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Exactly four weeks after a teenager armed with a semi-automatic rifle slaughtered 19 elementary students and two teachers in Uvalde, the US Senate voted 64 to 34 on Tuesday night to advance a bipartisan compromise that, if passed, would become the first major gun safety legislation. since 1994.
The legislation does not restrict any rights of existing gun owners — a non-starter for Senate Republicans. Instead, it would improve background checks on gun buyers under 21; facilitate the removal of weapons from people who threaten to commit suicide or kill others, as well as people who have committed domestic violence; clarify who must register as a federal firearms dealer; and cracking down on illegal gun trafficking, including so-called straw buying, which occurs when the actual buyer of a gun uses another person to execute the documents to be purchased on their behalf.
The legislation includes $11 billion for mental health services and $2 billion for community anti-violence programs. It also includes funding to help young people access mental health services via telemedicine, funding for more school-based mental health centers and support for suicide hotlines.
Republican John Cornyn, the senior Texas senator who was formally reprimanded by the Republican Party of Texas on Saturday night for participating in bipartisan negotiations, said he was confident senators would see the deal as a reasonable compromise. If he holds up, that in itself would be an extraordinary achievement after years of mass shootings devastating American communities with numbing reality.
“It’s an issue that divides a lot of the country, depending on where you live, and maybe divides people living in the same household. But I think we’ve found areas where there’s room for compromise and we’ve also found that there are red lines and no middle ground,” Cornyn said on the Senate floor. “We talked, we debated, we disagreed and finally we came to an agreement between the four of us, but obviously it’s not something that’s going to become law or not become law because of a little group of senators. The truth is that we had a larger group of 20 senators, 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats, who came together and signed off on a set of agreed upon principles, and I think when the senators see the text that supports those principles, they will see that we’ve done our best to be true to what those agreed-upon principles should be.
Tuesday night’s release of the bipartisan 80-page Safer Communities Act came after a two-step process. Twenty senators – with Democrats led by Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Republicans led by Cornyn – reached a bipartisan framework agreement, then a smaller team of four senators – Murphy, Cornyn, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Republican Thom Tillis of North Carolina — translated the main principles into specific language. Less than two hours after the final text was released, the Senate voted 64 to 34 to put the bill on track for Senate passage by the end of the week. It takes 60 votes to defeat a buccaneer.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky quickly approved the text of the legislation, while the National Rifle Association immediately opposed it. While gun rights remain a powerful part of Republican politics, the NRA itself has become a politically weaker force, in part because of financial and other scandals.
The Senate vote capped a momentous day as Texas grapples with the aftermath of the May 24 tragedy, the deadliest school shooting in its history. Earlier Tuesday, a Texas Senate committee held a marathon hearing in which the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety squarely blamed the Uvalde Schools Police Chief for what he called a inexcusable delay of an hour and more in the fatal confrontation with the shooter. Critics questioned whether any of the 19 students and two teachers might have survived had the delay not occurred; a teacher died on the way to the hospital.
Uvalde Schools Police Chief Pete Arredondo was elected to Uvalde City Council before the shooting and had requested a leave of absence from those duties. On Tuesday, the council denied that request. (School policing reports to the school board, not the city council.)
Also Tuesday night, Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin accused the state Department of Public Safety of selectively releasing transcripts, video footage and other materials to the press to introduce local authorities as incompetent.
“Someone chose to release pieces of body camera footage, surveillance footage of their choosing,” the mayor said, “to create chaos in our community and prevent the full truth from coming out.”
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