On Sunday, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy announced that the bipartisan gun regulation negotiations had reached a “framework” for legislation that would be forthcoming. It’s been touted as a “deal” by a breathless traditional media, but to be clear, as of now it’s a tentative agreement that 10 Republicans (enough to overcome a filibuster) have signed. That’s progress, but it’s also not a done deal. It’s also not commonsense gun regulations—these proposed regulations have a lot more to do with mental health and schools than guns.
There’s one significant concession from these 10 Republicans, should the framework become legislation and pass. It would close the so “boyfriend loophole” to prevent gun sales to people convicted of domestic violence offenses. Republicans spent three years preventing the Violence Against Woman Act from being reauthorized because Democrats wanted to include that provision. It finally passed when they dropped it.
It would also enhance background checks for people under 21 buying assault-type weapons, including a mandatory search of juvenile justice and mental health records for younger buyers. That would at least keep weapons out of the hands of 18-year-olds, like the Uvalde killer, for a few days. The Uvalde killer appears to not have a juvenile record, however, so even if this passes it likely wouldn’t have prevented him from getting the AR-15 he used to massacre school children and their teachers. It’s also entirely possible that the Republicans will try to force these two provisions out of any legislation. Even as the announcement was being made, they said so.
One Republican aide gave the game away to The Washington Post: “The details will be critical for Republicans, particularly the firearms-related provisions. […] One or more of these principles could be dropped if text is not agreed to.” Again, this agreement is tentative and could be scuttled by the other 40 Republican senators. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also made that pretty clear—he praised the negotiators but pointedly withheld an endorsement.
“I continue to hope their discussions yield a bipartisan product that makes significant headway on key issues like mental health and school safety, respects the Second Amendment, earns broad support in the Senate, and makes a difference for our country,” McConnell said. So not only did he not endorse the statement, he made it clear that guns should not be any part of what is being called gun safety legislation. That’s McConnell reserving the right to object to the “firearms-related provisions” the Republican aide pointed to, potentially dooming them.
We talk to gun control advocate and executive director of Guns Down America, Igor Volsky on Daily Kos' The Brief podcast
The other provisions included in the package include incentivizing states to pass red flag laws—but not requiring them; expanding mental health aid; and funding for school security. There are good and bad in the mental health assistance. It’s very necessary, particularly following the pandemic, which has exacerbated mental illness and substance abuse disorders. Expanding access to help is critical for entirely separate reasons than guns. In fact, expanding Medicaid nationally—12 states still refuse to do so—likely would have a far greater impact than what will be included here.
In fact, focusing on mental illness in gun violence doesn’t just do a disservice to people with mental illness, it’s harmful. It further stigmatizes mental illness and could actually deter people from seeking care. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) released a statement immediately following the Uvalde attack stressing that “Mental illness is not the problem.”
“It is incorrect and harmful to link mental illness and gun violence, which is often the case following a mass shooting,” NAMI continued. “Pointing to mental illness doesn’t get us closer as a nation to solving the problem and doing so leads to discrimination and stigma against those with mental illness—who are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. People across the globe live with mental illness, but only in the U.S. do we have an epidemic of senseless and tragic mass shootings.”
There’s also a threat in “strengthening” schools. The Justice Department has reviewed the data on putting more cops into schools, and failed to find any conclusive data that it has helped: “These studies provide no evidence base that suggests that police presence in schools makes a difference in improving safety outcomes.” What it does do, according to the Department of Education is criminalize regular kid behavior, particularly among Black and brown students, pushing them into the criminal justice system.
Black and brown students are well aware of that, and definitely do not feel safer with cops in their schools. High school senior Malika Mobley, co-president of Wake County Black Student Coalition, recalled for AP seeing school resource officers detain a classmate and force them into a police car. “They were crying, ‘Why are you doing this to me? I didn’t do anything,’” Mobley said. “We don’t see police presence as part of the solution,” Mobley continued. “If you really think about why police don’t make us safer, you can draw connections to all types of tragedies that impact the most marginalized among us.”
Katherine Dunn, director of the Opportunity to Learn program at the Advancement Project, agrees. Her group has documented at least 200 instances of school resource officers assaulting students since 2007. “It shows all the physical harms that young people experience by police,” she said. “It’s also the experience of being degraded and made to feel like a criminal because you have to walk down the hallway to your class with several armed cops, who are not there for your safety, who you see arrest your friends, assault your friends.”
The agreement as presented Sunday includes no ban on semi-automatic weapons, no ban on high-capacity magazines, no 21 minimum age to buy AR-15-style rifles, and no universal background checks. The progress in it is real—at least creating a waiting period for underaged buyers and closing that domestic violence loophole. Those are also the two provisions most likely to be vetoed by McConnell and fellow Republicans. The other provisions are on the face good, but below the surface potentially damaging.
It is encouraging that Republicans finally got to the point with public opinion that they feel the necessity of doing something. That’s good. There’s potential room for something to finally be done. But it’s far too early to assume that the framework announced this weekend will survive now that they’re looking at writing the actual legislation. It’s also important to recognize how dangerous it is to cede the arguments on mental illness and school safety to Republicans.