How Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul voted on the biggest gun reform bill in decades - and why

Morgan Watkins
Louisville Courier Journal

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell broke with his career-spanning tradition of opposing gun regulations Thursday night when he voted for a bipartisan proposal that's on track to become the first big gun reform bill to become federal law since 1994.

He and 14 other Republicans — but not fellow Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — joined all Senate Democrats in a 65-33 vote to approve the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which some senators from both parties put together after a gunman slaughtered 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, last month.

The vote came just before the U.S. Supreme Court's historic ruling knocking down a century-old gun control law in New York and greatly expanding the right to carry handguns in public.

"The American people want their constitutional rights protected and their kids to be safe in school. They want both of those things at once," McConnell said Thursday. "And that is just what the bill before the Senate will help accomplish.

U.S. Senators Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell.

"The legislation before us would make our communities and schools safer without laying one finger on the Second Amendment for law-abiding citizens. … It contains zero new restrictions, zero new waiting periods, zero mandates and zero bans of any kind for law-abiding gun owners."

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Among other things, the Senate bill would: 

  • Close the "boyfriend loophole" for gun purchases. This prevents people convicted of misdemeanor-level domestic violence against someone with whom they have or recently had a dating relationship from legally getting a gun. It does allow them to eventually regain legal permission to buy guns if they meet certain requirements;
  • Provide grant money for states that enact 'red flag' laws, which permit the court-authorized removal of guns from someone who's found to be a danger to themselves or others, as long as those laws meet certain due process requirements. States that don't want to adopt such a law alternatively could use the funds for other crisis intervention efforts;
  • Strengthen background check requirements for people under age 21 before they're cleared to buy a gun;
  • Devote about $15 billion of federal money toward mental health and school security efforts in the U.S.

So why did McConnell support this proposal — a bill opposed by the National Rifle Association, which once gave him its "Defender of Freedom" award?

This is the man who led the successful filibuster of bipartisan legislation that would have closed loopholes in federal background checks in the wake of the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut.

McConnell, who publicly supported the bipartisan negotiations over the gun bill but waited until the final product was unveiled to officially throw his weight behind it, pointed to the specifics of the plan in statements this week about why he's backing it.

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For example, he described the policy changes concerning young gun buyers this way: "Under this bill, if a teenager has been convicted of a crime or adjudicated to be mentally ill, even before their 18th birthday, that important information will show up in a firearms background check until they are 21. This strengthens the existing background check system without expanding it."

McConnell suggested Democrats' willingness to compromise more this time around made it possible for the Senate to finally approve a major bill in response to mass shootings.

He also argued they were to blame for prior negotiations going nowhere, even though Senate Republicans repeatedly opposed various gun bills over the years.

"Bipartisan talks had started up after horrifying mass murder incidents in the past, but collapsed when Senate Democrats insisted on attacking the Second Amendment," he said in a statement after Thursday night's vote. "This time was different because Democrats finally moved our way and accepted the reality that Americans do not have to choose between their constitutional rights and safer communities."

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'Willingness to take a baby step'

University of Kentucky political science professor Steve Voss likewise said it seems President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats' desire for a big policymaking accomplishment, particularly ahead of the fall elections, fueled this effort to build a bill that got the nod from at least 10 Republicans — the magic number they need to approve most legislation in the Senate right now.

This proposal doesn't do as much as many Democratic politicians would like. For example, it doesn't expand background checks to cover all gun sales (which polling has shown a big majority of Americans, including Republicans, support).

However, it includes more modest but still desirable policy achievements, such as closing the "boyfriend loophole."

"The fact that Democrats are overwhelmingly supporting a bill that’s far from their dream legislation — to me, that’s the real news. This willingness to take a baby step," Voss said. 

Voss expressed skepticism about some conventional wisdom that McConnell supported this bill to take the controversial issue of gun policy — and Republican senators' inaction on that front despite repeated mass shootings — off the table for the fall election.

He'll become Senate majority leader again if his party wins enough seats in that chamber, so the stakes are high. 

"This gun safety bill also allows the Republican leadership to state a broader claim: 'When they (Democrats) meet us at the bargaining table, when they're reasonable, we deliver,'" he explained. "It helps him (McConnell) make a case for Republican leadership more broadly."

McConnell has made statements along those lines when discussing Congress's approval last year of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, which he supported and cited as an example of how senators of both parties can "come together around commonsense solutions."

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Where Rand Paul stood on the gun bill

Paul, who's up for reelection this year, voted no on the bill after citing concerns about financial support it would provide for state-level "red flag" laws, although he did suggest its required review of a young person's juvenile criminal records as part of their background check to buy a gun is "reasonable."

"'Red flag' laws are well-intentioned. Everyone is searching for a way to prevent the senseless massacres of school mass shootings," he said on the Senate floor Thursday.

He also questioned the broader need for more gun laws, saying: "The problem isn't a lack of laws to stop these killers. It's a lack of persistent application of existing laws …

"Instead of seeking to enforce existing laws, states have, one after another, instituted 'red flag' laws to use gun confiscation orders to try to predict crime in advance. The problem comes in trying to create such laws and still protect the constitutional right to bear arms for the innocent."

The Senate bill's plan to give grants to states that enact "red flag" laws has been particularly controversial for some conservative politicians. However, a national Gallup poll this month indicated "red flag" laws have the support of 77% of Republicans.

Paul's Democratic opponent, former state Rep. Charles Booker, demanded Paul "set aside his self-righteous bull---- and stand up for our children and families" by voting for the bipartisan legislation in a news release his campaign put out Thursday as the Senate got close to a final vote.

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"This bill would be the most consequential piece of gun safety legislation to come out of the United States Senate in a generation," Booker said. "Instead of working to ensure its passage, Rand is once again showing that his votes are bought and paid for by the Big Gun lobby."

The nonprofit OpenSecrets says Paul is the top fundraising recipient from gun rights groups for the 2021-22 period, with about $67,700 in contributions.

Reached for comment, Paul's campaign did not directly respond to Booker's statement, instead referring to Paul's comments on Twitter and on the Senate floor.

Will more gun laws pass after this?

If the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives follows through and passes this bill as expected, Congress will buck expectations of inaction that sprouted from a lot of failed attempts to enact laws aimed at reducing the frequency of mass shootings across America. 

Yet, there's speculation this might be the first major gun bill to pass in decades, but also the last one to pass for years to come. 

Voss doesn't buy into that prognostication.

Violet Dailinger, 11, holds up a sign during a march protesting gun violence in downtown Louisville on June 11, 2022.

Voss suggested taking a more modest "baby step" and ending years of stagnation on this issue could make people more comfortable with continuing to tackle gun violence through new laws. 

"If some of the worst horror stories don't happen … If the negative predictions of the gun rights groups don't come true after this legislation passes, it could soften up the public for more," he said.

If that happens, perhaps Congress will follow suit. McConnell's vote for this week's Senate bill doesn't guarantee he'd support gun policies that might be proposed in the future, though, considering his overall track record.

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Where the public stands on gun laws now

A new poll indicates Americans' interest in stricter gun laws increased, at least temporarily, after two back-to-back mass shootings last month.

The first, of course, was the school shooting in Uvalde. The other happened in Buffalo, where a man linked to white supremacist hatred is charged with killing 10 Black people at a supermarket.

Those were the latest in a pattern of mass shootings that communities across America have suffered in recent years — including Marshall County in McConnell and Paul's home state, where a teenager shot and killed two students and injured 18 more people at a high school in 2018

A June Gallup poll showed 66% of people want stronger laws concerning gun sales, which is up from 52% in October. Just 8% of adults polled prefer such laws be made less strict.

Views differ by party. The Gallup poll showed 94% of Democrats want stricter gun laws, compared with 66% of independents (up from 45% in 2021) and 38% of Republicans (up from 24% in 2021).

Voss noted the overall percentage of people who want stricter gun laws is close to what it was in March 2018 after a gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida, after which Congress did not pass major gun legislation.

Increased public support for new laws may have been a necessary precursor for the bill the Senate just approved, he said, but that alone isn't sufficient. That's where Democrats' willingness to compromise more, paired with some Republican senators' apparent interest in striking a deal, came in.

As for whether gun policy matters to voters' decisions this November, the June Gallup poll showed 82% of people said it's extremely or very important — a figure that's higher than it was in other federal election years dating back to 2000.

Morgan Watkins is The Courier Journal's chief political reporter. Contact her at Follow her on Twitter: @morganwatkins26.