Over the weekend, a group of twenty U.S. senators, led by Texas Republican John Cornyn and Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, announced the framework of a deal to advance the first significant gun safety bill expected to pass Congress in nearly thirty years. Several hurdles need to be cleared before the agreement translates into law, chief among them the drafting of an actual bill and an agreement in the House to pass it. But with ten Republicans in the deal-making group, and every Democrat expected to support the measure in the Senate, it should exceed the 60 votes necessary to avoid a filibuster in the upper chamber, which has been the most frequent obstacle to passing major legislation over the past decade.
While the deal is a landmark, the majority of its provisions wouldn’t have prevented the Uvalde shooting—the major impetus for the agreement. It includes items addressing access to mental health care (an important issue, albeit one with a tenuous connection to gun violence); items that encourage—but don’t require—restrictions on the purchase of firearms; and items that would increase federal funding for school security. The agreement doesn’t include proposals that would raise the minimum age for gun purchases or restrict the sale of any particular kinds of weapons, such as assault rifles.
That’s led to criticism from some on the left that the agreement is toothless. Dallasite and former Obama administration official Brandon Friedman decried the plan as “worse than nothing,” as he believes it will have “no measurable impact on gun violence,” while providing political cover Republicans can use to deflect demand for more-stringent gun restrictions. Meanwhile, criticism from the right and from the gun lobby has been muted. A spokesman for the National Rifle Association vowed that “the NRA will continue to oppose any effort to insert gun-control policies . . . into this or any other legislation” but didn’t comment on the specific framework agreed to by the group of twenty senators. Texas’s other senator, Ted Cruz, who defended gun rights at the NRA’s convention in Houston three days after the Uvalde shooting and was not part of the group of twenty senators, has not commented on the agreement.
Here’s what each of the deal’s provisions would mean for Texans.
Support for “red flag” laws at the state level
One proposal to prevent mass shootings that advocates frequently put forward is the adoption of “red flag” laws. Such laws authorize courts to determine that certain individuals, who have been flagged by relatives or educators, pose a danger to themselves or others, and then to prevent them from possessing firearms for a defined period of time. Nineteen states, as well as Washington, D.C., already have such laws. Texas does not. The agreement in the Senate doesn’t mandate a national “red flag” program, but the group of twenty senators has indicated it would provide an unspecified amount of federal funding as an inducement to states that seek to implement such programs.
Will Texas avail itself of those resources? It’s unclear. In 2018, Greg Abbott asked the state Legislature to investigate whether red flag laws might benefit Texas in the aftermath of the shooting at Santa Fe High School, outside of Houston, in which ten students and teachers were killed. He’s not the only Texas politician who has flirted with supporting such measures. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick acknowledged in 2018 that “being sure that people who shouldn’t have guns in their hands do not have those guns” is a goal he supports, but qualified it by saying “you have to be very careful that you’re not taking away someone’s rights.” He ultimately expressed his opposition to the red flag proposal, and Abbott (as usual) followed suit.
Given how unambiguous Abbott and Patrick typically are in discussing measures they wholeheartedly oppose, such as raising the minimum age to purchase guns, it’s possible that Texas will consider tapping federal resources to implement some sort of state law. (It doesn’t hurt that more than 250 GOP donors, including some who fund Abbott’s campaign, sent a letter to Congress supporting the measures.) Neither Abbott nor Patrick has addressed whether he’s reconsidered his 2018 opinions in the wake of the Uvalde shooting. Speaker of the Texas House Dade Phelan, for his part, announced on Monday a package of school safety provisions he would try to push through his chamber, though it did not include red flag laws (or any other gun safety measures).
We’ll never be certain whether a red flag law would have prevented the Uvalde shooting. Had Texas had such a law, however, it’s possible a family member, teacher, or friend would have flagged the shooter and a court might have ordered his weapons removed.
Protections for domestic violence survivors
Current law prevents individuals who have been convicted of domestic violence against their spouse, a parent of their child, or a partner they’ve lived with from owning a gun. The infamous “boyfriend loophole,” however, exempts from the law those who’ve been convicted of those offenses against someone they did not live with. The Senate agreement would close the loophole, meaning that anyone who was deemed to have been in a serious dating relationship and was convicted of domestic violence, as well as anyone who is subject to domestic violence restraining order, would no longer be eligible to own a gun.
This is significant—a 2019 study found that women are five times more likely to be murdered by an abusive partner if that partner has access to a gun. (Women represent more than 77 percent of the victims of intimate partner homicides.) In 2020, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence found that 80 percent of domestic violence calls to law enforcement involved dating partners, rather than spouses, and dating partners accounted for 60 percent of DV homicides.
This provision isn’t related to Uvalde, but it has the potential to curb other, far more common forms of gun violence.
Investment in mental health services for children and families; school-based mental health resources; and telehealth access
These three measures represent different parts of the agreement, but they’re thematically similar: all could expand access to mental health care. A 2021 study ranked Texas last among U.S. states in access to such care, with two thirds of the 254 counties in the state lacking a psychiatrist.
The proposed Senate framework would expand Community Behavioral Health Clinics across the country. These are clinics that already exist in 42 states—including in Texas, which has 41—that provide mental health resources including medication-assisted treatment and 24-hour crisis care, with alternative payment models to increase access to these services. Additionally, the agreement calls for early identification and intervention programs in schools, with “wrap-around” services that would help students with mental health challenges receive care outside of school. Finally, the deal includes investment in telehealth resources for mental and behavioral health services, which has the potential to be significant in a state as large as Texas, and with as many rural areas.
It’s difficult to say whether these measures would have an impact on school shootings such as the one in Uvalde. According to a 2021 study in the journal Psychological Medicine, only 8 percent of mass shooters had a diagnosed mental illness; as far as we know, the Uvalde shooter was among the 92 percent who did not. But if one considers the increased investment in mental health funding to be part of an omnibus bill, rather than a specific measure to prevent school shootings, the benefits it represents to Texans are obvious, regardless of its impact on gun violence.
Funding for school safety resources
The agreement calls for additional investment in school safety measures. While the language of the deal is not specific, it likely refers to increased police presence and security at schools, a proposal advocated by many leaders throughout Texas. But given how long it took officers from multiple agencies on the scene in Uvalde to stop the gunman, even as children were bleeding to death, it’s unclear what impact additional police would have had.
Clarifying the definition of a federally licensed firearms dealer, and penalizing “straw purchases” and trafficked guns
These are two distinct measures, but they have similar intentions. The precise language of the former is still being debated, but the proposal likely will require individuals who are “engaged in the business of selling firearms” to become federally licensed firearms dealers—which would require them to conduct background checks on purchasers. “Straw purchases” refers to those made on behalf of someone else, while trafficked guns are those brought to one jurisdiction, with stricter gun laws, from another without them, to evade said restrictions. (Chicago, for instance, has relatively strict gun laws, but it’s also just a short drive to the northwest Indiana suburbs, where regulations are significantly less stringent.)
Given that Texas’s laws around gun purchases are already quite loose, this is less of a factor in here than it is in, say, Chicago or New York. The gunman in Uvalde purchased his weapons legally from a local shop. A background check, which would have looked into criminal records, would not have flagged him because he did not have one.
New restrictions for buyers under 21
The agreement would mandate that the National Instant Criminal Background Check System conduct an investigation into the juvenile and mental health records of potential buyers under 21 years old. Cornyn specifically touted this part of the bill as something that would have had an impact in Uvalde. He tweeted on Sunday that “enhanced background checks of juvenile court, police, and mental health records likely would have disclosed what everyone in the community knew. The shooter was a ticking time bomb.”
If the provision requires that school records be included in the investigation, it’s possible that factors such as a history of fistfights at school, as the Uvalde shooter had, would have prevented his gun purchase. But if not, it’s less likely the provision would have prevented the murders. Police say the shooter in Uvalde had no arrest record or documented mental health issues prior to his attack. It is possible that potential shooters in other situations would be stopped from purchasing a gun. “Everyone in the community” knowing someone to be a danger is not the type of thing such background checks would catch, however, absent other physical records.