Texas school shooting: Red flag laws, background checks on the table for Senate, but path to passage unclear

Texas school shooting: Red flag laws, background checks on the table for Senate, but path to passage unclear

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Amid grief and outrage after 21 people were killed in a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, Tuesday, federal lawmakers say background check and red flag legislation could be on the table. 

Many senators, including Republicans, say they’re open to passing new legislation in response to the tragedy. But in a polarized Congress, during an election year, nearly 30 years after the last major piece of federal gun legislation passed, it’s not clear if the Senate can deliver the 60 votes needed. 

“I’m generally inclined to think that some kind of red flag law is a good idea,” Senate Republican Policy Committee Chair Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told reporters. 

Police walk near Robb Elementary School following a shooting, Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas.

Police walk near Robb Elementary School following a shooting, Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

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Red flag laws restrict people the government determines are mentally ill or pose a threat to public safety from having guns. 

Blunt said there was a red flag bill that nearly passed previously, which he said he may be able to support. But as of Wednesday morning he said he has not had any deeper conversations with his GOP colleagues. 

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., speaks during a news conference following a weekly meeting with the Senate Republican caucus, Tuesday, Dec. 8. 2020 at the Capitol in Washington. (Sarah Silbiger/Pool via AP)

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., speaks during a news conference following a weekly meeting with the Senate Republican caucus, Tuesday, Dec. 8. 2020 at the Capitol in Washington. (Sarah Silbiger/Pool via AP)

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee which would likely spearhead any legislation on mass shootings, said he’s optimistic about the chances the Senate could produce a red flag law. 

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“I think the red flag statute has a lot of potential,” Blumenthal said. 

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she would support finding a way for the federal government to incentivize states to pass red flag laws.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., speaks during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol May 10, 2022 in Washington, DC.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., speaks during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol May 10, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

But multiple other Republican senators were cool to the concept. 

“Pat Toomey spoke earlier. Well, he engaged me after I got here on that, and I just don’t think you’d get there doing it here,” Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said of a federal red flag law. Braun declined to say whether he personally favors a federal red flag law, but said that “it’s going to be more effective done state-by-state.” 

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said he’s “very skeptical of that on a national level,” when asked about red flag laws, and said even some state-level red flag laws are “concerning.” Hawley further said he would be for harsher sentencing laws. 

There was also some bipartisan support for potential legislation to strengthen federal background checks Wednesday.

U.S. Senator Jon Tester, D-Mont., arrives for U.S. President Donald Trump's State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. Feb. 4, 2020.

U.S. Senator Jon Tester, D-Mont., arrives for U.S. President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. Feb. 4, 2020. (Reuters)

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“What I would love to see Chuck do is Manchin-Toomey. I think the background check is a reasonable step,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Wednesday. Collins also said it may be smart to “look at background checks as well.”

Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., proposed a bill in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting to strengthen federal background checks for gun purchasers. Specifically, it would expand the gun sales that require background checks to purchases, including at gun shows and online, rather that just at gun dealers. 

“This really is a no-brainer from my perspective, keeping the guns out of people who are court-adjudicated mentally ill… and criminals and terrorists,” Tester said. “I’m a huge Second Amendment advocate, but I’m gonna tell you, doing nothing puts our Second Amendment rights at risk.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., immediately took the possibility of getting rid of the filibuster to pass a gun bill off the table Wednesday. But he said the most feasible chance for passing a bill in the polarized Senate may be if lawmakers work on something that addresses background checks. Manchin also said he could be open to a red flag law, which he said is working in some states, including Florida.  

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., questions Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin during a Congressional Oversight Commission hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday Dec. 10, 2020.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., questions Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin during a Congressional Oversight Commission hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday Dec. 10, 2020. (Sarah Silbiger/The Washington Post via AP, Pool)

Asked his bill Wednesday Toomey said there are “conversations underway” but said he didn’t have any “substantive update” on if it may come to the floor. 

Other Republicans, meanwhile, are avoiding getting into the details of any proposal, either to keep the air clear for negotiations or simply because the shooting happened so recently. Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said, “I don’t think right now is the best time” to talk about policy. He said he expects discussions in the future. 

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Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said he’s open to a discussion, and won’t take anything off the table immediately. But he warned Democrats may simply try to get a vote on a messaging bill rather than something that has a real shot of passing — similar to an abortion bill the Senate voted on earlier this month, which Tillis said “was a political statement.” 

Another idea that’s gaining some traction with Senate Republicans Wednesday is legislation to harden schools. Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., told Fox News she could support that idea, and things Congress should “repurpose some COVID monies that are unspent,” for school security grants.

Then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks during a town hall meeting at Grinnell College, Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, in Grinnell, Iowa.

Then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks during a town hall meeting at Grinnell College, Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, in Grinnell, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

“We talked about a number of things, one is hardening schools,” Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said after a Senate GOP lunch meeting. “I think there was quite a bit of interest as to what we could do to harden schools.” 

But it’s not clear that proposal will get any support from Democrats, who are demanding action on gun bills — not schools security bills. 

“Today we should be on the floor of the Senate with 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats passing basic gun safety law that is supported by 90% of the American people,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said Wednesday. 

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Asked about possible details of something that could make it through the Senate, Warren responded, “Ask the Republicans. The Democrats can’t do this by ourselves. We need some Republican partners.” 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the Senate floor Tuesday, “We are going to vote on gun legislation. The American people are tired of moments of silence.”

But conservatives, it appears, are unlikely to support any legislation that adds regulations to guns or gun ownership. Asked whether there are any such rules she can support, Lummis said, “No.”

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