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Senators reflect on impact of first major bipartisan gun legislation in nearly 30 years

How a bipartisan gun law came together
Senators on first major bipartisan gun legislation passed in nearly 30 years 08:08

One year ago, President Biden signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act into law, marking the first major gun legislation in nearly three decades. The law introduced enhanced background checks for gun buyers under 21, closed the "boyfriend loophole" to prevent convicted domestic abusers from purchasing firearms for five years and allocated $15 billion in funding for issues like school security and mental health.

Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) played key roles in negotiations that led to the bill's passage. They were spurred to consensus after shootings last year in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, left a total of 31 people dead.

Sinema said she was inspired to take action after hearing Murphy's impassioned speech to Congress following the Uvalde shooting, as well as seeing Cornyn fly home to Texas to visit the city. This prompted a lengthy texting chain among the senators, ultimately resulting in the creation of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. 

The Gun Violence Archive has documented 26 mass shootings in the United States this month alone. But Murphy said since the legislation was signed into law, gun violence rates decreased in major American cities in the first five months of 2023.  

"There's no doubt that this bill is saving lives," he said. 

According to the Justice Department, the measure requiring enhanced background checks for people under 21 has resulted in more than 200 denials. 

However, what's key for Tillis — who faced pushback from the North Carolina Republican Party for his involvement in the act and other bipartisan initiatives — is that denials are still rare. He said over 107,000 people under the age of 21 have applied to purchase a gun since the bill was implemented and 99.8% of them have been approved.

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act falls short of requiring background checks for all gun buyers, a policy supported by 85% of Americans, according to a poll last August. Biden's agenda also includes an assault weapons ban, but the definition of what constitutes an assault weapon remains a contentious issue between Republicans and Democrats — an issue neither side wanted to go into deeply due to its tense nature. 

The legislation also faced challenges in reconciling state funding for "red flag laws" while ensuring due process rights for gun owners. 

"States can apply for support to implement their red flag laws, but you've gotta to be in compliance with due process," Tillis said. "Guess what? Most of the states, including red states that have red flag laws, can't qualify because they don't have the basic due process constraints that my friends here supported in the bill."

"This was probably one of the last things we ended up getting done," Murphy said. "And those due process rights that now apply to every blue state, in addition to every red state, are in there because people like Thom were driving a hard bargain." 

While the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act is seen as a step forward, Tillis said violence in America will always be around — as will "a Second Amendment protection in the Constitution, for good reasons." 

"What we need to do is start early, and that's what this bill did, to lessen the chances that the numbers of people who could be at risk and make a decision to harm themselves or somebody else, regardless of what they use to do it," he said.

Murphy said that while the legislation didn't go as far as he would have liked, it's progress. 

"That's a really important step forward. That's saving lives as we speak," he said. "And the whole exercise, to me, was worthwhile because it's proving to the American people that democracy is not so broken that we can't find a way to come together, even on a topic that for 30 years has been a real political hot spot."

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