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Sen. John Cornyn had just left a convention center stage in Houston, where he had been mercilessly booed by conservative activists furious at his leading role in the most serious gun-law talks on Capitol Hill in a generation, when the Texas Republican picked up his phone and sent a message.
The day before, Cornyn had stormed out of a key bargaining session inside the Capitol, telling reporters, “I’m done.” And video clips of the Houston jeers were already bouncing around social media, leading many observers to conclude that the talks — launched in the wake of the May 24 massacre inside a Texas elementary school — were on the brink of collapse.
But Cornyn made clear in that text message to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, that there was nothing to worry about: “We both know that when we’re doing what’s right, it doesn’t matter what other people think,” he wrote, according to Sinema.
The exchange underscored the improbable confluence of circumstances that, within a month’s time, produced the most significant federal legislation to address gun violence in nearly three decades — the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which passed the Senate on Thursday, the House on Friday and was signed by President Biden on Saturday morning.
The breakthrough was pushed along by a core group of negotiators — Sens. Cornyn, Sinema, Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, and Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina — who seized the moment and used a distinctive combination of policy expertise, legislative experience and political courage to push past obstacles that had repeatedly stymied previous attempts at compromise. They succeeded even though it is an election year, in spite of a largely hands-off approach from congressional leaders and an unpopular president, and despite an oppressive history of failure dating back nearly a decade.
“It came together very quickly, and I think it’s because we all have this common desire to help address the fact that folks across our country were afraid and begging us to do something to save lives while also protecting the constitutional rights of Americans,” Sinema said.
It began the night of the Uvalde, massacre, when Sinema marched onto the Senate floor and told Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, that she was distraught and intended to do something about gun violence. He told her to talk to Cornyn and Tillis.
Cornyn was an obvious interlocutor for Republicans. A silver-haired former state Supreme Court justice and Judiciary Committee veteran, he knew the minutiae of federal gun laws as well as anyone on Capitol Hill — and enjoyed a sterling relationship with gun-rights groups. He was also a veteran of multiple attempts to forge compromise on gun violence legislation, but most of them had fizzled — making him a figure of suspicion among many Democrats who believed he was too beholden to the National Rifle Association to ever cut a meaningful deal.
But he had also dealt with the aftermath of a string of mass shootings in his home state — Fort Hood, Sutherland Springs, El Paso, Midland-Odessa, and now Uvalde. And he — along with McConnell, who blessed the talks — knew that the political risk he would assume with the GOP base could have a payoff by defusing a persistent issue with suburban voters that had been trending away from Republicans.
“I think doing nothing is not only bad policy, it’s bad politics,” Cornyn said. “And if people want to get back and talk about other things — like inflation or the border or crime or whatever — then we need to resolve this in a positive way.”
Tillis was a less obvious choice. A former businessman and state legislator, he had presided over sweeping new expansions of gun rights as North Carolina House speaker. But he also was known for a pragmatic streak and had worked with Sinema on the bipartisan infrastructure…