WASHINGTON — On the Sunday after a gunman killed 26 people at a church in his home state of Texas, Senator John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, went to tiny Sutherland Springs to comfort the congregation and its grieving pastor, whose 14-year-old daughter was among the victims.
A month before, Stephen Paddock had gunned down 58 people at a country music festival in Las Vegas. Three months later, Nikolas Cruz would rampage through Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and kill 17.
But it was Sutherland Springs that turned Mr. Cornyn into something like the Republican face of the gun debate. Nearly every day since the Valentine’s Day massacre in Parkland last month, he has taken to the Senate floor to implore his colleagues to vote for a narrow measure to improve data reporting to the national background check system for gun purchases. It is modest and incremental, but it may be the only piece of gun legislation that can pass the Senate.
“I’m trying to figure out what is feasible, what is possible, and to get that done,” Mr. Cornyn, sounding frustrated, said in a recent interview, “because I do not want to see the next victim of a mass shooting knowing that we could have done something that might have changed the outcome but didn’t.”
It is an unlikely endeavor for a man who is an ardent defender of gun rights. In 2013, after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Mr. Cornyn voted against expanding background checks to cover guns sold over the internet and at gun shows. He now says he will consider voting for such a bill, so long as private sellers are exempt.
“If somebody’s in the business of selling firearms,” he said, “then I believe they should be covered — that’s at the gun shows and that’s over the internet.”
His background-check enforcement bill, backed by the National Rifle Association, now has 68 co-sponsors in addition to Mr. Cornyn — nine more than the 60 votes necessary to break a Senate filibuster.
Yet despite his status as the Senate’s second-highest ranking Republican, Mr. Cornyncannot seem to get his bill to the floor. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, told reporters Tuesday that he was eager to pass it soon, and Mr. Cornyn said he hoped it could pass by next week.
But neither offered any specifics on a way forward.
As students plan a nationwide walkout on Wednesday to demand tougher gun laws, the slow progress of Mr. Cornyn’s bill is yet another indication of how ossified the gun debate has become in Washington. The measure, known as the Fix NICS Act — NICS stands for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System — is hardly radical and would not do anything to restrict gun ownership. It would simply enforce existing law.
Congress passed a similar measure in 2007 after the shooting at Virginia Tech, hoping to improve the reporting of criminal records and mental health information to the gun purchasing database. It did not head off Sutherland Springs, where a gunman legally bought his firearm despite having been convicted of domestic abuse.
Yet at least two, and possibly, three Republican senators are blocking the proposal from quick consideration. And Democrats — whose leader, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, is a co-sponsor of the measure — do not want to allow it to move forward for a vote unless it is paired with more far-reaching legislation, like an expansion of background checks and a ban on assault weapons.
“He comes to the floor every day and says, let’s do the small Fix NICS bill and then we’ll see about other proposals,” Mr. Schumer said Tuesday, referring to Mr. Cornyn. “He knows, as well as I do, that Fix NICS is not even close to a response to the epidemic of gun violence in the country.”
On the other side of the Capitol, the House is expected to vote Wednesday on a measure, introduced in response to the Parkland shooting, to beef up safety at the nation’s schools.
That bill has nothing to do with guns; it would authorize $50 million annually for safety improvements, including training teachers and students in how to prevent violence and developing anonymous reporting systems for threats. A companion measure in the Senate would also give schools money for physical improvements, such as installing metal detectors or bulletproof windows.
“I’m extremely interested in seeing Senator Cornyn’s Fix NICS bill pass, and a significant school safety bill pass,” Mr. McConnell said Tuesday. “The best way to get that done is still under discussion, but I’m anxious to pass both of them and pass both of them soon.”
A former Texas attorney general and justice of the Texas Supreme Court, Mr. Cornyn, 66, grew up around guns. He keeps his license to carry a concealed weapon in his wallet — “My wife and I both got it together,” he said — and recalls learning to shoot as a teenager, with a .22-caliber rifle at target practice.
“Every teenage boy that I know of enjoys that sort of thing,” he said.
He hunted deer for a time, but eventually lost interest. “I’d bring home the venison and my wife and daughters didn’t really care for it,” he said. He now hunts birds, usually quail. He says he likes to “consider myself an ethical hunter, which is if you shoot it, you’d better eat it.”
While not a member of the National Rifle Association, Mr. Cornyn has an “A+” rating from the group, which backed him enthusiastically the last time he ran for re-election. The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending, says gun rights interests have given Mr. Cornyn $191,825 from 1989 to 2018. That is more than all but two other members of Congress — Representative Don Young, Republican of Alaska, and Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin.
Gun safety advocates are suspicious of Mr. Cornyn. John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, which presses for restrictions on gun rights, calls him “the go-to guy for the N.R.A. in the Senate.”
Mr. Cornyn bristled at the suggestion. And he dismissed a recent comment by President Trump, who during a recent White House meeting chided senators for being afraid of the rifle association, with Mr. Cornyn sitting next to him.
“I thought that was a throwaway statement,” Mr. Cornyn said. “I don’t know who he was talking to.”
The gunman in Sutherland Springs, Devin P. Kelley, had been convicted of assaulting his wife and cracking his infant stepson’s skull while stationed at an Air Force base. But the Air Force never reported the conviction, which would have prevented Mr. Kelley from buying the AR-15 military-style rifle that he used in the mass shooting.
Mr. Cornyn says his visit to the church a week after the shooting was profound. The sanctuary had been whitewashed and turned into a memorial. A tent had been set up down the street where the pastor conducted services.
“He was holding it together in a superhuman kind of way,” Mr. Cornyn recalled. He said he left thinking he “never wanted to have to confront another grieving family whose loved one’s death may have been prevented by simply making sure that the background check system worked.”
Mr. Cornyn teamed up with Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut and an ardent supporter of gun control, on the measure. Mr. Murphy said he gave Mr. Cornyn credit for being “willing to entertain a conversation in which there was no guarantee that the N.R.A. would support the bill.”
The bill would impose penalties on federal agencies that fail to report mandated information to the background check system, and would give states grants to improve reporting.
Critics, including Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University who has followed Mr. Cornyn’s career, regard it as an attempt by Republicans to curry favor with voters who were demanding action after the Parkland shooting.
“It might help the Republicans establish themselves after the Florida shootings,” Mr. Jillson said, “but there’s not a lot of credit, not a lot of honor in that.”
At that, the usually easygoing Mr. Cornyn showed a rare flash of anger.
“He’s wrong,” the senator said sharply, “and I would ask him to talk to the pastor at Sutherland Springs who lost his 14-year-old daughter because the background check system didn’t work.”
By: Sheryl Gay Stolberg
Read the full article in the New York Times.