WASHINGTON ― Bipartisan gun talks in the Senate have focused on fairly narrow measures: funding for mental health, enhanced background checks, “red flag” laws and school security.
The talks started in the wake of two mass shootings in which the accused gunmen are 18-year-olds who legally purchased their assault rifles. But raising the minimum age required to buy an AR-15-style weapon seems like a long shot because of Republican opposition.
“Two circuit courts have held that unconstitutional,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told HuffPost. “I don’t know what the Supreme Court would do. But I think we’re more interested in trying to target people with mental health and criminal backgrounds. “
Just three years ago, Congress raised the age limit for tobacco purchases from 18 to 21, and doing the same for guns has emerged as one obvious response to the back-to-back high-profile mass shootings by teenagers.
Payton Gendron, 18, has been charged in the deaths of 10 people at a market in Buffalo, New York, on May 14. Salvador Ramos, also 18, is accused of killing 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school on May 24 in Uvalde, Texas.
Actor Matthew McConaughey, a Uvalde native who recently flirted with running for Texas governor, this week endorsed the idea before meeting with senators on Capitol Hill.
Federal law restricts handgun sales by licensed dealers to buyers 21 and up while allowing 18-year-olds to buy shotguns and rifles. But Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn), who has led the negotiations for Democrats, acknowledged that raising the gun-buying age would be difficult.
“We’re doing the hard work of exploring what can get us 60-plus votes,” Murphy told HuffPost, referring to the level of support needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. “Obviously, I support raising the age. I’m just not sure that that ultimately gets us the number we need to get to.”
The members of the bipartisan group are hoping to craft a deal they can present to their parties by the end of the week, though that timeline may slip.
Cornyn, the lead GOP negotiator, updated his colleagues on the status of the talks at a private caucus lunch on Tuesday. Although raising the age required to buy an assault rifle was among the ideas on the list he presented, Cornyn did not state his preference for one idea over another, according to several attendees.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also declined to state a position on the age limit when asked by a reporter following the lunch on Tuesday.
“We are waiting to see if we can get an outcome that directly relates to the problem that brought this issue to the floor one more time,” McConnell said. “I personally would prefer to get an outcome, and we hope that we will have one soon.”
Republicans are for the most part standing back when it comes to supporting anything in a possible bipartisan gun reform package.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he might be open to raising the buying age but was concerned about legal challenges like the one to Florida’s law requiring gun buyers to be 21.
“I’m not an outright ‘no,’ but I need to learn more about whether it’s going to get struck down in court,” Rubio said.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said he’s “not convinced proposals like that are actually going to reduce violence” when asked about a higher gun-buying age.
“I’m looking for ways here to keep our kids safe in school. So I think protecting our schools is the direction where I head. Some of these increased gun control provisions I don’t see are going to make our schools safer,” he added.
Asked about a waiting period for gun purchases by people under 21, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) pivoted to a totally unrelated topic.
“I think what we ought to do is enforce the laws we already have, by the way, in a justice system that applies the law equally,” Johnson said. “Before we pass anything new, let’s enforce the laws we already have. Let’s start with Hunter Biden.”
Some GOP moderates, such as Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, left the door open to supporting such a proposal. At least seven more Republicans would need to join them to make it a reality.
In an emotional speech at the White House on Tuesday, McConaughey called for new regulations as part of what he called a “gun responsibility” platform that he outlined earlier this week.
“We want secure and safe schools, and we want gun laws that won’t make it so easy for the bad guys to get the damn guns,” McConaughey, who is a gun owner, said after recalling heart-wrenching conversations he’s had with the victims’ families in Uvalde.