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Analysis: The Senate’s ambition for gun reform ebbs as horror haunts those left behind after mass shootings

While there are still hopes of bipartisan agreement on a narrow package, the magnitude of the terror is clearly not being matched by political will to stop it from happening again.

On Capitol Hill, Garnell Whitfield, whose mom died in the racially motivated Buffalo mass shooting, pleaded with senators to imagine the faces of their own mothers and to act against domestic terrorism. On Wednesday, 11-year-old Uvalde survivor Miah Cerrillo is expected to address a House committee in testimony sure to be deeply painful to watch.

But a familiar political dynamic is beginning to unfold. As days pass after the latest act of terror, the momentum for a quick and meaningful political response to change gun laws slows, as Capitol Hill conservatives — some with presidential ambitions that depend on the Republican base — narrow the scope for any reform.

After days of calls from victims’ relatives to “do something” there is still optimism that some kind of deal that would draw sufficient GOP senators to overcome the chamber’s filibuster blockade can be worked out. There’s a chance that Congress will make it a little slower for 18-to-21-year-olds to buy a weapon — both the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings were carried out by 18-year-olds who bought their assault-style weapons legally. And there is still debate among a small bipartisan group of senators over encouraging states to pass red-flag laws that could help authorities confiscate guns from people considered a threat.

But there is dissent from several key Republicans on that issue. And others have already signaled they will not vote to raise the age at which someone can buy a gun to 21 — the same age threshold that relates to alcohol purchases in most states.

Hopes for a vote on a genuine package of reforms this week seems also to be dimming, injecting new uncertainty into the possibility of ultimate success.

As Republican senators significantly curtail the breadth of the package, there are growing questions over whether the proposed legislation, when it emerges, would have been able to prevent the massacres in Buffalo or Uvalde or indeed the spate of mass killings that erupted across the country over the weekend at bars, high school graduations and outside a funeral. At some point, Democrats may have to consider whether they are prepared to accept a package that keeps getting smaller.

If the final version of legislation turns out to only contain the most minor tinkering with gun laws, those Republicans who have so far appeared sincere about doing something may be accused of trying to look active amid rising political pressure, but were ultimately most concerned about avoiding antagonizing conservative grassroots voters and steering clear of any personal political risks.

Talks entering a ‘critical stage’

The top Democratic negotiator of the gun reform effort, Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, on Tuesday went to the White House to brief President Joe Biden, who has called for a far more expansive set of reforms. He told reporters the talks were entering a “pretty critical stage.” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden was “optimistic” and believed that “any step is a step forward.”

Given the failure of recent years to pass almost any measures to stem gun violence amid an endless cycle of massacres, mass shootings and drumbeat of daily gun violence, it is easy to see why the President would welcome any movement at all. If incremental steps save a single life or stop one school shooting or any other mass killing, they would have been worth it.

“There is no magic formula. There is no one thing to stop it entirely but it can make a difference,” former Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey, who is a CNN law enforcement analyst, said Tuesday.

CNN’s Lauren Fox reported that lead GOP negotiator, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, is working on a narrow package that would harden school security, provide more funding for mental health care and ensure that juvenile records could be considered when a person between the ages of 18 and 21 wants to buy a high-powered semiautomatic rifle. The deal could also include incentives for states to pass red flag laws.

But the latest outbreak of violence has not shifted the rigid dynamic that makes Republicans loath to vote for any measure that can even be misrepresented as weakened Second Amendment rights.

Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, a possible 2024 presidential candidate, told CNN’s Manu Raju that he was no fan of red flag laws.

“When you’re taking away somebody’s Second Amendment rights when they have not yet committed a crime and they’re not there to defend themselves … I have got a lot of concerns with that.”

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis said there was no consensus among Republicans on raising the legal age to buy a semiautomatic weapon to 21. Cornyn also argued that some courts had held that raising the age to purchase a semiautomatic weapons was unconstitutional. He said that “focusing more narrowly on people with mental health problems and criminal records” makes the most sense.

Wyoming Republican Sen. Cynthia Lummis meanwhile said she doubted bolstering background checks would fly in her pro-gun state. But she also admitted that she was “surprised” her office was flooded with calls to do something, though said the issue was one of mental health rather than gun safety.

While a reform package might go further than Washington has gone in years to respond to gun violence, it already looks likely to fall well short of even initial Democratic hopes and would pale in comparison to the size of the problem.

It is also taking place amid anticipation that the Supreme Court will soon significantly loosen gun restrictions in New York. State and city officials are already warning that such a decision could spike gun crime.

Still, in a sign of the raised political stakes over the issue, a person familiar with the matter said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has stalled years of Democratic firearms legislation, was privately open to raising the legal age to own a semiautomatic weapon to 21. The Kentucky lawmaker is however not signaling any effort to convince fellow Republicans to vote for such a step.

A country learning to live with the horror of mass shootings

The debate over gun rights after massacres inevitably boils down to a question of how gun owners and those who want to own semiautomatic weapons justify that freedom when judged against the crushing of another right — to life — among the innocent dead.

A new CBS/YouGov poll, for instance, shows that 44% of Republicans think that mass shootings are something the country should accept as part of a free society. That sizable but powerful minority of the GOP voter bloc is inevitably magnified in the primaries that are some of the toughest elections GOP members face. Senate filibuster rules that require a super-majority of 60 votes to pass major legislation make it simple for GOP senators to respond to such sentiment by blocking reform.

This dynamic also explains why the 72% of Americans who support raising the legal age to buy a gun to 21 in a Reuters/Ipsos poll last month do not represent a critical mass sufficient to overcome GOP opposition.

Advocates of reform following recent mass killings, including anguished relatives and survivors, are keeping up the pressure on senators.

Arnulfo Reyes, a teacher shot twice during the massacre last month at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, took television viewers inside one of the classrooms where the carnage unfolded and hit out at law enforcement officers who took more than an hour to kill the gunman. Reyes told ABC that after he was shot, he played dead for 77 minutes before the showdown ended, and heard the shooter turning his weapon on kids in his class.

“I’m sorry. I tried my best from what I was told to do. Please don’t be angry with me,” he said through tears, apologizing to parents.

McConaughey gave an emotional speech to the White House press corps, saying that responsible gun owners were fed up with the Second Amendment being hijacked by deranged individuals and called for universal background checks, raising the minimum age for purchasing an AR-15 to 21, a waiting period for purchasing AR-15s and the implementation of red flag laws.

He also asked his wife Camila Alves to display the Converse shoes that were used to identify one of the dead little girls that he identified as Maite Yuleana Rodriguez.

“Due to the exceptionally large exit wounds of an AR-15 rifle. Most of the bodies so mutilated that only DNA tests or green Converse could identify them,” he said.

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