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Senate Gun Legislation Would Need Billions in New Spending

·4 min read

(Bloomberg) -- Senators negotiating new gun legislation are proposing billions in new federal programs for mental health services and school security as well as grants to states to enact so-called red flag laws.

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Deciding where that money comes could add a wrinkle to the talks as Republicans and Democrats struggle to find some common ground on policies to respond to the massacres last month at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, that killed a total of 31 people.

North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis said this week the group has discussed a $7 billion price tag for the mental health piece of the bill. The red-flag grants, meanwhile, would cost “hundreds of millions” for states to implement those laws, Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal said.

Several senators involved in the negotiations expressed optimism that some compromise could be reached before the Senate leaves at the end of the month for a July 4 holiday recess. Reaching a deal will get harder beyond that as lawmakers increasingly focus on the looming midterm election.

“I continue to be encouraged,” said Blumenthal, who added that senators could reach a deal within days.

Republicans, who have generally opposed any broad restrictions on firearms ownership, have significant leverage in the talks. At least 10 Republicans would need to support legislation to push past a filibuster in the Senate, which is split 50-50 between the two parties.

The Senate talks are focusing on grants to states to set up “red flag” laws, which allow courts to temporarily remove guns from people who authorities believe could hurt others or themselves, strengthening juvenile background checks for gun purchases, providing money for mental health services and bolstering school security.

While a few Republicans, including Mitt Romney of Utah, say they would consider voting with Democrats to raise the age to purchase many semiautomatic rifles to 21 from 18, Senate Republican leaders are pushing to keep the measure significantly pared back. Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican leader, said negotiators should seek a package that could attract more than the bare minimum of Republicans needed.

“A lot is going to depend on the contents of the package,” Thune said. “At this point it’s hard to handicap that. But I think there’s an interest in trying to do something that would attract a good number of Republican votes.”

Tillis said at least some of the new spending that would be needed should be offset by taking money from other programs, including money for schools allocated under an earlier Covid relief package.

Underscoring the partisan divide on gun control, only five House Republicans on Wednesday voted for a package of gun control legislation that narrowly passed, 223-204. The legislation includes several proposals that would raise the minimum age to purchase many semiautomatic rifles to 21 from 18, restrict sales of large-capacity ammunition magazines and set federal standards for the safe storage of firearms, among other provisions.

On Thursday, five House Republicans voted in favor of legislation that would allow federal courts to temporarily confiscate guns from individuals who are deemed by a judge to pose a threat to themselves or others. The federal red flag measure passed on a 224-202 vote.

A number of key Senate Democrats said this week that they’re willing to agree on a narrow package in order to ensure that something is done about gun safety, even though it falls far short of their party’s agenda that includes a ban on assault-style weapons.

“I think we’ve always been willing to accept progress, even if it’s modest,” said Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat. “There are some who want everything or else. I’m just not in that category.”

On Thursday, the lead Democratic negotiator, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, insisted he’s still counting votes for a provision raising the minimum purchase age to 21 from 18, even as Republican negotiators said the focus is more on making juvenile court records more available for younger purchasers.

“The talk is less about raising the age and more about making sure you have all the information you need to make a decision versus somebody who turns 18 and goes as if they were born that day in terms of any kind of background,” Tillis said. “And that’s where the discussion is right now versus raising the age.”

Murphy said talks will continue through the weekend, with an eye toward a possible “framework” for a deal early next week. But Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the lead GOP negotiator, this week said “consensus sometimes takes some time.”

Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates gun-safety measures, is backed by Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP.

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