Senate negotiations on gun reforms stall over 'boyfriend' loophole, red flag laws

Senators were hoping to resolve differences by the end of the week.

June 16, 2022, 9:09 AM

Top negotiators on a bipartisan gun safety framework deal huddled behind closed doors for several hours Wednesday evening to try to solve remaining differences, but the group's effort to expedite passage of an agreement is stalled, at least for the moment.

Since a group of 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans announced an agreement Sunday on a framework of proposals aimed at curbing gun violence in the wake of mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, a bipartisan group of senators has been working to speedily turn the list of ideas into a bill ready for consideration on the Senate floor next week. But two provisions, one focused on incentivizing states to implement violence prevention programs, and another dealing with closing the so-called "boyfriend loophole," are now tying up negotiations, chief Republican negotiator John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Wednesday.

"If we can settle these two issues, I think we're on our way, but I am concerned now given the time it takes and the need to complete our work really by tomorrow that we've got to settle these issues," Cornyn told reporters Wednesday morning.

When negotiators emerged from their meeting Wednesday evening, they noted some progress, but said discussions on these two major issues will need to continue Thursday.

"We did make progress," Cornyn said. "But we're not there yet."

"We are continuing to make progress," Sen. Chris Murphy, the top Democratic negotiator, said after Cornyn's departure. "This is a very tight timeline to land some very serious issues."

Senator Chris Murphy speaks to reporters after the weekly senate party caucus luncheons at the Capitol in Washington, June 14, 2022.
Sarah Silbiger/Reuters

Senators are feeling the time crunch as they try to meet an ambitious deadline to turn their announced framework into law. If senators wish to see a vote on their package before the Senate departs for a two week recess on June 27, they need to turn their framework agreement into bill text that other senators can review and vote on.

Challenges over how to create a program to support or incentivize state violence prevention programs -- including red flag laws designed to temporarily seize weapons from those deemed by a court to be a danger to themselves or others, have been bubbling up in the Republican conference since the proposed framework was announced.

According to Cornyn, negotiators are struggling over whether funds made available to states to support red flag programs should also be available to states with other types of violence prevention programs, like veterans' courts, mental health courts, and assisted outpatient treatment programs.

Some Republicans have long struggled with red flag programs out of concern that these provisions violate the due process rights of those accused of being a threat. During a closed-door Republican conference meeting on Tuesday, several Republican lawmakers outside of the negotiating group told ABC News they had concerns about provisions supporting red flag laws.

Cornyn, according to numerous participants, repeatedly assured his colleagues that there would be no federal mandate to implement the laws. He also echoed an earlier speech in which he said their impending legislation would ensure that any state that does take federal funding would be required to ensure the due process rights of anyone potentially falling under a red flag order, also called an "extreme risk protection order."

"Most of the discussion was around the red flag issue, and that is my greatest concern as well that we do it right," said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., on Tuesday. "I think we're more interested in the red wave than we are in red flags, quite honestly, as Republicans and we have a pretty good opportunity to do that," seemingly a reference to the possibility of Republicans taking control of Congress this fall.

Sen. John Cornyn speaks during a hearing on "Protecting America's Children From Gun Violence" with the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, June 15, 2022.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Still, Democrats are optimistic there's a solution on the red flag issue. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., has been leading the group's efforts on red flag laws, said Wednesday that negotiators have already been in discussion on a "very doable" solution.

"We need to support every possible way to intervene in crisis before they produce violence. And red flag laws need investment of hundreds of millions of dollars for them as an incentive but also to implement them and at the same time we can have a variety of other crisis intervention mode that help save lives," Blumenthal said.

There's also been issues over efforts to modify law to close "boyfriend loophole." Under current law, unmarried partners who commit domestic violence are not barred from purchasing a firearm, though spouses who perpetrate domestic violence are.

Negotiators are struggling with how to appropriately define a "boyfriend" or partner in this language to include those who are unmarried.

Democrats earlier Wednesday sought to downplay Cornyn's concern about the two outstanding issues.

Democratic negotiator Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., chalked both the boyfriend loophole issue and the red-flag law snag up to "modest negotiation challenges," noting that issues always arise when frameworks are being turned to legislative bill text.

"All we have to do is write text that is true to the framework," Murphy said. "You know, we all made a commitment to each other that we were supportive of the framework and then we're going to write that into law. I have continued confidence that we can write that framework into text and we can have that for our colleagues next week."

While negotiators continue to work on legislative text, there is a growing contingent of Republicans who have signaled willingness to supportive the framework.

Republican Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday said he is "comfortable" with the bipartisan gun safety reform framework and will be "supportive" of the bill "if the legislation ends up reflecting what the framework indicates."

"My view of the framework if it leads to a piece of legislation I intend to support it I think it is progress for the country and I think the bipartisan group has done the best they can to get total support and the background check enhancement for that age group I think is a step in the right direction," McConnell said.

And other members in his conference are also signaling willingness to support the proposal.

"I just need to see the text…want to see the details. The framework I think looks good, but it's going to be what the details are," said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-WV, on Tuesday.

Getting text to members before the weekend will be key, Cornyn said. And he's still hopeful it can be done.

"We need to tie a nice thick ribbon around everything," Cornyn told reporters. "Because we have to have an end to this to write the text in order to be able to share it with colleagues and provide it to the majority leader to put it on the floor."

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