How John Cornyn and the U.S. Senate defied 26 years of inaction to tackle gun violence

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaks with U.S Sen. John Cornyn during the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing to examine protecting children from gun violence in Washington on June 15, 2022. (Cliff Owen - Cnp/Sipa Usa Via Reuters, Cliff Owen - Cnp/Sipa Usa Via Reuters)

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Sen. John Cornyn had just left a convention center stage in Houston, where he had been mercilessly booed by conservative activists furious at his leading role in the most serious gun-law talks on Capitol Hill in a generation, when the Texas Republican picked up his phone and sent a message.

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The day before, Cornyn had stormed out of a key bargaining session inside the Capitol, telling reporters, “I’m done.” And video clips of the Houston jeers were already bouncing around social media, leading many observers to conclude that the talks — launched in the wake of the May 24 massacre inside a Texas elementary school — were on the brink of collapse.

But Cornyn made clear in that text message to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, that there was nothing to worry about: “We both know that when we’re doing what’s right, it doesn’t matter what other people think,” he wrote, according to Sinema.

The exchange underscored the improbable confluence of circumstances that, within a month’s time, produced the most significant federal legislation to address gun violence in nearly three decades — the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which passed the Senate on Thursday, the House on Friday and was signed by President Biden on Saturday morning.

The breakthrough was pushed along by a core group of negotiators — Sens. Cornyn, Sinema, Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, and Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina — who seized the moment and used a distinctive combination of policy expertise, legislative experience and political courage to push past obstacles that had repeatedly stymied previous attempts at compromise. They succeeded even though it is an election year, in spite of a largely hands-off approach from congressional leaders and an unpopular president, and despite an oppressive history of failure dating back nearly a decade.

“It came together very quickly, and I think it’s because we all have this common desire to help address the fact that folks across our country were afraid and begging us to do something to save lives while also protecting the constitutional rights of Americans,” Sinema said.

It began the night of the Uvalde, massacre, when Sinema marched onto the Senate floor and told Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, that she was distraught and intended to do something about gun violence. He told her to talk to Cornyn and Tillis.

Cornyn was an obvious interlocutor for Republicans. A silver-haired former state Supreme Court justice and Judiciary Committee veteran, he knew the minutiae of federal gun laws as well as anyone on Capitol Hill — and enjoyed a sterling relationship with gun-rights groups. He was also a veteran of multiple attempts to forge compromise on gun violence legislation, but most of them had fizzled — making him a figure of suspicion among many Democrats who believed he was too beholden to the National Rifle Association to ever cut a meaningful deal.

But he had also dealt with the aftermath of a string of mass shootings in his home state — Fort Hood, Sutherland Springs, El Paso, Midland-Odessa, and now Uvalde. And he — along with McConnell, who blessed the talks — knew that the political risk he would assume with the GOP base could have a payoff by defusing a persistent issue with suburban voters that had been trending away from Republicans.

“I think doing nothing is not only bad policy, it’s bad politics,” Cornyn said. “And if people want to get back and talk about other things — like inflation or the border or crime or whatever — then we need to resolve this in a positive way.”

Tillis was a less obvious choice. A former businessman and state legislator, he had presided over sweeping new expansions of gun rights as North Carolina House speaker. But he also was known for a pragmatic streak and had worked with Sinema on the bipartisan infrastructure deal the year before. Neither senator had negotiated over federal gun laws before, but they knew how bipartisan deals could come together on Capitol Hill — with ample trust and constant communication.

The fourth negotiator, Murphy, was as crucial to securing Democratic buy-in as Cornyn was to convincing Republicans. His formative political experience came just five weeks after his election to the Senate in 2012 — when he stood inside a Newtown, Conn., firehouse as parents learned their children had been shot to death inside Sandy Hook Elementary School. He vowed to them to lead a movement to change America’s gun laws and soon emerged as Democrats’ most effective voice on the issue.

Barely an hour after the news broke from Uvalde, Murphy was on the Senate floor pleading to his colleagues for action: “What are we doing, why are you here, if not to solve a problem as existential as this?” And within a few hours after that, he was texting with Sinema about next steps.

Murphy, meanwhile, conferred with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-New York, about whether it was worthwhile to even pursue a deal. A failed effort could sap oxygen from Democrats’ other legislative to-do list, and there was another appealing option: The House had sent two background check bills to the Senate last year, and while they had scant GOP support, Democrats could hold a vote and put Republicans on the record for the coming midterm campaigns.

But Murphy and Schumer concluded the atmosphere seemed ripe for a deal, and they decided to give it a few weeks to play out. “You could see things were different,” Schumer said. “There was a national trauma out there, and I spoke to Republicans who said, ‘I’m hearing — get something done — from constituents I never would have heard it from before.’ ”

Two days after Uvalde, the four would-be dealmakers huddled in Sinema’s pink-hued “hideaway” office in the Capitol basement hashing out the outlines of a deal. Members of both parties quickly agreed that a robust increase in funding for mental health and school security would lie at the heart of any deal. But gun measures would have to be included, too, and the Republicans set out some clear red lines.

“We did not want to have a discussion about raising the age” to purchase rifles, Tillis said. “We didn’t want to have a discussion about a mandatory waiting period. We did not want to have a discussion about a federal red-flag law. … No banning any class of any weapon that can be legally purchased today, those sorts of things, and that went fairly quickly.”

But there were other provisions available for discussion, and most of them were the result of earlier, failed attempts at compromise. Murphy and Cornyn, for instance, had talked intensively a year ago about refining which gun sellers needed to run background checks on their customers. In 2019, Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, and Lindsey O. Graham (R-South Carolina, had kicked around a grant program that would encourage states to develop “red flag” laws aimed at keeping guns away from dangerous people. And Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, had explored closing the “boyfriend loophole,” which would keep guns away from a wider group of domestic violence offenders than had been targeted in the 1996 law that represented the last major federal gun-control expansion.

“All of those failed negotiations put a lot of meat on the bone for us and brought a lot of potential partners to the table,” Murphy said. “Sometimes failure after failure after failure eventually leads to success, and I don’t think we would have been successful if we hadn’t had all those failed attempts in the past.”

Beyond those off-the-shelf proposals, Cornyn and Murphy started working through a new concept aimed squarely at stopping the young, troubled mass shooters who had killed dozens in Newtown and Uvalde, as well as the suspect in last month’s shooting in Buffalo. While there was limited appetite among Republicans for a 21-and-over age limit on rifle sales, they figured there might be wider buy-in for some tougher scrutiny on those youngest gun buyers by incorporating sealed juvenile justice and mental health records.

But hashing that out — and even some of the other, earlier proposals — meant tiptoeing through a minefield of details that could cripple a deal, and the four senators were working against the clock: If the Senate was going to pass a gun bill, it would have to be done by June 23, the day senators were set to leave for a two-week recess. Part of that reflected a busy summer legislative schedule Schumer had to manage, but mostly it reflected a hard-won lesson about gun politics: Time is the enemy.

It was four months after Sandy Hook before the Senate took a failed vote on a background-check expansion bill, and John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said “one of the problems was, too much time elapsed.”

“Other matters interceded; we lost the urgency,” he said, “and so we were going to make sure that never happened again.” While the negotiators hashed out a deal, Everytown — the best-funded group in a constellation of gun-control organizations — had its members contact senators with more than 1 million calls and messages, dropped thousands of petitions at home-state offices, held multiple rallies on Capitol Hill and ran a $400,000 ad campaign with one message for lawmakers: “Don’t look away.”

Meanwhile, gun-rights organizations were split. Hard-line groups such as the Gun Owners of America and the National Association for Gun Rights spurred their members to action, but the NRA remained silent as the talks wore on, and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the industry’s trade organization, offered guarded support. Behind the scenes, representative of those organizations were in touch with Republican senators and staff involved in the deal. But lawmakers had decided they would have input, not a veto.

“I have a lot of respect for the NRA, and I have a lot of respect for various conservative organizations,” Tillis said. “But when I look at this bill, I have to talk about the bill — not the concern of the camel’s nose under the tent or the slippery slope or whatever. … It doesn’t lay the predicate for anything more.”

Both organizations ultimately aired objections to the bill, but it was not enough to derail a deal. The senators, meanwhile, worked to brush off a series of other challenges. A June 2 White House address featured Biden calling for measures that Republicans would never accept, including an assault weapons ban and repeal of the federal law giving gunmakers immunity from product liability lawsuits. But Murphy and Sinema made clear that the parameters of the deal were not going to change, and the talks continued.

The group had an arithmetic problem, however. Besides the “core four,” there was a larger group of about a dozen senators who had shown interest in coming to a deal and were helping to work through pieces of the package. But it would take 10 Republicans to break a filibuster, and the group needed to show public momentum, so Cornyn and Tillis went about shopping a list of principles — a framework — around their conference.

They ultimately picked up two retiring members: Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, who came from a firmly pro-gun state but was also personally invested in expanding a mental health pilot program he had hatched with Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, and Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, a conservative who had developed a maverick streak late in his 27-year congressional career.

The night before the negotiators publicly released the framework — and the list of 10 Republican senators committed to it — Murphy sat down at the dining table in his Connecticut home and made his way through a Rolodex of tragedy, making calls to a network of gun violence victims he had encountered over a decade of activism, from Sandy Hook to Parkland to the streets of Washington. The deal was not done, by any stretch, he would tell them, but a breakthrough was at hand.

“It was one of the most emotional nights of my life,” he said. “There was a combination of relief but then a lot of sadness that it had taken this long. I mean, a lot of these parents wonder, ‘Why this didn’t happen after my kid was killed?’ ”

The framework principles still needed to be written into law, and complications abounded. Closing the boyfriend loophole was a priority for Sinema, a licensed social worker who had seen the effects of domestic violence on children. But Republicans didn’t want an open-ended definition of what constituted a “dating relationship,” and they insisted on a process where misdemeanor offenders could get their Second Amendment rights back.

There was sparring over red-flag laws, as well, with Cornyn taking pains to ensure the bill would facilitate those laws in the states that wanted them but not encourage them in those that did not. And making the juvenile background checks work — amid wildly disparate state privacy and database standards — was persistently nettlesome.

By June 16, matters had come to a head. A bill needed to be finalized over the weekend if they had any chance of meeting the pre-recess deadline, and key decisions were still unsettled. Cornyn had made clear to his partners that he needed to catch a plane to Texas that afternoon, though he did not volunteer why. With no breakthrough, he left the room in the Capitol basement and told reporters gathered outside that he was “frustrated” and “not as optimistic.”

The next day, he arrived at the Republican Party of Texas’s annual convention, where he offered delegates an update on the talks — emphasizing all the gun-control measures that had been ruled out — and they gave him catcalls in return. The party unanimously passed a resolution rebuking the talks, as well as measures condemning homosexuality, calling for the repeal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and supporting a referendum on Texas secession.

While it offered a stark display of the political risks he was assuming by leading the talks, Cornyn said that was not why he showed up: “It wasn’t so much about showing anything other than the fact I wasn’t going to be intimidated,” he said. “And given some of the other stuff they voted on, I think they kind of showed it really represented a very small, vocal faction of the Republican Party.”

The other three negotiators said the scene had no effect on the talks, and all four continued hammering out the bill over the weekend in a constant stream of text messages and phone calls. Even so, last minute snags erupted. A deal seemed to be in place Monday night, but then Burr insisted that the bill contain strict language preventing public funds from being spent on abortions, requiring part of the bill to be restructured. Even after the bill was released, a procedural vote Tuesday was held open for more than two hours while Senate lawyers scrubbed the bill for technical and constitutional snags.

As the Senate entered the final throes of debate Thursday, moving toward the decisive 65-33 final vote, Whitney Austin, 41, watched from the gallery above the floor. Austin was shot 12 times in a September 2018 shooting inside the Cincinnati bank headquarters where she worked, playing dead on the lobby floor to survive, then spending months recovering in the hospital.

Before she was released, she had started a nonprofit, Whitney/Strong, to advocate for compromise on gun laws, and among the first lawmakers the Louisville resident lobbied was McConnell: “I didn’t get yes at the beginning, but I didn’t give up.”

As she walked up to the gallery Thursday, invited by McConnell’s office, Austin said thoughts of failure ran through her mind: “Are you sure you have the votes? Is anyone going to change their mind? Am I being punked?” she said. “I’ve only been working actively for four years, but I’ve had enough very difficult conversations to believe that any moment it could all go wrong.”

Across the chamber she spotted Mark Barden, who had lost his son Daniel at Sandy Hook and founded his own advocacy group, and flashed him a heart sign. At one point Thursday evening, McConnell himself came up to the gallery and told Austin, “We’re going to get it done.” She gave him a hug.

“It can feel like you’re banging your head against the wall, and I personally have had many moments where I think: Why am I doing this? This is never going to change,” she said afterward. “But I didn’t stop, and all those other people didn’t stop, and we got here.”

Disclosure: Everytown for Gun Safety has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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