Caught between A+ NRA rating and nation reeling from massacres, John Cornyn is key to whether gun safety deal advances

Cornyn has shown willingness to compromise, but faces critics further to his right, including fellow Texas senator Ted Cruz
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, arrives at a blood donation event at the Herby Ham Activity...
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, arrives at a blood donation event at the Herby Ham Activity Center on May 25, 2022, in Uvalde. Community members gathered to donate blood after a school shooting the day before.(Credit: Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune)
Published: Jun. 17, 2022 at 4:37 PM CDT
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WASHINGTON (TEXAS TRIBUNE) - In late May, U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema had just finished speaking to a group of reporters about the gut-wrenching shooting at a Uvalde elementary school. She beelined into the Senate chamber, where she ran into Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“I said to him, ‘Who should I talk to?’” the Arizona Democrat told The Texas Tribune in an interview.

McConnell directed her to his de facto deputy: John Cornyn, a Republican who touts an A+ rating with the National Rifle Association and represents the state with more guns than any other in the nation.

Still on the Senate floor, Sinema texted Cornyn, who was on a plane returning from Uvalde, where he and other state officials were dealing with the devastating aftermath of the May 24 massacre that left 19 elementary school children and two teachers dead. It was the nation’s deadliest shooting at a K-12 school since the one at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.

“Mitch says to talk to you,” she said in her text. “Let’s get going.”

The two senators met for breakfast the next morning and got to work.

Three weeks later, Cornyn was the lead Republican of a group of 20 senators unveiling the framework for the landmark bipartisan gun legislation that, among other things, would attempt to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people by incentivizing red flag laws and closing the “boyfriend loophole,” while increasing scrutiny for gun buyers under the age of 21.

If it passes as proposed, President Joe Biden said it “would be the most significant gun safety legislation to pass Congress in decades.” It would also mean that Cornyn’s legacy could soon be tied to such an effort.

Whether the legislation ever becomes law remains to be seen. It is still being sorted out behind closed doors and as of Thursday, Cornyn told reporters that there was still no agreement. He signaled that negotiations were strained but said he was not abandoning the work.

He and his allies are pushing to put the bill on the floor next week, ahead of the Senate’s July 4 recess — a break that could slow momentum as the public’s attention to the tragedy drifts. He told the Tribune on Friday that the negotiators are “getting very close” to an agreed-upon legislative text.

“I think we’re going to be on a glide path to have a bill on the floor next week,” he said.

But he acknowledged that time is of the essence.

“I’m just a little frustrated that people couldn’t make a decision,” he said of his colleagues. “I was worried that our timeline would slip because if we didn’t have the text [of the bill], you know, in a reasonable time before next week that would be very hard to pass anything.”

Cornyn remains the top Republican negotiator involved — and he’s made no apologies to those to his right who criticize him for his efforts.

“Good public policy and support for the Second Amendment are not mutually exclusive,” he said in a separate interview earlier this month.

It’s a political risk for Cornyn to take on a leadership role for legislation that is already being cast by some in his party as a threat to Second Amendment rights.

But he is uniquely suited for the role to get something, anything through. A widely respected former Senate majority whip, Cornyn has experience getting members of the party on board. He has McConnell’s confidence. And he’s embraced gun safety legislation in the past after a gunman shot up a church in Sutherland Springs in 2017, when he worked with Democrats to pass legislation to strengthen the national background check system for gun purchases.

Cornyn has operated with a surgical level of precision on gun laws that allows him to be both things at once: a reliable defender of gun rights with a voting record that nearly mirrors his hard-charging Republican colleague Sen. Ted Cruz — and the go-to negotiator and most likely conservative to be receptive to a compromise on gun legislation on the heels of a tragedy.

He’s pushing for only exactly as much as he thinks he can get passed in the deeply partisan upper chamber, which is a challenge because he’ll need at least nine Senate Republicans to stay with him to break through a filibuster. But he wants more Republican senators than that, because consensus means there will be fewer political targets.

“This can be a very polarizing issue … so it kind of goes with the territory,” he said. “But if you get 77 senators on a bipartisan basis to do something, then it makes you a pretty small target for politics.”

Some gun safety advocates panned his work, saying they want more meaningful change. Democrats, including Biden, have pushed for a revival of the assault weapons ban and universal background checks — neither of which have Cornyn’s support.

But after failing to pass virtually any gun safety legislation, year after year, even after the horrific Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut, where 20 6- and 7-year-olds and six adults were killed a decade ago, Democrats are poised to accept whatever incremental changes they can get.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar is a Democrat who represents El Paso, where a shooter in 2019 killed 23 people and left dozens injured in a Walmart parking lot. She called the framework “extremely disappointing.”

“Red state senators know the red flag law accomplishes nothing in states like ours,” she said. “We have a state legislature and governor uninterested in actually passing a red flag law. So incentives that keep Texans safe will go nowhere.

“However, I will support it for those states and governors who are interested in that,” she added.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment on his position about incentivizing red flag laws.

“A punch in the gut”

The bipartisan group of lawmakers said their aim is to incentivize states to pass red flag laws, which are designed to keep guns out of the hands of individuals who pose a threat to themselves or others; increase funding for mental health services, telehealth resources and more school security; permit juvenile records to be incorporated into background checks for purchasers under the age of 21; and crack down on the straw purchase and trafficking of guns.

But as the Senate went home for the weekend, a major holdup to a deal involved the “boyfriend loophole,” another provision of the package. Current federal law bans firearm purchases for those convicted of committing domestic violence against spouses or partners who live together or share a child. Closing the loophole would expand that definition to include dating partners, which conservatives argue could be too expansive of a classification.

In addition to Sinema, Cornyn’s primary negotiating partner across the aisle is U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, a man Cornyn described as wanting “to reach a result.”

Murphy won the seat in November 2012, despite efforts by Cornyn to keep him out. At the time, Cornyn was the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, a group tasked with helping defeat Democrats. Just weeks before he joined the Senate, tragedy struck Murphy’s congressional district in Newtown. A disturbed young man entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and unleashed carnage, killing 26 students and teachers.

That spring, Murphy and other Democrats spent all of their political capital pushing for expanded background checks. They failed so spectacularly to marshal the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster threat that the defeat melted into a sense of legislative hopelessness that any gun control measure could ever be passed. Cornyn was among the Republicans to vote against that measure.

For most of his 20 years in the Senate, Republicans like Cornyn have formed an implicit blockade of nearly all big Democratic gun initiatives, to the point that Democrats mostly gave up on addressing the issue.

Then in the fall of 2017, a gunman entered a Sutherland Springs church and killed 26 people, including a pregnant mother and her unborn baby.

“Sutherland Springs was a punch in the gut,” Cornyn said.

It was enough to move Cornyn to take action.

A former Texas attorney general and state supreme court justice, Cornyn assessed the evidence that showed the shooter never should have been able to purchase the firearms he used in the killing spree because he had a record for domestic abuse.

The shooter lied on his application to purchase guns about his criminal history, being dishonorably discharged from the military and about his mental health history. The seller did not learn about his history, despite running a background check, because the Air Force had failed to upload information on the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

Several months later, yet another student gunman entered a Parkland, Florida, high school and killed 17 students. Driven by the activism of surviving Parkland students, Cornyn’s bill picked up steam.

Cornyn worked with Murphy to pass legislation, which held government agencies accountable for failing to properly document individuals’ criminal histories in NICS.

Known as the “Fix NICS” Act, it had the support of 77 senators, and Cornyn inserted it into a massive spending bill that passed in 2018. Cornyn called this accomplishment “near the top, if not the top” of his Senate achievements.

“Fixing the background check system will help save lives and reduce the likelihood of what occurred in Parkland and Sutherland Springs from happening again,” he said at the time.

The Department of Justice reported that between April 2018 and March 2020, there was an increase in more than 8 million background checks across three national databases searched within NICS — an 8.1% increase.

Conservative criticism

This past week, Cornyn has taken on an increasing level of heat from his own party amid increasingly fragile negotiations.

A point of contention among Republicans is the red flag provision in the framework. Cornyn said the gunmen in Uvalde and at Sandy Hook both “have a pretty recognizable profile” and should not have had access to firearms.

At this weekend’s Republican Party of Texas convention in Houston, where the audience loudly booed Cornyn when he took the stage for his speech, The state party is also considering language in its platform rebuking Cornyn and the other senators participating in the negotiations — referred to as the “gang of 20.” A resolution said red flag laws “violate one’s right to due process and are a pre-crime punishment of people not adjudicated guilty.”

Cruz said Tuesday that he also has concerns about red flag laws, signaling he is unlikely to support the coming bill. But he said he was waiting to see the full text of the legislation to decide.

“We’ve seen consistently whenever there is a horrific criminal event that Democrats’ top priority is not stopping the bad guys, not stopping the criminals, but rather disarming law-abiding citizens,” he said. “If that’s what they try to push with this proposal, I think that would be a serious mistake.”

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, a retiring Alabaman who is the top Republican on spending decisions, told the Tribune he is dismayed by Cornyn’s effort.

“He’s trying to sell something that might be hard to sell, right now, among a lot of us … a lot of people aren’t going to support that bill,” he said. “We haven’t seen the particulars yet. We haven’t seen the cost, what it would do.

“I think the Democrats … would be elated by this bill, and if they are, then Republicans have got to be skeptical,” he added.

Gun safety advocates are in fact framing the legislation as a potential win.”You celebrate every success and you celebrate incremental change, and this is that for sure,” said Nicole Golden, the executive director of Texas Gun Sense, a gun regulation advocacy group. “Some people say it’s moderate. Yes, I think it’s something to build on, and for those like me, who got involved in this work after Sandy Hook, it’s the biggest movement seen in almost a decade.”

Cornyn on Friday shrugged off the negative feedback.

“This sort of negotiation, you know, has its ups and downs,” he said. “Yeah. And, but I think we’re in a pretty good place right now. So I’m optimistic.”

Cornyn is one of the top congressional recipients of NRA donations. The NRA declined to comment until the text of the bill is released.”We will make our position known when the full text of the bill is available for review,” an NRA spokesperson said.

Asked about potential opposition from the NRA and other gun rights organizations, Cornyn said, “No group has a veto over what we do here.”

But he added, “we’re listening to what they have to say.”

If the legislation passes in the Senate, it’s poised to sail through the House and be signed into law by Biden, who recently called him a “rational Republican.”

But failure is an option here. It always is when it comes to the U.S. Senate.

Someday, Cornyn will return to Uvalde with or without a bill passed. When asked about the prospect of traveling back to the devastated community empty-handed, Cornyn acknowledged the potential for defeat.

“Obviously, it would be disappointing, and it would be a missed opportunity to do a lot of good,” he said.

Eric Neugeboren and Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

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