John Cornyn, ‘kingpin’ of gun safety deal, seeks to tame GOP fears over gun rights

WASHINGTON — As bipartisan talks on anti-gun violence legislation heat up, Senate Republican chief negotiator John Cornyn of Texas found himself in a familiar place: dismissing unsubstantiated claims that the Senate is considering trampling the Second Amendment.

“I want to be clear, though: We’re not talking about restricting the rights of gun owners or law-abiding citizens,” Cornyn said Monday in a floor speech. “What interests me is keeping guns away from those who, under current law, are not supposed to have them: people with mental health issues, people with criminal records. “

The remarks go to the heart of the explosive gun policy within the Republican Party, which has been the main obstacle to major congressional action for decades, even as mass shootings become common in the United States. Gun rights activists have described previous proposals to fight guns. violence, even modest and popular, like slippery slopes to seize their weapons.

In a Senate in which pro-gun rural states are overrepresented as a share of the population, this has been a powerful force in defeating bills to limit access to deadly weapons, Republican senators wary of backlash if they vote for further restrictions.

Taming this perception is the #1 goal in reaching an agreement.

“I’m a proud supporter of the Second Amendment,” Cornyn said.

Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, the top Democratic negotiator, said this time felt different after the series of horrific mass shootings from Buffalo, New York, to Uvalde, Texas, to Philadelphia.

“The parents are scared to death, we’re not going to do anything. At the end of the day, the vast majority of Americans demand that we step up and do something,” he said.

McConnell blesses Cornyn negotiations

With Senate Republicans holding an effective veto over gun legislation, Cornyn now finds himself at the center of any hopes for action, having been encouraged to negotiate for the GOP by Senate Minority Leader Mitch. McConnell of Kentucky, who said Tuesday he hopes to see a deal “sooner rather than later.”

“Senator Cornyn knows more about this subject than anyone in the Senate,” he told reporters after a GOP meeting. “And I think he is working in good faith with Senator Murphy to try to get a result.”

The goal: Find a safe zone that can win Democratic support and solve the mass shooting problem without offending gun rights voters, a passionate slice of the Republican base.

Two GOP Senate aides said Cornyn’s support will be needed for any bill to pass. The reason is simple: Cornyn’s support is essential to winning over McConnell, and Senate 50-50 has demonstrated time and time again that the path to breaking a filibuster is through McConnell. Cornyn, who is seen as a potential successor to McConnell, met with him on Monday.

Democrats also view Cornyn as essential to getting a workable deal done.

“He is the keystone in terms of votes. … He is highly respected in the Republican conference. He’s smart and savvy,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “Basically, if Cornyn is on board, that would be a pretty good sign that McConnell is on board as well. »

Cornyn ruled out a host of proposals backed by President Joe Biden, including banning semi-automatic rifles or high-capacity magazines. He is not interested in raising the age for buying such weapons from 18 to 21. And a Cornyn aide stressed he was not there to “expand” background checks, but rather to “strengthen” them.

Still, Biden called Cornyn and McConnell “rational Republicans” who recognize the status quo on mass shootings cannot continue.

People close to Cornyn are keeping tabs on Republican sentiment, aiming for broad membership of about half of the 50-member caucus. They’re also watching the activist community, which has been relatively muted about the modest steps Cornyn has outlined as parameters for a deal, including “red flag” laws and improved background checks, potentially in including minors’ records in the system to keep guns away. young people with criminal records.

Some Democrats are suspicious of Cornyn and McConnell’s intentions, fearing they won’t back anything meaningful and that the negotiations are just an attempt to sound reasonable amid high national support for tougher gun laws. fire.

“Republicans haven’t acted on guns, contrary to overwhelming public opinion, for years. Democrats are understandably skeptical that the same GOP leaders who’ve said no for years are suddenly interested to get to yes,” said Matt House, a former Democrat. Assistant to the Direction of the Senate. “If Republicans ran out of time to negotiate legislative details before leaving, it wouldn’t be the first time.”

GOP presidential candidates keep their distance

Some GOP senators with higher ambitions are staying away from the talks.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said voters in his state “are really, really worried” about the negotiations, including the fact that party leadership has backed the talks.

“I’ve had a lot of voter ears saying, you know, ‘I want criminals punished, I want these shooters arrested, but don’t come after my Second Amendment rights.’ And that is very important,” he said.

Another wild card is young Texas senator Ted Cruz, a Republican who ran for president in 2016 and could do so again. Speaking to reporters on Monday, Cruz claimed Democrats were seeking to “disarm law-abiding citizens.” When asked if he trusted Cornyn to broker a deal, Cruz deflected and accused reporters of “trying to pit one Republican against another.”

Other Republicans are keeping an open mind.

“John knows Texas and he knows the Senate Republican Conference as well as anyone. He also knows the Constitution,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, RN.D. “I’m convinced he will keep the car between the ditches.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who is seeking re-election in a conservative-leaning state this fall, said he supports negotiations in principle, but declined to comment on any policy proposals.

“I’ll wait to see what sort of list they come up with,” he said. “I believe there’s a real, very good chance – with these two people working together. They proved they could do it in 2018, and I think there’s a good chance it can be done again. .

Still, Democrats remain concerned that pro-gun activists could feed off Second Amendment fears and scare off Republicans.

“There is nothing new in this complaint. And so far it’s been pretty effective,” Blumenthal said in an interview. “Obviously we are in a time that seems different. Whether that is the case remains to be seen. I am very lucid about the story here. Armed groups still have enormous influence and power to intimidate and threaten their fellow Republicans. But it’s time to put up or shut up.

Blumenthal said the National Rifle Association doesn’t necessarily need to be supportive to sway Republicans. “If they vehemently oppose something, that’s a major stumbling block,” he said. “If they’re prepared to stay away, that’s a different posture.”

Murphy met with Biden at the White House on Tuesday and said the talks were “entering a pretty critical phase,” expressing hope of reaching an agreement this week. But he added that “if we need a little more time, we will take it”.

He praised Cornyn as an honest broker, noting that they worked together on the Fix NICS Act of 2018.

“He’s a good partner. We have written important laws in the past,” he said. “We come from very different places. We each have bottom lines. It will not be easy to achieve a result. But I think we can do it. »

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