WASHINGTON — The Senate is poised to pass a bipartisan bill later this week that could become the most comprehensive federal gun safety legislation in years, including billions in new mental health funding.
Senators on a procedural vote late Tuesday agreed 64-34 to start debate on the gun control bill, which would also have to be passed by the House — which separately has approved more sweeping legislation — before it could go to President Joe Biden’s desk. All 34 votes in opposition were from Republicans, although Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, voted in favor of advancing the bill.
The push for some kind of federal response followed two deadly mass shootings in May. In Buffalo, New York, a white supremacist targeted a Black neighborhood and killed 10 Black people in a grocery store.
In Uvalde, Texas, 19 children and two teachers were murdered, making it the second-deadliest mass shooting since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012.
A group of 20 bipartisan senators — 10 Republicans, nine Democrats and one independent — hashed out eight provisions in the Senate bill, known as the “Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.”
If passed, it would provide $750 million for states to enact “red flag laws,” which allow the courts to temporarily remove a firearm from an individual who is a threat to themselves or others, and $11 billion in mental health services for schools and families, among other provisions.
“This legislation will strengthen background checks and keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, and lead negotiator on the bill, said in a statement.
The bill also closes the “boyfriend” loophole. It includes a five-year period during which those who are convicted of committing an assault against a romantic partner must wait to obtain a firearm. If no other offenses are committed, then that person will be removed from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
The bill would also require those under 21 who want to purchase a firearm to undergo a background check that takes into account a review of juvenile and mental health records.
And the legislation would curb the illegal trafficking of guns known as straw purchases, where someone can acquire a gun for someone else.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement that senators “will move to final passage as quickly as possible.” He added that while the bill does not have everything that Democrats want, “this legislation is urgently needed.”
Mental health funding
There is a hefty investment in mental health services in the bill — about $11 billion in funding to improve mental health access for children through the Medicaid program and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
The bill’s mental health funding for children and their families would:
- Provide $80 million in grants to support pediatric care specialists who want to access mental health expertise in their patients’ treatment.
- Appropriate $60 million during the course of five years for training in mental health for clinicians who treat children.
- Appropriate more than $120 million during the course of four years to provide training for community members and first responders to treat individuals with mental health disorders.
- Provide $250 million for states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories to enhance community mental health services.
- Appropriate $240 million during the course of four years to increase awareness of mental health among school-aged children, help staff detect mental distress in students and help those students connect with services to help them. There is also $28 million set aside for grants to support trauma care in schools.
- Appropriate $40 million during the course of four years to improve services for children and their families who have experienced trauma.
- Appropriate $150 million to support the implementation of the 24 hour 9-8-8 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline for those in distress.
The bill would also expand mental health services in schools by:
- Providing $500 million through the School Based Mental Health Services Grant Program to increase the number of mental health professionals for schools with districts that demonstrate the need for those services.
- Providing $500 million to the School Based Mental Health Service Professionals Demonstration Grant to train and diversify the pipeline of counselors, social workers and psychologists in schools.
- Providing $1 billion through Title IV-A to support activities to improve conditions for student learning, such as developing positive school climates through evidence-based practices.
- Providing $50 million to the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which funds after school and summer programs, with a new focus on programs for older youth.
- Providing $300 million through the STOP School Violence Act to institute safety measures in and around schools, support school violence prevention efforts and provide training to school personnel and students. No funds under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act are allowed to be used to train or equip any person with dangerous weapons in schools.
The nine Senate Democrats and one independent in the bipartisan group that came up with the bill are Murphy, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Chris Coons of Delaware, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, Mark Kelly of Arizona, Angus King of Maine, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.
The 10 Senate Republicans in the bipartisan group are John Cornyn of Texas, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Rob Portman of Ohio, Mitt Romney of Utah and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
The senators who did not cast a vote on whether to start debate on the guns bill were Republican Sens. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and Toomey.
But Toomey, who is part of the bipartisan group, issued a statement in support.
“This bipartisan gun safety bill protects the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens while taking steps to make our communities safer,” he said. “It will strengthen background checks, provide federal assistance for state crisis intervention programs, enhance penalties for trafficking and straw purchasing firearms, and invest in school safety and mental health.”
Republican senators who voted against starting debate on the gun-related bill include Sens. John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming; Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty of Tennessee; John Boozman and Tom Cotton of Arkansas; Mike Braun of Indiana; Mike Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho; Ted Cruz of Texas; Steve Daines of Montana; Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse of Nebraska; Chuck Grassley of Iowa; Josh Hawley of Missouri; John Hoeven of North Dakota; Cindy Hyde-Smith and Roger Wicker of Mississippi; Jim Inhofe and James Lankford of Oklahoma; Ron Johnson of Wisconsin; John Kennedy of Louisiana; Mike Lee of Utah; Roger Marshall and Jerry Moran of Kansas; Rand Paul of Kentucky; Mike Rounds and John Thune of South Dakota; Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida; Tim Scott of South Carolina; Richard Shelby and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama; and Dan Sullivan of Alaska.