Explained | What is included in the U.S. Senate’s gun reform deal?

Amid rising public concern about gun violence, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators has agreed upon a framework for a firearms safety bill

Published - June 17, 2022 12:32 pm IST

File photo: A man prays at a memorial at the scene of a May 14 shooting at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York.

File photo: A man prays at a memorial at the scene of a May 14 shooting at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York. | Photo Credit: Reuters

The story so far: In a step towards establishing a culture of gun safety in the United States, a bipartisan group of Senators have agreed on a basic framework for new legislation on gun control and safety. The agreement, which comes in response to tragic incidents of mass shootings last month, includes tougher background checks for buyers under 21 years of age, support for ‘red flag’ measures to keep firearms away from potentially dangerous people and steps to improve safety and mental health services in schools. U.S. President Joe Biden has welcomed the agreement, saying it reflects “important steps in the right direction”, while acknowledging its limited measures.

The agreement

The cycle of mass shootings in the U.S. has continued over decades with few formal measures taken by Congress to put an end to it. Last month, there was a string of mass shootings in America that included the killing of 19 children and two teachers in a Texas school. The tragic episode renewed the push for gun control measures with thousands taking to the streets to demand meaningful changes from lawmakers and to ask for legislation to curb gun violence and prevent such shootings in future.

Laid out near the U.S. Capitol are 2,280 schoolbooks and broken pencils that represent the 2,280 children killed by gun violence since the Senate has refused to bring a vote on background checks, during a rally in Washington on June 10, 2022.

Laid out near the U.S. Capitol are 2,280 schoolbooks and broken pencils that represent the 2,280 children killed by gun violence since the Senate has refused to bring a vote on background checks, during a rally in Washington on June 10, 2022. | Photo Credit: AP/PTI

Following pressure on politicians, intense negotiations took place between a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators to reach common ground on gun safety rules. After weeks of closed-door talks, the group announced on June 2 that they have struck a deal on an initial framework for gun safety reform. The agreement has the support of nine Democrats, 10 Republicans and one independent who caucuses with the Democrats. It has also been endorsed by the U.S. President. 

The agreement on gun reform is inoteworthy considering that earlier efforts have ended in a stalemate. But there is no guarantee that the legislation will be approved by Congress. However, at least 10 Republicans are presently backing the agreement. This support is expected to push the framework and help it overcome the “filibuster” rule of the Senate which requires 60 of the 100 to agree on legislation for it to advance.

What has been included in the proposal?

The agreement has not been written into legislative text yet. However, as per a statement by the group of Senators, here is what is likely to be part of the written agreement.

‘Red flag’ measures: In the U.S., Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) law is commonly known as ‘red flag’ law. Under this, an individual identified to be at risk of causing violence is restricted from accessing firearms for a temporary period. The proposal passed by the Senate will provide resources to ensure that weapons are kept away from those who have been deemed a danger to themselves or society by a court. 

Background checks: Firearms buyers who are under 21 years of age will have to undergo background criminal and mental health checks. Notably, those convicted of domestic violence or having domestic violence restraining orders will have to undergo a criminal background check in case they wish to purchase a firearm.

Crackdown on straw purchases: Such purchases take place when a person buys a firearm for someone not legally allowed to do so. The legislation proposes action against criminals who indulge in the straw purchase and trafficking of firearms. 

Focus on mental health services: Republicans have pinned the blame for mass shootings on mental illnesses. To tackle this issue, the agreement has proposed increased investment in mental health and suicide prevention programmes , as well as expanding access to such programmes.  

Support in schools: The Congress will provide more funding to expand mental health programmes and supportive services in schools to ensure early identification and intervention.

Safety and security in schools: If the agreement translates into law, schools in the U.S. will be provided funds to help them create safety measures and provide training to students and staff.

Clarity about licenced dealers : To prevent criminals from evading licencing requirements, the framework will clarify who qualifies as a federally licenced firearms dealer

What has been omitted?

No ban on assault weapons: Mr. Biden has made continuous appeals to the Congress to re-impose a ban on assault weapons. The framework agreed upon by bipartisan Senators, however, doesn’t propose a ban on assault weapons. 

Age restrictions to buy rifles: At present, the minimum age to buy a firearm is 18 in the U.S. There have been calls to raise the age for buying a semiautomatic rifle to 21, but the agreement does not include any such provision. 

Background check expansion: Many sales in America happen online or at gun shows. The framework does not propose ways to plug this loophole. It also doesn’t include a proposal to expand federal background checks to buy a weapon from three to 10 days.

Liability shield stays: Gun manufacturers still cannot be sued for violence carried out by people carrying and shooting guns manufactured by them.

The initial response to the framework

U.S. President Joe Biden welcomed the agreement but acknowledged its shortcomings. Stating that the framework has fallen short of the tougher measures sought by him, Mr. Biden said, “…it does not do everything that I think is needed, but it reflects important steps in the right direction and would be the most significant gun safety legislation to pass Congress in decades.”

“Each day that passes, more children are killed in this country: the sooner it comes to my desk, the sooner I can sign it, and the sooner we can use these measures to save lives,” he added. Mr. Biden and Democrats had sought tough steps such as a ban on semi-automatic, assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines and raising the minimum age to buy these from 18 to 21.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he wishes to move a bill quickly once details are finalised. Speaker Nancy Pelosi also backed the deal. Noting that “more is needed”, she added that the package will take steps to save lives.

Meanwhile, a National Rifle Association (NRA) spokesperson told Reuters that the group will not take a position on the framework until the detailed legislative text is finalised. The NRA would oppose any effort depriving Americans of their gun rights, she added.

What next?

The United States has the highest rate of firearms deaths among the world’s wealthy nations. The announcement of an agreement has come as a ray of hope for a country where significant gun reform discussions last took place in 2013. Gun safety-related legislation had been introduced then in the aftermath of a school massacre in Connecticut but had failed on the Senate floor. U.S. lawmakers would hope to swiftly push the present framework into law before the political momentum stirred by the recent mass shootings fades again. 

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, who led the negotiations alongside Republican John Cornyn, hopes to see the Senate passing the agreement this month. “The heavy lifting is behind us after three weeks of intensive talks, though a significant amount of work remains,” Mr. Murphy was quoted as saying by Reuters.

However, the final text of the agreement and its provisions have not been finalised so far. Experts believe that crucial details like the language used could lead to more delays.

(With inputs from agencies)

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