyn won the support of only 10 Republicans.

But 65 votes is less than Cornyn’s support for his other gun legislation, known as “Fix NICS,” which had the support of 77 senators ahead of passage in 2018. That measure, which Cornyn attached to a massive spending bill, closed loopholes and improved the national background check system.

On Wednesday, Cruz introduced his own bill, which included nearly $28 billion in funding for enhanced school security and mental health services. He introduced the bill with U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, who is widely viewed as a potential rival to Cornyn in a future leadership race.

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