“The most significant piece of anti–gun violence legislation in nearly 30 years” may soon come out of the United States Senate, according to Senator Chris Murphy. He was announcing, last week, that 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans had aligned on a “framework” for legislative action following a series of terrible mass shootings across the U.S., including at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. On Tuesday afternoon, after days of additional negotiations, Murphy said the senators involved had reached a deal on legislative language for their effort. While the reforms they’re now proposing are moderate relative to what American gun-control advocates are looking for, the agreement could lead to unexpected movement on an intransigent issue. Acute political division is now so commonplace in the U.S. that it’s become almost a cliche to remark on it, but here, suddenly, is what appears to be a major departure from the pattern. What accounts for it?

Bill Scher is a U.S. journalist and a contributor to The Washington Monthly, RealClearPolitics, and Politico Magazine. As Scher sees it, hyper-partisanship and polarization surely remain defining features of American democracy, but the U.S. Congress and the White House have nevertheless been pulling off bipartisan breakthroughs with some regularity. Those achievements have come in part because Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has decided not to be “maximally oppositional” with Biden, as Scher puts it, allowing the president occasional victories, including on infrastructure, U.S. Postal Service reform, and foreign policy. This in turn has given Biden the chance to claim that he’s fulfilled his campaign promise to work with his political opposition. Still, to Scher, the president can’t seem to decide whether to take credit for getting the government to function or to blame Republicans for the government dysfunction that remains. The larger dynamic shaping these relations and decisions, Scher says, is that American politicians today are often wary of engaging in, and then hesitant to celebrate, bipartisanship—anticipating that many of their base voters will see compromises as betrayals. Of course, this means American voters may be less aware of where the parties are finding common ground and working together, contributing to the overwhelming public sense that they’re only and always hopelessly divided.


Graham Vyse: How do you understand the new U.S. Senate framework to address gun violence?

Bill Scher: It’s intended to give money to states to support “crisis intervention.” Senators are still debating how much of that should be to incentivize “red flag” laws—laws that give authorities the right to take guns away from Americans posing a danger to themselves or others—versus alternative forms of crisis intervention. The framework also includes money for mental-heath services, including school-based services; funding for school-safety measures; enhanced background checks for gun buyers under the age of 21; and a crackdown on illegal gun trafficking. In addition, senators are talking about closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole.” At the moment, if you’re a convicted domestic abuser who’s married or cohabitating, you’re put in a database so you can’t purchase a weapon, but if you’re merely in a relationship with someone—not married or cohabitating—you aren’t banned from making that purchase. Democrats want to change that. Republicans are entertaining the idea. We’ll see what comes of it.

Vyse: What does the framework indicate about where Democratic and Republican senators agree and disagree on how to reduce gun violence in America?

Scher: It’s striking that the framework isn’t narrowly tailored only to address the specifics of the recent shooting massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde. Every incident of gun violence has its own particulars, but if you’re always preoccupied with the specifics of something that just happened, you may overlook other good policy ideas to address the broader problem. Keep in mind that the vast majority of gun deaths in the U.S. aren’t from mass shootings or even homicides. They’re mostly from suicides.

Mike Stoll

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