A bipartisan group of senators trying to find 60 votes for a legislative response to recent mass shootings is homing in on a proposal to provide grants for states to implement so-called red flag laws that would allow courts to order the temporary seizure of firearms from individuals deemed a threat to themselves or others.
Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have teamed up on red flag law legislation in recent years but have never found enough Republican support to get the votes needed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate.
Now the senators are trying again to build a bipartisan coalition after a teenager this week took a gun into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and killed 19 students and two teachers.
“I’m hearing a lot of positive interest from Republicans,” Blumenthal said. Graham, too, said there appears to be interest from some of his GOP colleagues.
The House is planning to vote in June on a current version of a bill Blumenthal and Graham first introduced in 2018 after 17 people died in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. That bill would allow law enforcement or family or household members of an individual threatening harm to themselves or others to petition federal district courts for extreme risk protection orders.
Senators, however, are not focused on that measure since they don’t think it would get enough GOP support. Instead Blumenthal and Graham, along with other senators, are talking about retooling a bill they worked on in 2019 after mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that would provide grants for states to implement red flag laws that would allow lower courts to issue extreme risk protection orders. The senators never publicly released that bill.
Red flag laws allowing courts to impose extreme risk protection orders have already been enacted in 19 states, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, an activist group.
“There are a variety of state laws. Our bill sets standards for them so they are effective, and provides incentives for adoption,” Blumenthal said.
Blumenthal and fellow Connecticut Democrat Christopher S. Murphy have led their party’s efforts on gun safety since the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting that took 26 lives rocked their state and the nation nearly a decade ago.
They and other Democrats are clear that this latest shooting may not change enough Republicans' minds about the need for federal legislation, but they want to give it a try.
“We are under no illusions that this will be easy. We have been burned in the past when Republicans promised to debate, only for them to break their promise,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said in floor remarks Thursday. “But even with long odds, the issue is so important, so raw to the American people, so personal to countless families who have missing children, that we must pursue that opportunity.”
Schumer said Murphy, Blumenthal and other Democrats, including Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, are holding talks with Republicans on potential solutions, but they’re not willing to negotiate indefinitely.
“If these negotiations do not bear any fruit, the Senate will vote on gun safety legislation when we return” from Memorial Day recess, Schumer said.
Murphy hosted meetings with senators in the Capitol on Thursday and said he plans to continue the negotiations over the break. While he sought to avoid predicting what legislative proposals, if any, would be successful, he confirmed the bipartisan interest in incentivizing states to implement red flag laws.
“The red flag laws are better administered at the state level. There have been some proposals for federal court red flag laws. I'm not sure that that's the way to go,” Murphy said. “So I have no problem incentivizing state red flag laws. … Those systems aren’t cheap to implement, but they are frequently used.”
Some Republicans involved in the discussions are pointing to their home state laws as good models to look at when drafting federal standards that would be tied to any grant funding.
“I told [Murphy] about Maine's yellow flag law that has due process involving different medical professionals,” Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins said. “I really think our focus should be on looking at what some states have done on red flag or yellow flag laws.”
Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott said his state enacted its red flag law in response to the Parkland shooting when he was governor and law enforcement has made good use of it since. He said he’s open to federal guidelines for other states that want to enact similar laws, so long as it provides due process for gun owners and protection orders are temporary, not permanent.
Murphy and Scott had a conversation Wednesday about the Florida law and how Scott got that passed.
“The Florida red flag law is a pretty high bar,” Murphy said. “Parents can't do it, only law enforcement. It's a pretty detailed court process. Over 5,000 people have had their guns taken away temporarily under Florida law since the law went into effect. So these laws do work.”
The key Republican to watch in the negotiations will be Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has deputized to take the lead in bipartisan talks with a clear directive to focus only on proposals that are directly related to gaps in the law that could’ve prevented the Uvalde shooting.
“What I've asked Sen. Cornyn to do is to meet with the Democrats who are interested in getting a bipartisan solution and come up with a proposal, if possible, that's crafted to meet this particular problem,” McConnell said. “Hopefully, we can get an outcome that can actually pass and become law rather than just scoring points back and forth.”
Cornyn, who has stated similar goals as McConnell, has signaled openness to red flag law grants.
“I'm not taking anything off the table except for denying people their constitutional rights who are law-abiding citizens,” he said.