How We Got Bipartisan Gun Reform
After the Supreme Court expanded gun access, can recent legislation be a model for bipartisan compromise on urgent issues?
Two weeks ago, I went to Washington, D.C. to watch the House Judiciary Committee markup of the Violent Incident Clearance and Technological Investigative Methods (VICTIM) Act, one of many current legislative attempts to address gun violence. While in theory markup is the soul of deliberative lawmaking, in practice it is often an opportunity for partisan sniping. Debate over the VICTIM Act featured both. But it also featured something remarkable: a genuine attempt at bipartisanship.
The VICTIM Act creates a grant program that provides law enforcement agencies with money to hire additional detectives to arrest perpetrators of gun homicides and nonfatal gun assaults. Though some Republicans grumbled about deficit spending and others offered dogmatic objections, most of their comments during the markup were reasoned and resolvable. When one Republican questioned whether it was fair to make rural taxpayers subsidize urban safety, the bill’s sponsor, Representative Val Demings (D-Fla.), responded with evidence from the CDC that the nation’s recent homicide spike is as much a rural problem as an urban one. When another Republican suggested the bill be expanded to allow recipients to use grant money to investigate violent crimes other than homicides and shootings, Demings, Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), and other members of both parties converged at the center of the dais to negotiate the details.
Ultimately, the committee approved the bill on a near party line vote—all of the Democrats voted for the bill, along with one Republican. Nevertheless, witnessing earnest conversation and compromise gave me a sense of cautious hope. It made me more optimistic about the ability of Congress to pass legislation that will save lives.
Around the same time, and following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde [see We Are Broken by Isaac Saul], a group of senators—10 Republicans and 10 Democrats—announced a proposal on a framework for gun control. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act includes expanded background checks for adults under age 21, money to incentivize states to implement “red-flag” laws, money for mental health services and school safety, and a prohibition on gun ownership for non-spousal domestic abusers, closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole.” Last week, the senators announced that they had finalized the deal, which was signed into law by President Biden on Saturday.
There have been many cynical explanations for why the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act attracted a consensus unheard of in recent years. None of the 10 Republican senators face reelection in the fall, and four will retire after this Congress, insulating them from potential blowback.
Nevertheless, the framework has been hailed as the greatest breakthrough on the gun issue in decades, and proof of how hungry the public is for bipartisan conciliation. In an election year and on an emotionally fraught issue, lawmakers in both parties were able to speak each other’s language. They were able to begin crafting genuine compromises.
Too often, discussions about gun violence devolve into tired and unproductive debates. Part of the difficulty has been predictable obstruction by the opposition. Control of the House has changed three times since 2006, and could change again in November. Neither party has had an easy time governing.
But another part of it has been the product of a preference—common to both sides—to paint political opponents as inherently evil, rather than people with sincere disagreements who might nevertheless be able to find common ground. As the lead Republican negotiator in the Senate, John Cornyn, said, there are “sticking points everywhere” on gun legislation. Framing policy debates around such sticking points may be symbolically satisfying to one side or the other, but it has helped no one, and has signaled that democratic institutions were incapable of generating practical solutions to misery. The result was an endless parade of legislation with no hope of ever becoming law, and which served to signal aspirations and values rather than earnest intent to improve the conditions of people in America.
If congressional gridlock really has helped to shake public faith in democratic institutions, restoring that faith will require a commitment to practical policymaking aimed at identifying and solving concrete problems with solutions amenable to a majority of elected members of Congress and the people they represent. It will mean doing whatever is possible within the ideological constraints of both sides.
This is what we have started to see with the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act and the VICTIM Act. Both are premised on simple truths: that America is awash with guns; that those guns cause problems; that the types of problems they cause are specific to context, place, and person; and that no single type of policy will solve everything. Moreover, both are narrow attempts to solve concrete problems (the VICTIM Act is focused on unsolved shootings, which are mostly committed in disadvantaged communities that have long histories of concentrated violence. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act is focused on the prevention of mass shootings perpetrated mostly by mentally unstable young men, shootings that tend to occur randomly in vulnerable public places.) By narrowly tailoring their proposals to address problems about which enough consensus exists to pass the House and the Senate, and by avoiding issues that offend the core identities of either political base, the authors of both the VICTIM Act and the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act got one piece of legislation over the line, and pushed another closer than most legislation ever gets.
People face intolerable tragedy because of the misuse of guns in this country, and lawmakers have an obligation to work together to find a sound mix of laws and interventions. As the lead Democratic negotiator in the Senate, Chris Murphy, said recently: “When people give up on us dealing with the most important and most existential issues, it means they’re giving up on democracy itself.”
In proposing solutions, both sides should remember that responsible governance is almost always boring, that it always requires persuasion and compromise, and that positive changes must often come in small doses. The negotiations for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act and the VICTIM Act are reasons for cautious optimism that lawmakers can set aside partisan rhetoric and focus on incremental policies aimed at solving problems. If those policies pass, then together they will help lead to a safer, saner America. And in so doing they might provide a model for negotiations on reproductive health, climate change, or any other issues that, for the moment at least, fuel the country’s seemingly irreconcilable divisions.
Richard Hahn is a Senior Fellow for Research at the Niskanen Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C.