WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats have told BuzzFeed News they are considering curtailing their ambitions on gun reform and pushing a narrower piece of legislation that can actually pass, rather than sweeping reforms that would likely be doomed.
The party winning both chambers of Congress plus the White House may have raised hopes for long-sought gun control measures, such as a ban on assault rifles. But Democrats are instead starting to look at smaller measures that can win bipartisan support and break the National Rifle Association’s strong influence over Congress.
With the Senate split 50–50, any gun control measure needs at least 10 Republican votes to overcome a filibuster. The shooting rampage in Atlanta that left eight people dead this week has not softened Republican resistance to any new laws that broadly restrict access to firearms. In interviews with BuzzFeed News, a half dozen Republican senators expressed opposition to universal background checks and said that policy would likely be dead on arrival in the Senate.
That leaves Democrats with a choice between lowering their aims or fighting for an extensive bill and risking coming away with nothing. There does not appear to be much appetite for the latter path.
“Do you try and move a comprehensive gun bill that will go nowhere?” said Delaware Sen. Chris Coons. “Or do you take a small bill, pass it, then a medium-sized bill and pass it?”
It’s been almost three decades since Congress last passed a meaningful gun control bill in 1994, when they banned assault weapons for a decade. Democrats want to break that streak.
“I want to see us take real, concrete steps on gun safety. We don’t have to do every single thing at once. We could just take a bite, enough to show that the NRA does not have the entire Congress by the throat,” said Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
This approach could put the Senate at odds with the Democrat-controlled House, which just passed two bills to strengthen background checks and require them for nearly all gun purchases. One compromise being considered is a previous bill from Sens. Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey to expand background checks to sales at gun shows and online, but not when individuals sell or give firearms to friends or family.
Options like an assault rifle ban are likely off the table. But some Democrats think they could get to 60 votes with a limited background check expansion paired with other more narrow measures, such as expanding extreme risk protection orders, which let police preemptively seize guns from people deemed to be dangerous.
“My preference would be to do something like background checks just to show that we can,” said Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine. “The NRA kind of walks around like they own Congress. I would say, rather than wait for a comprehensive bill, why not do something?”
While Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he wants to take up the House bills, there is currently no timetable to do so. In the meantime, the Senate is going its own direction with a committee study led by Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal. Blumenthal said he does not expect an omnibus-style suite of gun control reforms.
“There are obviously some parts and pieces of this agenda that are easier to frame in passable form than others,” he said. “I think the approach should be comprehensive, that’s the goal. But we may take it piece by piece.”
Expanding background checks for firearm purchases will almost certainly be the top priority. While universal background checks are overwhelmingly popular among both Democrats and the general public, Republican lawmakers have blocked expansions at every turn. There is no sign those attitudes are changing. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio argued this week that background check laws won’t protect people because “most of these mass shootings, if not all of them,” are done by people who would be able to pass background checks. (This is inaccurate: For example, Dylann Roof, who killed nine people in 2015 at a historically Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, should have failed a background check but was able to purchase a weapon because of a loophole in the system that one of the recent House bills is aiming to close.) Texas Sen. Ted Cruz argued that his own plan, which does not expand background checks but relies on increasing funding to police, would be more likely to get to 60 votes.
“If people want to try to limit the rights of law-abiding citizens under the Second Amendment, they’re going to run into a brick wall on our side,” said Sen. John Cornyn, also of Texas.
But Cornyn also represents the opportunity Democrats have to get something — anything — into law. Cornyn is one of several Republicans who have waded into the gun control discussion in the wake of deadly tragedies, often in their home states. After shootings in El Paso and Midland-Odessa, Cornyn introduced legislation attempting to crack down on unlicensed gun sellers.
Similarly, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham embraced extreme risk protection orders after the Charleston church shooting. Sen. Marco Rubio proposed his own extreme risk protection order bill after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Sen. Pat Toomey first introduced his background check bill with Sen. Joe Manchin after the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Still, Republicans draw a hard line at requiring background checks for private gun sales between friends and family. The Manchin-Toomey proposal has been around for years and has so far been unable to get 60 votes.
Despite decades of inactivity, gun control activists see the momentum as on their side. Years of lethal mass shootings have swung public sentiment strongly in favor of expanded background checks. In 2018, Congress, then still under Republican control, dropped what was effectively a two-decade ban on using federal funding to study gun violence. Republicans also supported spending money to beef up the federal background check database.
“We want to keep the momentum rolling,” said Peter Ambler, executive director at Giffords, a gun control advocacy group. “The support levels are just unparalleled. There is nothing else out there as popular and unifying as universal background checks.”
John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, also said that expanding background checks should be the top priority. "The politics of gun safety have changed dramatically since 2013, and that means the calculus of these negotiations has changed too,” said Feinblatt. He hopes that any legislation passed by Congress could be supplemented by aggressive regulatory actions by the Biden administration.
No action is expected imminently. Multiple Democrats said they expect a gun control bill to hit the floor sometime this year, but those talks are just beginning. In the past, momentum for gun control has tended to rise after a mass shooting, only to subside as Republicans block gun control measures and nothing passes through Congress.
Sen. Raphael Warnock, one of the two new senators representing the state of Georgia, said he’s hoping to break that cycle.
“I just hope we don’t become so numb to this kind of violence that we think this is just the way things are,” he said. “I think that this has happened in America, unfortunately, so often that we go through a kind of ritual that we condemn what happened, we call for a moment of silence and reflection, and shortly thereafter we go back to business as usual. We cannot afford to go back to business as usual.”