Victims of mass shootings challenge lawmakers as Senate talks continue

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(WASHINGTON) — While some of their friends and loved ones are still being buried at home, both survivors and families of victims in recent mass shootings challenged lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week to reach a deal on gun reform negotiations or risk continuing a 30-year trend of inaction in the wake of tragedies from Sandy Hook to Parkland.

As Senate negotiators continue talks, House Democrats on Wednesday will move to pass a sweeping package — called the “Protect Our Kids Act” — which would raise the age limit for purchasing semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21, ban high-capacity magazines, create firearm safe storage requirements, and tighten the regulation of bump stocks and “ghost guns.”

Republican leaders pushed back ahead of the vote, with Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the House GOP Whip, noting, “there wasn’t a conversation about banning airplanes,” after the Sept. 11 attacks — and calling for the majority to hold bipartisan talks like their Senate counterparts. Though the legislation is doomed in the upper chamber, it’s intended to put pressure on Republicans who have been hesitant to enact — or outright blocked — reform at the federal level, despite growing calls for change.

The real opportunity to change policy lies in the Senate, where a small group of bipartisan negotiators is inching closer to reaching a gun reform deal in principle.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., leaving a meeting with the group of roughly 11 lawmakers on Wednesday, said they were discussing “a series of concrete proposals” that he’s “hopeful in the next day will all be reduced to a framework that includes a broad range of commitments, in terms of dollar amounts and purposes.”

But questions remain around what the final deal will include — and if it will go as far as many Americans are demanding.

“Somewhere out there, a mom is hearing our testimony and thinking to herself, ‘I can’t even imagine their pain,’ not knowing that our reality will one day be hers — unless we act now,” said Kimberly Rubio, mother of Lexi Rubio, a fourth-grade student among the 19 kids and two teachers killed in Uvalde, Texas. “So, today, we stand for Lexi. And as her voice, we demand action. We seek a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines.”

“You expect us to continue to just forgive and forget over and over again. And what are you doing?” asked Garnell Whitfield Jr., a son of Ruth Whitfield, the oldest victim of the Buffalo shooting, which left 10 Black people dead, asked senators Tuesday. “My mother’s life mattered. Your actions here will tell us if, and how much, it mattered to you.”

Academy Award-winning actor Matthew McConaughey, who said he learned responsible gun ownership growing up in Uvalde, also offered a passionate plea from the White House after lobbying lawmakers on both sides of the aisle this week, saying that Americans are more united on the issue of guns, but it’s Congress that’s divided.

“Enough of the invalidation of the other side. Let’s come to the common table that represents the American people. Find a middle ground, the place where most of us Americans live anyway, especially on this issue,” McConaughey said in an emotional and lengthy speech. “Because I promise you, America — you and me, who — we are not as divided as we’re being told we are.”

The bipartisan group of senators, led by Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, is aiming to reach a compromise this week on a package that could garner enough support to pass Congress — but they’re considering measures much smaller in scope than what both victims and President Joe Biden have publicly called for.

Instead of universal background checks, supported by 89% of Americans according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, negotiators are looking to expanding background checks to look at juvenile records. Regarding red-flag laws, supported by 86% of Americans according to the same poll, laws which temporarily remove guns from the hands of individuals who are considered a danger to themselves or others, the group is considering incentivizing states to implement their own, as opposed to enacting red-flag laws at a federal level.

Funding to states for mental health resources — a measure Republicans pushed for, along with increased funding for school safety — is about 80% complete, according to Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who is part of the talks.

Senate Democrats support the expanded versions of these measures as well as raising the age to buy assault-style weapons from 18 to 21 — but they don’t have enough Republican support to become law. Democrats need 10 Senate Republicans to join them on any legislation to meet the chamber’s 60-vote threshold, required by the filibuster rule, and allow a bill to advance for final passage.

So far, it’s not clear there is enough support even for a more modest deal.

Despite Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky expressing a willingness in private to support lowering the age to buy assault-style weapons, sources told ABC News’ Congressional Correspondent Rachel Scott, the measure is a nonstarter for most Republicans.

Asked by a CNN reporter why Americans would need an AR-15, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said people use them in his state “to shoot prairie dogs and, you know, other types of varmints.”

Less than 24 hours later, a Uvalde pediatrician, who treated the victims of the Robb Elementary School mass shooting, described to House lawmakers the damage the gunman’s AR-15 there had on the tiny bodies.

“Two children, whose bodies had been so pulverized by the bullets fired at them, over and over again, whose flesh had been so ripped apart, that the only clue as to their identities were the blood spattered cartoon clothes still clinging to them,” said Pediatrician Dr. Roy Guerrero.

What’s next?

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has given negotiators roughly until the end of the week to come up with a framework agreement, after which it would take more time to then develop legislative language and get the requisite budget analyses.

“I’m encouraging my Democratic colleagues to keep talking, to see if Republicans will work with us to come up with something that will make a meaningful change in the lives of the American people and stop gun violence,” he said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “Making real progress is very important. Sen. Murphy has asked for space to have the talks continue, and I have given him the space.”

But not every negotiator appears on board with that swift timeline.

Lead Republican on the talks, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, told reporters on Wednesday that his “aspirational goal” would be to reach a deal “in the next couple of weeks, by the end of this work period” on June 27.

While negotiators appear to be closing in on a framework deal by Friday, one GOP aide familiar with the matter said that paper is still being exchanged by each side. It’s possible that members announce a deal in principle and then take a few more weeks to finalize language, as was seen with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Senate Democrats need 10 Republicans to join them in theory, but some think any agreement is going to need even broader Republican support to pass — under the thinking more in the GOP will be willing to support the measure if it has the backing of their larger conference.

If negotiators do not come to an agreement, Schumer has vowed to get every senator on the record by holding a vote on doomed-to-fail comprehensive gun reform legislation, ahead of the fall midterm elections.

ABC News’ Trish Turner, Benjamin Siegel and Allie Pecorin contributed to this report.

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