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Senators return to gun law talks following a weekend of mass shootings in 8 states

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Senators say they're inching closer to a bipartisan agreement on strengthening the nation's gun laws. They returned to Washington yesterday following a weekend in which at least 15 people were killed in mass shootings in eight states across the country.

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, Garnell Whitfield Jr. testified before a Senate committee about his loss. His mother, 86-year-old Ruth Whitfield, was killed at the grocery store shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., last month.

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GARNELL WHITFIELD: My mother's life mattered. And your actions here today would tell us how much it matters to you.

PFEIFFER: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is following these talks, and she joins us now from Capitol Hill. Hi, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

PFEIFFER: Kelsey, we have seen so many attempts at gun control legislation in this country. Are negotiators actually any closer to reaching a deal this time around?

SNELL: Well, they say they are. They really are having serious meetings. Members were coming and going from closed-door sessions literally all day long, which is usually a very good sign that they are at least trying to make progress. You know, and also Senator Chris Murphy, one of the lead negotiators for Democrats, went to the White House today to update President Biden on the talks.

PFEIFFER: What do we know about what they're considering?

SNELL: Well, this is not the kind of huge gun control package that Biden has been calling for. In fact, it's a fairly small-scale attempt, and it's specifically tailored to address the type of shooting that happened in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children were killed inside of their own school. Now, John Cornyn - he's a Texas senator leading talks for Republicans - told us today that he presented a menu to Democrats. Negotiators say they're discussing school safety measures, mental health programs and safe gun storage.

And then there are two issues that have been harder to negotiate, and those are red flag laws and changes to the background check system. Negotiators seem to be coalescing around a plan to offer grants to states as an incentive to create these red flag laws, which make it easier to get guns removed from people who might be a danger. One sticking point there is discussion over who should be able to petition to have a gun taken away from someone. Another major issue is a push to include previously sealed juvenile records in the existing background check system.

PFEIFFER: That juvenile issue is interesting because some shooters have been juveniles. What is the debate over juvenile records?

SNELL: Yeah. So in some ways, this is an attempt to address President Biden's call to increase the age for purchasing firearms from 18 to 21. You know, that's a broadly popular idea. And this proposal aims to kind of get to the 18-year-old trying to buy a gun who is unlikely to have an adult criminal record to check. So by including juvenile records, the check system could identify people who could be a risk that otherwise would not be identified.

PFEIFFER: We heard earlier that brief clip from Garnell Whitfield Jr., whose mother was killed in Buffalo. He is certainly not alone in making a public plea for lawmakers to do something, anything on guns. How else have people who feel this way been making their voices heard?

SNELL: There have been rallies across the country, including here in D.C. And Whitfield was part of a panel of people testifying in the Senate on extremism in the country.

And there's also actor Matthew McConaughey, who's a Uvalde native. He has been in Washington over the past couple of days, lobbying for Congress to act. He also joined the White House press briefing today.

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MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: Can both sides see beyond the political problem at hand and admit that we have a life preservation problem on our hands?

SNELL: He made a very passionate plea for Congress to do something, and he won't be the last person. Tomorrow, a panel in the House will hear from gun violence victims, including a Uvalde elementary school student. All of this is happening as lawmakers say they're trying to get a deal by the end of this week.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Kelsey, thank you.

SNELL: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.