FederalGunsGun Background Check Discussions Between John Cornyn and Senate Democrat Dissolves

The “quiet conversations” on background checks between the Texas Republican and a Connecticut Democrat have reportedly ended.
June 11, 2021
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Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) told reporters this week that his negotiations with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) about potentially expanding or reforming federal firearm background checks had reached an impasse.

“Unfortunately we’ve been unable to find an agreed upon outcome, so basically, he suggested to me that there wasn’t any real reason to continue talking right now,” reportedly said Cornyn.

Murphy likewise released a statement indicating that the negotiations had ended.

“I’ve spent a lot of time talking with Senator Cornyn about proposals to increase background checks. I have been very open to compromise and I think Senator Cornyn was negotiating in good faith. But we haven’t been able to get to a bill that would meaningfully increase the number of gun sales that require background checks,” said Murphy.

He added, “The good news is that I’m still talking with other Republican colleagues about different proposals to expand background checks, and I’m committed to getting something done.” 

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Democrats in control of the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 8 in March that would require expanded background checks for private sales of firearms.

Under current law, it is illegal for anyone to “engage in the business of importing, manufacturing, or dealing in firearms” except for federal firearm licensees (FFLs), and all FFLs must conduct background checks for firearm sales to individuals through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

Private individuals who are not in the business of dealing in firearms are not required to conduct background checks when selling, trading, or otherwise transferring guns to someone else.

H.R. 8 would effectively make it illegal for individuals to transfer a gun to another individual without having an FFL facilitate a background check, carving out exceptions for certain family members and temporary transfers for uses such as at gun ranges or hunting. 

Though dubbed the “Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021,” H.R. 8 only received support from eight House Republicans and all members of the Texas delegation voted along party lines.

After receiving House approval, H.R. 8 has been stalled in the Senate with its passage uncertain.

While Democrats technically control the upper chamber with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote, the success or failure of highly partisan issues like expanding background checks largely hinges on moderate members in each party.

So far, opposition in the Senate to H.R. 8 has outweighed the support.

Until the negotiations reportedly ended this week, Cornyn had been having conversations regarding potential background check legislation with Murphy — an issue the two senators previously worked on together with the “Fix NICS Act of 2017” that was ultimately included in an omnibus appropriations bill.

In April, Politico reported that Cornyn said that he would consider narrower legislation than H.R. 8 and that he was having “sort of quiet conversations” with Murphy “to see where we can find common ground.”

And in May, NBC reported that Cornyn and Murphy were close to a compromise on background checks that would have clarified the legal definition of businesses engaged in the “business of importing, manufacturing, or dealing in firearms” in an attempt to prohibit unlicensed gun dealers from skirting around background check requirements.

According to NBC, Cornyn cited the gunman in Odessa who failed a background check in 2014 and then proceeded to buy a firearm from an unlicensed dealer in 2016, three years before his rampage.

“But because he was not a federal firearms licensee — because he was evading that requirement — he didn’t do a background check and this guy got this AR-15 lookalike and killed a lot of innocent people,” said Cornyn.

However, the unlicensed dealer pleaded guilty to violating the law for engaging in the business of selling guns without an FFL and was sentenced to two years in prison.

With Cornyn and Murphy saying that the negotiations are now over, a Senate compromise on H.R. 8 is seemingly off the table for now.

In Texas, the state legislative session also recently ended with some minor changes to background check laws.

Among the many gun-related bills that the legislature approved was Senate Bill (SB) 162, a “lie and try” bill to create a state jail felony for knowingly lying on a background check.

After the two mass killings in El Paso and Odessa in 2019, several Republican lawmakers expressed openness to the idea of expanding background checks to end so-called “stranger to stranger” gun sales, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick who called for discussions on the proposal.

Around the same time, Gov. Greg Abbott published a report that urged the legislature to consider various policies, including “ways to make it easy, affordable, and beneficial for a private seller of firearms to voluntarily use background checks when selling firearms to strangers.”

But besides SB 162, the legislature did not approve any major expansions to background check requirements or enforcement in Texas.

Notably, though, the legislature did approve legislation that would prohibit enforcement from state agencies or political subdivisions of background checks for private sales or transfers of firearms if no such requirement is included in state code.

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Daniel Friend

Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.