Wow: McConnell says he'll support Senate gun deal

Does this deserve a “wow”?

It feels like a “wow.” The Senate hasn’t passed a gun bill in almost 30 years. Now here’s the most powerful Republican in Congress giving it his seal of approval.

But I’m not sure it’s a “wow.” Look at it this way: Is there any real downside to McConnell and the Senate GOP in supporting this deal?

What’s the downside? That some gun-rights supporters on the right, like Tucker Carlson, will be mad?

However mad they are, I promise they’re not mad enough to affect the midterm calculus. The political climate is so horrifically bad for Democrats that a red tsunami is on the way whether or not this bill passes. It’s a free play for the GOP.

And McConnell personally has nothing to lose. He’s used to being a hate object for the populist base; I think he enjoys flouting them, frankly. Besides, he doesn’t face voters again until 2026 and may well retire rather than do so. By coming out in favor of the gun deal early, he can serve as a lightning rod for other members of his caucus who might want to support the bill but fear a backlash in conservative media. Now that Fox primetime and talk radio have McConnell to yell at, the other Republicans in favor will go largely overlooked.

Now, consider the upsides. Democrats have been screeching for years that Republicans refuse to Do Something on gun violence, supposedly too frightened of the NRA to act for the country’s benefit. Suddenly the GOP has an easy retort: “We backed the deal between John Cornyn and Chris Murphy, didn’t we?” Righties can no longer be accused of paralysis after mass shootings.

Another upside: One of the two key planks of the deal, adding juvenile offenses to the federal background check system, is completely uncontroversial. Obviously kids who committed dangerous crimes when they were minors shouldn’t be able to buy guns when they turn 18. Even Dan Crenshaw supports that provision despite opposing practically every other form of restricting gun access.

Only the hyper-woke oppose expanding background checks to incorporate juvenile records.

A third upside: The most contentious provision, providing federal money to states to set up their own red-flag systems, is unlikely to matter since most red states will probably decline the opportunity. For the Senate GOP, I think, the grant money is largely symbolic, a goodwill gesture to show that they care about keeping guns away from dangerous people that doesn’t obligate them to actually do anything. For instance, the most obvious red-state candidate to pass a red-flag law is Texas since that’s where the Uvalde shootings occurred, but there’s been no movement there yet towards enacting such legislation. And the further we get from the massacre, the less likely it becomes, I’d imagine.

Since Uvalde, Abbott hasn’t advocated for any gun control measures at all. Instead, he wants to further arm school officials and fund mental health interventions. But with the November election fast approaching, he’s unlikely to convene a special session to address even those proposals in the interim, despite calls from Texas Democrats to do so.

There is some internal disagreement in the state party about red flag laws. Notably, some 250 Texas gun enthusiasts, including top GOP donors, took out a full-page ad in the Dallas Morning News endorsing red flag laws, among other gun control measures. That could influence Texas Republicans’ policies going forward, but it’s unlikely to translate into immediate action, especially before the election.

“They represent the more business-establishment wing, if you will, but they have a lot of influence in the party for sure,” Steinhauser said. “I just don’t think it’s going to lead to a red flag law.”

In theory Abbott could come under pressure to pass something. He’s up for reelection in less than five months and is facing an ardent, outspoken proponent of gun control in Beto O’Rourke. In reality, in this national climate, Abbott’s going to win in a waltz. Passing a red-flag law might shrink his margin of victory rather than expand it by depressing turnout among strong gun-rights supporters, frankly.

Maybe Texas will consider passing a red-flag law after the next massacre. Or the one after that.

Do red-flag laws even work, though? Charles Fain Lehman sifted through several studies for The Dispatch and found that they do seem to reduce suicides, which stands to reason. If you’re so worried about your loved one that you’re willing to go to court to keep him away from guns, chances are you’re worried for his own welfare. Limiting his access to firearms will either prevent him from killing himself or force him to use some method that’s less lethal. But as for RFLs reducing homicides or mass shootings, the evidence is thinner — mainly because red-flag laws that are currently on the books are used *very* rarely, Lehman notes. If we encourage the public to use them more often, that might make a dent in murders. But it’s also sure to mean more non-dangerous people ending up with their Second Amendment rights taken away.

One of the appeals of red flag laws is that they have a relatively low false positive rate, particularly by comparison to other gun control proposals. Mandatory buy-backs or assault weapons bans sweep up lots of people who will never misuse their guns along with the people who will. Red flags try to avoid this, by only targeting gun owners at risk of hurting themselves or others. But by the same token, they almost certainly have a high false negative rate, i.e. they miss a lot of people.

If we want to make red flag laws have more of an impact, we need to reduce that false negative rate, which means increasing the number of red flags, which means increasing the false positive rate. Most mass shooters share certain characteristics, but lots of people who have the same characteristics do not go on to commit mass shootings. If we red flag all such people, we end up dramatically increasing our false positive rate. The same observation obtains for gun homicides, or even suicides: 98 percent of those who express an intent to commit suicide do not actually go on to a die by suicide, for example. In fact, we already know from the research that red flag laws scoop up a lot of non-risks—if 1 in 10 red flags prevents a suicide, 9 in 10 do not. How high does this false positive rate have to get to have a population-level impact?

Congress can appropriate a trillion bucks for state red-flag laws if it likes but if no state ends up passing such a law then the Cornyn/Murphy deal is basically a nothingburger. Even if some states do end up passing RFLs, absent a cultural change in which many more people avail themselves of such laws to restrain the mentally ill from accessing guns, it won’t matter much. The Senate can congratulate itself for having Done Something in this case but realistically it’s probably doing little.

Exit question via Jonathan Chait: Why have Republicans been surprisingly willing to strike deals with Democrats during Biden’s presidency? It’s not just infrastructure and the Cornyn/Murphy gun deal; there are multiple other examples. Chait has a few theories.