Senate gun group eyes finish line as 'boyfriend loophole' remains a big hurdle

WASHINGTON — The four U.S. senators leading negotiations on a gun deal met for hours in a Senate basement Thursday in pursuit of a final agreement, but emerged with one major unresolved issue.

The meeting among Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., did not yield a resolution on how to close the "boyfriend loophole" involving gun rights for abusive partners.

As they craft the federal language, the group is looking at “state statutes” that currently prohibit dating partners convicted of abuse from possessing guns, said Tillis, without elaborating on which states. More than 33 states have already taken steps to close or address the boyfriend loophole.

“There’s pretty well-developed law around what a dating partner is already,” Murphy told reporters when he emerged from the meeting. “I hope that the definition is there for the taking.”

GOP negotiators appeared to be getting impatient on the issue.

"Either the Democrats accept what the Republicans are asking for on boyfriend loophole, or it will be dropped entirely," a source familiar with the negotiations said a few hours after the meeting. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive talks, declined to discuss details.

Another source, a GOP aide with knowledge of the talks, said it was "clear after today's meeting that we are at the end of the rope on this."

As Democrats see it, the issue is still under discussion. A third source familiar with the talks said "negotiations are ongoing."

Around the same time, Murphy issued a statement saying the senators have "finalized agreement on the majority of our framework’s provisions."

"Our staff is currently drafting legislative text on those areas of agreement as we work through the final sticking points. I believe we can bring this to a vote next week," he said.

Cornyn, who left the meeting early to catch a flight back home to Texas, told reporters he was “frustrated” by how talks were progressing on the issue as he exited.

“This is the hardest part because at some point, you just got to make a decision, and when people don’t want to make a decision, you can’t accomplish the result. And that’s kind of where we are right now,” Cornyn said. “We’ve been exchanging ideas, and now they know where I stand. So far, there is no agreement.”

Cornyn said “one possibility” is the language gets dropped from the overall package as to not “jeopardize” the timeline. But Murphy said he wouldn’t want to do that: “Obviously we have to get agreement on it, or we can’t put a provision that does harm in the bill.”

'Down to the final stages'

The Senate adjourned for the weekend in the afternoon, but Murphy and Tillis said they planned to continue working through the evening, along with staff, to iron out the disagreements. They still hoped to finish the bill by Friday, which would give the Senate enough time to pass it next week.

“We’re too close — and down to the final stages,” Tillis said. “A lot of decisions got made over the last two hours.”

The Senate group appears to have had a breakthrough on how to structure “red flag” grants, which was a sticking point Wednesday.

They plan to give money to states that adopt such laws as well as assuring that states which don’t adopt them can get the grants and use them for programs like crisis prevention and mental health.

After the lengthy meeting, Tillis said senators have “worked out a mechanism” where red flag grants can flow to states that have such laws on the books, “but also other states that have programs that we mutually agree” are meritorious of the money. He said that could include leveraging existing programs in states that “may have chosen not to have red flag laws.”

“We’re working on that distribution now. The ultimate goal would be to have parity,” Tillis said.

Republicans are privately asking for equal money for states, whether or not they have red-flag laws, though Democrats fear that would reduce the incentive for states to adopt them.

Murphy said he's confident all states will get sufficient money.

“I’ve said from the beginning: I want to make sure that there’s adequate funding in this bill for states that have red flag laws and states that don’t have red flag laws,” he told reporters. “We want to have money to help states implement red flag laws. The Republicans clearly want to make sure that there’s money available for states that don’t move forward with red flag laws. And we’re going to find a way to do that in this bill.”

'To land a deal like this is difficult'

Another issue that the Senate group appears to have resolved is how to modify the rules pertaining to Federal Firearm Licensees, which the agreed-upon framework says is aimed at cracking down "on criminals who illegally evade licensing requirements."

The senators have also agreed on enhancing background checks for Americans aged 18 to 21, opening the door to accessing juvenile and mental health records to help decide whether they should be allowed to buy a firearm. The package is also expected to include substantial funding for mental health and school security.

Tillis declined to divulge details of the licensee modifications, saying the group wants to discuss the finer points with other Senate colleagues before sharing them with the press.

Murphy remained positive about the deal ultimately passing.

“We’ve been getting closer over the course of the last couple days,” Murphy said. “Again, there’s a reason why this place hasn’t acted on guns in 30 years, because to land a deal like this is difficult. It comes with a lot of emotions. It comes with political risk to both sides. But we’re close enough that we should be able to get there.”