Red flag grants, 'boyfriend loophole' cause complications for Senate gun bill

WASHINGTON — Senators drafting the gun legislation are encountering stumbling blocks on two key pieces of the framework: how to structure "red flag" grants and how to close the so-called boyfriend loophole to keep guns away from domestic abusers.

The main negotiators say they remain optimistic about resolving the issues, but time is short. They would need to solve them and finalize the bill likely by Thursday or Friday in order to stick to their goal of passing the legislation through the Senate next week.

"At some point, if we can’t get to 60, then we’re going to have to pare some of it down," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters Wednesday. "If we can settle these two issues, I think we’re on our way. But I am concerned now, given the time it takes and the need to complete our work, really by tomorrow."

For Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., the issues are more like speed-bumps rather than roadblocks.

"I was pleased to hear that Senator Cornyn thinks there's only two outstanding issues. I actually think there's more than two, but all of them are solvable and bridgeable," he told NBC News in an interview. "I know we're getting this done. But we got work to do."

Who should get 'red flag' grant money?

Cornyn said "one of the issues" is that he wants to make sure grant money is available to states that decline to adopt red flag laws, which allow police and family members to petition courts to keep guns away from those deemed a risk to themselves or to others.

He said funds should be available to states for "crisis intervention programs, and things like mental health courts, veterans courts, assisted outpatient treatment programs, things like that."

"I just don’t think anything that funds 19 states for their programs but ignores other states that have chosen not to have a red flag law, but rather have other ways to address the same problem, is going to fly," Cornyn told reporters Wednesday.

Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia have red flag laws. Democrats say the purpose of the grant money is to expand that number; if states can use the same pool of funding for other matters, they worry it would reduce their incentive to adopt them.

Asked if she supports broadening the use of the red flag money, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said: "No."

"There's already quite a lot of money for mental health services," she said. "This is pretty specific. It's a very specific kind of way to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them."

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said senators are crafting "a potential resolution of those issues on red flags that I think is absolutely doable." He said it involves supporting "every possible way to intervene in crises before they produce violence."

Murphy said, "Senator Cornyn wants to make sure that you know states that don't choose to enact red flag laws still have access to funding for criminal justice investments and criminal justice reform. I'm sure we'll be able to find a way to get that done."

How is the 'boyfriend loophole' closed?

Another complexity is how to close the boyfriend loophole. The framework signed by 10 Democratic senators and 10 Republican senators says that convicted "domestic violence abusers and individuals subject to domestic violence restraining orders" should be prohibited from having a gun, "including those who have or have had a continuing relationship of a romantic or intimate nature."

But Senate aides familiar with the behind-the-scenes negotiations say Republicans are resisting language proposed by Democrats because they believe it's too broad.

The crux of the dispute is how to define a dating partner for the purposes of the rule, and deciding what counts as a misdemeanor offense that subjects a person to losing access to a gun.

Republicans want a clear and limited definition that only includes serious long-term relationships, whereas Democrats say it must be able to cover abuse in various dating circumstances for it to matter.

"The definition has to work," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a leading voice for Democrats in tackling that issue. "I hope we can get to a definition that actually makes the bill meaningful. The domestic violence groups are very concerned about some of the proposals that have been put out there."

Murphy, again, was optimistic: "It's a solvable issue because we have broad agreement on the population we're talking about. And we also have a lot of case law out there that will be helpful."

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., downplayed the hurdles.

“We’re working through all the language. We’re doing great," she told reporters Wednesday. "We’re going to get the bill done. Things are good.”