It was different this time, and the massacre of children finally spurred enough Senate Republicans into thinking they had to be seen doing a thing about guns. Fourteen of them voted with all of the Democrats to advance the not-really-about-guns gun safety agreement negotiators have been working on for the past month, following the back-to-back massacres in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas.
The legislation, the “Bipartisan Safer Communities Act,” doesn’t get at the cause of gun violence and the horrendous death toll of these massacres: guns, especially assault rifles. (One-page summary here.) There is no ban or even limits placed on assault weapons, on high-capacity magazines, or other accessories, and there are no universal background checks for gun buyers. Some loopholes have been shrunk, some gun purchases have been made a little bit harder. But a bill has passed the first procedural hurdle in a 50/50 Senate, and at least some Senate Republicans are finally acknowledging that we have a problem with guns in this country.
That’s something, and frankly more than this writer expected—I’m glad to have been proven wrong thus far, though there’s still work to do and this bill by no means solves the problem of guns. There’s still a cloture vote on Thursday to end debate to overcome, and then final passage. But the first hurdle—and the likeliest place for a Rand Paul style of derailment—is surmounted.
There’s still a fundamental problem on the Democrats’ part in getting here: They ceded to Republican arguments that the problem is mental health and school safety and not simply the fact that the country is awash in deadly weapons. The extra funding in the bill for mental health support is a good thing, but a good thing that could have been achieved through Medicaid expansion to the hold-out states without pushing the myth that mental illness is intrinsically tied to violence and further stigmatizing it. It accepts school massacres as inevitable by beefing up school security—which does not make Black and brown students safer, since they’re often targets of abuse from cops at school—and creating programs for trauma support in schools for after the attacks occur.
There are some improvements, though none is without a downside. It enhances background checks for 18 to 21 year olds seeking to buy assault weapons. That imposes a waiting period on them from three to 10 days, which could prevent some impulse massacres. But that provision sunsets in 10 years, ending in 2032.
The bill includes $750 million that could help states that don’t have red flag or crisis intervention laws implement them. These laws allow for courts to order weapons removed from people determined to be a danger to themselves or others. The grant money, however, is in the form of Byrne JAG grants and can be used for a variety of law enforcement and judicial programs, including mental heath courts, drug courts, and veteran courts. This is a win for Republicans whose states don’t have and won’t pass red flag laws. They want their states to still be able to access the money, so other “crisis intervention” programs will receive it and guns don’t necessarily have to be removed from people in crisis.
The loophole that allows dating partners convicted of domestic violence to keep their guns is partially closed. Current law only bars individuals who have committed violence against a spouse, live-in partner, or someone with whom they share children from owning guns. The ban has been expanded to anyone convicted of domestic violence against someone they have a “continuing serious relationship of a romantic or intimate nature” with, including “recent former” dating partners. It does not stipulate what “recent” means. It is not retroactive, so survivors from past attacks can’t petition to have their abuser’s weapons taken away. It also allows people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence to get their guns back in five years if they don’t commit other crimes.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline calls it “partially closing” the loophole, and a “significant step,” but advocates warn that there’s still a loophole in the “recent” language. “He doesn’t need to be ‘recent’ to cause harm,” Susan B. Sorenson, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies family violence, told The Washington Post. “Feelings, not all of them positive, live on long after a relationship has ended.”
The bill creates new federal statutes against gun trafficking and straw trafficking, making it easier to prosecute individuals buying guns for people who are not allowed to purchase them. That includes up to 15 years for illegally buying a gun for another person, and 25 years if that gun is used in a felony, terrorism, or trafficking. It gives the judge some flexibility in sentencing, allowing for lower sentences for domestic violence survivors, longer sentences for gang members and gun runners. It redefines “federally licenses firearms dealer” to try to crack down on sellers who evade federal licensing requirements, clarifying who needs to register, conduct background checks, and record sales.
The mental health components of the bill are both necessary and profoundly unfortunate, providing $500 billion for school-based care, another $500 million to health professionals, $80 million for rapid access to services from pediatricians in the event of a gun massacre in a school, and $60 million for training those pediatricians in how to provide mental health care. That is just such a deeply, deeply disturbing acknowledgment of how fucked up we are in this country that we accept massacres of children as inevitable.
So inevitable that the bill has $240 million for helping schools recognize mental health issues among school kids and $28 million for dealing with ongoing trauma of students having to train for school shootings in recognition that they’re inevitable, and then another $40 million for dealing with the aftermath when it does happen.
That’s more than $300 million to try to preserve the mental health of an entire generation that’s growing up with the conviction that their lives could be brutally ended at any time for absolutely no reason. And the adults who are supposed to be protecting them can’t, or won’t, do a damned thing about it. The federal government could offer $1 million to buy back a single assault weapon and get 300 million off the streets. That would be a start. At least the bill says that the $300 million for school safety programs cannot be used to arm teachers, so there’s one element of school safety in it—there won’t be more guns floating around schools.
The mental health spending in the bill is vital, and has the Hyde Amendment attached to be sure that the mental health of someone with an unplanned pregnancy and no options can’t be helped with an abortion. But there’s $250 million for community mental health programs and $150 million for the suicide/crisis hotlines. Again, though, as necessary as this funding is, tying it to guns is just backward and potentially could prevent someone who needs help from reaching out, either because they fear being stigmatized as a potential school shooter or because they don’t want to speak up and risk someone taking their guns away.
On the political side, House Republican leadership is going to whip against the bill. Just one House Republican, Rep. Tony Gonzales, who is from Uvalde, has said he’ll vote for it. As many as 10 or 15 might defect to pass the bill. Thus far House Democrats are expressing disappointment that the bill doesn’t really address the basic problem of guns, but there doesn’t seem to be organized opposition to passing it.