Democrats Hit Pause on Gun Control Vote, Hoping for a Compromise

WASHINGTON — Just shy of a decade after the Senate’s failure to respond to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Democrats are again trying to transform outrage over the gun deaths of children into action by Congress to curb gun violence in America.

But with the Republican position more intractable than ever, calls for negotiations to find some response to the recent horrors in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, N.Y., left few lawmakers with much hope that Congress would produce anything meaningful.

“Please, please, please, damn it, put yourselves in the shoes of these parents for once,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, pleaded with his Republican colleagues, as he made the case for at least expanding background checks on gun purchasers.

Polls show that the proposal has support from as many as 90 percent of Americans, including many G.O.P. voters, but Republicans have effectively blocked action on it for the better part of a decade. Their stance reflects the potency of the issue of gun rights for the Republican base voters, whose zeal for the 2nd Amendment means that any G.O.P. lawmaker who embraces even the most modest form of gun control runs the risk of a primary challenge that could cost him his job.

Still, after Mr. Schumer initially cleared the way for a quick vote to put Republicans on the spot on background checks, he pulled back on Wednesday and said there was no point in doing so, given that their opposition was already “crystal clear.” Instead, he said he would try to find a consensus proposal that could draw in enough Republicans to break the inevitable filibuster.

“The plan is to work hard at a compromise for the next 10 days,” Senator Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, who has led the Democratic charge for gun safety legislation since Sandy Hook, said on Twitter on Tuesday. “Hopefully we succeed and the Senate can vote on a bipartisan bill that saves lives. But if we can’t find common ground, then we are going to take a vote on gun violence. The Senate will not ignore this crisis.”

On Thursday, the Senate will face the first test, moving to take up legislation approved by the House last week after the racist mass shooting in Buffalo, to bolster federal resources to prevent domestic terrorism. Mr. Schumer said if Republicans do not filibuster the procedural motion just to take up the measure, he will open the bill up to amendments from both parties to address gun violence.

There was little sign that a consensus was in the offing.

Republicans proposed the now-familiar litany of alternative responses — tighter “red flag” laws to make it easier for law enforcement to confiscate weapons from the mentally ill, more aggressive mental health interventions, and more armed guards at schools — many of which Democrats regard as woefully inadequate.

And Democrats questioned whether they could find any common ground with Republicans on more substantial gun violence measures, after previous proposals ultimately went nowhere.

“We’ve been burned so many times before” when it came to negotiating a bipartisan compromise, Mr. Schumer said.

The echoes between the Newtown, Conn., mass shooting at Sandy Hook in December 2012, which left 20 children and six adults dead, and the Uvalde, Texas, violence, which killed at least 19 children and two teachers, are painful. In both cases, a loner from the community attacked an elementary school, overpowering children and adults with an arsenal.

After Newtown, then-Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was charged with persuading a bipartisan coalition of at least 60 senators to act, and break a threatened filibuster by Republicans. On Tuesday night, a seemingly anguished President Biden made the case for “common sense gun laws,” including an assault weapons ban, and declared, “It’s time to turn this pain into action.”

But in remarks on Wednesday, Mr. Biden, too, appeared to hang back rather than call for specific action by Congress, referring vaguely to the need to show “backbone” and challenge the powerful gun lobby.

Then, as now, bipartisan legislation existed, written by Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, and Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, to impose universal criminal background checks for gun purchasers at gun shows and in internet sales. Then, as now, the barrier was the Senate’s requirement of 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster.

Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia indicated that he was not dropping his opposition to changing Senate filibuster rules, which would allow Democrats to push through gun control legislation.Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

But in the intervening years, the partisan lines between Republican and Democrat have only hardened, not only on gun rights but on the much broader question of how to balance individual liberty against collective responsibility. On gun control, climate change, taxation and pandemic safety mandates, Republicans have seemingly decided individual rights trump a collective, societal response, regardless of the cost.

“Maybe it’s a personal responsibility not to shoot people with guns,” said Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, “and maybe people who don’t live up to that responsibility ought to be in prison for a very, very long time — like forever.”

Beyond elective office, some Republicans seemed to have had enough. Bill Frist, a former Tennessee senator who served as majority leader from 2003 to 2007, wrote on Twitter: “I can’t imagine this is what the Founding Fathers hoped for or intended. We can find ways to preserve the intent of the Second Amendment while also safeguarding the lives of our children.”

Such sentiments were hard to find among elected Republicans.

Mr. Schumer framed his call for negotiations as strategic. A quick vote on House-passed legislation to strengthen background checks would all but certainly be filibustered. Republicans would complain about wasting time with political show votes. Democrats would castigate Republicans for their opposition. Nothing would be accomplished, and the Senate would move on.

Negotiations, at least, could keep gun safety a live issue for a while.

“When things like this happen, I think it awakens sensibilities to the bigger picture — I will not say greater good, but the greater collective response,” Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia, said of the Uvalde bloodshed. “I think that’s what we’re all probably grappling with right now.”

But it was not clear that much had changed. Mr. Manchin indicated that he was not dropping his opposition to changing the Senate filibuster rules, which would allow Democrats to push through gun control legislation over unified Republican opposition. He insisted that, with good will, a broad compromise could be reached and such a move would be unnecessary.

“If we can’t get 70 or 75 senators that won’t vote to have a common sense protection of your children and grandchildren, what in the world are we here for?” Mr. Manchin demanded. “What’s your purpose for being in the United States Senate? If it’s not at least to protect the children?”

The initial start to talks has begun. Mr. Murphy reached out to Mr. Toomey and Senator Susan Collins of Maine, two of the four Republicans who voted for the bipartisan background check bill co-sponsored by Mr. Manchin in 2013.

“My interest in doing something to improve and expand our background check system remains,” Mr. Toomey told reporters.

The April 2013 vote for universal background checks garnered 54 votes. But eight of the “yes” votes for the bill have been replaced over the past decade by the potential votes of conservative Republicans.

On the other hand, five of the 2013 “no” votes have been replaced by Democrats — two in Georgia, one in New Hampshire, one in Arizona and one in Nevada.

But with a 60-vote threshold to clear in the Senate, the odds were still long. There was little indication that the murdered children of Uvalde, Texas, would shake the near-unanimous opposition to any measure limiting access to guns.

Asked what he would tell the parents of the slain children, Senator Tommy Tuberville, Republican of Alabama, told reporters, “I’m willing to say that I’m very sorry it happened. But guns are not the problem, OK? People are the problem. That’s where it starts, and we’ve had guns forever. And we’re going to continue to have guns.”

The two Democratic opponents to changing the filibuster rule, Mr. Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, appeared similarly unmoved on that position.

Senator Tommy Tuberville, Republican of Alabama, defended guns and blamed people for mass shootings.Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

“Despite the fact that there is always heated rhetoric here in D.C., I do think there is an opportunity for us to actually have real conversations and try and do something,” without ditching the filibuster, Ms. Sinema said, speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill.

The heated language extended far beyond Washington.

On Wednesday, Beto O’Rourke, the former Democratic representative now challenging Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, confronted the governor and other state officials who oppose gun control measures during their visit to Uvalde, interrupting their news conference to castigate them for “doing nothing” to address gun violence.

At the Capitol, some Republicans rushed to propose solutions that would sidestep the issue of guns altogether. Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, went to the Senate floor to request agreement to take up his bill to establish a federal clearinghouse on school safety best practices. Democrats refused.

As lawmakers talked past each other, it was not clear that anything under discussion would address the recent mass shootings. Republicans have long favored more armed guards, arguing that the only way to stop a bad person with a gun is to ensure more good people have guns. But in Buffalo and Uvalde, the gunmen were confronted by armed guards, who were unable to prevent the slaughter. For all the talk of red flag laws, the killer in Texas did not appear to have any known mental health issues.

Likewise, the most recent mass shootings were apparently perpetrated with guns lawfully purchased, which would not have been subject to additional scrutiny under Democratic background check bills.

Legislation that would have directly impacted the possibility of carnage — bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines — are no longer a main feature in Democrats’ gun safety agenda, although Mr. Biden has mentioned them repeatedly in recent days.