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Sen. Angus King on latest progress on bipartisan talks over gun reform legislation


How close are lawmakers to finalizing what the president calls the most important gun safety legislation to pass Congress in decades? Well, here's where things stand right now. Over the weekend, a bipartisan group of 20 senators announced an agreement on a set of principles. This week, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said he's comfortable with the agreement. Now there is a rush to translate that framework into an actual bill that can pass the evenly divided Senate before Congress goes on recess at the end of next week. Maine Senator Angus King is one of those 20 senators who worked on this deal. He's an independent who caucuses with Democrats. Thank you for joining us.

ANGUS KING: Absolutely, Ari - glad to be with you.

SHAPIRO: How close are you to finalizing the legislative language here?

KING: Well, I can tell you that I was presiding over the Senate, and Chris Murphy and John Cornyn kept going in and out. Kyrsten Sinema was involved and Thom Tillis. So there are a lot of - that's the core group. And there's a lot of ongoing discussions. One of the advantages we have, Ari, is that a lot of the provisions of the framework are already in bill form. For example, the red flag law provision. Marco Rubio and I and Rick Scott and Jack Reed introduced as a bill about a year, a year and a half ago. So we don't have to start from scratch with, you know, drafting legislative language. And I think that applies to a lot of the other provisions. The boyfriend loophole was in the VAWA bill originally.

SHAPIRO: The Violence Against Women Act. Yeah.

KING: Yeah. That's going to speed things up. But I'll tell you, it's still tough.

SHAPIRO: Would you say it's still tough? Do the remaining sticking points look to you more like wrinkles that can be ironed out or roadblocks?

KING: I think they look more like wrinkles that can be ironed out. Now, I'm a perennial optimist, but I'm also a realist about the legislative process. I never count it till it's on the president's desk. So there are some differences that they're working on today.

SHAPIRO: Can you give us an example? Like, what's top of mind for you?

KING: Well, I don't really want to. I don't want to talk about the negotiations that are going on. But they're substantive, but they don't go to the heart of the initiative. So we'll see. I think they're going to get these things worked out. We should have a bill by Monday. That's the intent.

SHAPIRO: You've described this legislation as finding Mr. Right Now as opposed to Mr. Right. Tell us something that you particularly regret leaving off the table in these negotiations.

KING: Well, I think it's ridiculous that you can buy beer - you can't buy beer until you're 21, but you can buy an assault rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition. I mean, I think that raising that age from 18 to 21 just makes total common sense. I would also like to see the background, the universal background check made universal so that there aren't loopholes for gun shows and online purchases. But, you know, this is one of those cases where you get what you can get. And this, you know, even though this isn't the most comprehensive bill you can imagine, it is the most significant piece of legislation in this area in 25 or 30 years.

SHAPIRO: Well, you mentioned a couple of things you regret not making the final - well, we shouldn't say final - not making the package as it now stands. What has made it in that you're proud of?

KING: Well, I think the straw purchases piece where people can use a fake name to get a gun. And that's how a lot of guns get into illegal sort of gangland circulation is important. I think the red flag law, a provision that incentivizes states to pass red flag laws, the reason Rubio, Scott and King are on it is that both Maine and Florida have these laws, and we know that they work. And I think that's a very, very important provision, because often there's - there are signals that people are either in trouble or are dangerous or have these propensities. And we have to have a mechanism involving due process. It can't be just arbitrary, but involving due process to say, OK, you're not in a position to have a gun right now.

SHAPIRO: For a long time, it has felt like the gun lobby has a disproportionate influence on Congress. Do you think the momentum that this has is a sign that that has changed, that that is changing?

KING: Well, I think it is. I mean, I don't want to characterize how strong the gun lobby is one way or the other. But I think that the combination of Buffalo and Uvalde sort of on top of all the other things that we've experienced over the last several years has just driven everyone up here to the point where there's a general consensus that we've got to do something. I mean, you have John Cornyn, who has an A-plus rating from the NRA. You have Mitch McConnell. He's always been very friendly, the NRA, saying this framework works. It's something that we've got to do.

I think that that's a recognition that - and frankly, I had a call with some of the gun groups, the pro-gun groups. And I said, you guys got to get on board here and do some reasonable make some reasonable reforms or you're going to see much stronger legislation at some point in the future. And I think that some of the organizations anyway are taking that to heart.

SHAPIRO: If this package does pass, there are two ways of looking at it. One would be it's a building block that can lead to something more ambitious. The other would be this is a baby step so small that it doesn't come close to addressing the scale of violence and loss that the U.S. experiences to gun violence every week. Which do you think is more accurate?

KING: I think the former is definitely more accurate. It sort of breaks the ice that we can do something here. And listen. One of the important things here is that it's being done on a bipartisan basis, that this is an issue that has come to transcend the regular perennial politics around this issue, and that hopefully we are going to be able to get it over the finish line. Getting it done is as important as what's in it right now, I believe.

SHAPIRO: That's independent Senator Angus King of Maine, who caucuses with the Democrats. Thanks for speaking with us today.

KING: Glad to be with you, Ari, any time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.