Closing the Deal in Negotiations: A Gun-Safety Law Clears Congress

Closing the deal in negotiations can be an elusive goal when parties are far apart on the issues at stake. In its recent gun-safety negotiations, the U.S. Congress scored a modest victory for bipartisanship.

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Against long odds, the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan gun-safety bill that President Joe Biden signed into law on June 25, 2022. In the aftermath of mass shootings in Buffalo, New York; and Uvalde, Texas, 15 Republican senators were willing to make some concessions on their party’s steadfast resistance to gun-control measures. The behind-the-scenes maneuvering offers advice to those working on closing the deal in negotiations.

Setting the Table

The day after the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde, typically press-shy Senate Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona told the media she was determined to negotiate a gun-safety deal with Republican colleagues. She then “marched onto the Senate floor,” according to Politico, and approached Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and his deputy, John Thune. They advised her to speak with John Cornyn of Texas and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

Democrat Chris Murphy, who had fought for gun-control measures since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, the state he represents, offered to team up with Sinema. Soon Murphy and Sinema were engaged in intense talks with Cornyn and Tillis. The leaders wanted to reach a deal quickly, before the July Fourth recess.

As a centrist Democrat, Sinema was positioned to build bridges with her Republican colleagues. She also brought much-needed optimism to counterbalance the cynicism Murphy felt after years of failed negotiations on gun control. Though the National Rifle Association (NRA) had given Corwyn an A+ rating for steadfastly supporting its agenda, he was motivated to take action on guns following the tragedy in his home state. And after winning a second term in 2020, Tillis was “newly emboldened to cut deals,” Politico reports. Many of the four had negotiated with each other before, and some had reached bipartisan agreements. Those experiences laid a foundation of trust for the difficult talks ahead.

Also involved in the negotiations: the NRA and Everytown for Gun Safety, the leading U.S. gun-control-advocacy group, as well as a small group of other senators, according to the New York Times. Republicans included the NRA to reduce its opposition to any deal that might emerge.

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Incremental Progress

Murphy and Sinema knew their Republican counterparts wouldn’t agree to broad gun-control measures, such as banning weapons or implementing a nationwide red-flag law, so they left that wish list at the door, according to the Times.

Sinema proposed tightening a federal ban against domestic abusers buying guns. The existing ban applied only to spouses or people who had lived with or had a child with a victim, creating a so-called boyfriend loophole. In their negotiations, the lawmakers struggled to define what should constitute an “intimate partner.” Ultimately, they barred anyone convicted of a domestic-violence crime against someone with whom they have a “continuing serious relationship of a romantic or intimate nature” from buying guns, reports CNN.

Democrats agreed to allow the ban to expire after five years for first-time offenders. The NRA pushed to reduce the ban for spouses to five years as well; Everytown refused.

The deal-making process nearly collapsed numerous times. Cornyn abruptly left one negotiating session to fly home for the weekend. He, Tillis, Murphy, and Sinema “furiously texted among themselves” throughout the break, according to Politico. The digital medium led to confusion, with Cornyn at one point mistakenly believing talks were being reopened after a framework had been reached. “We got through it,” he said.

In Texas, Cornyn was booed at the Republican convention in Houston. But a poll he and McConnell commissioned of gun-owning Americans found solid support for the provisions emerging from the negotiations. Most Republican voters, Cornyn and McConnell believed, supported modest reforms.

Playing the Deal Up—and Down

As they moved toward a negotiated agreement, the Senate dealmakers used opposite messaging to sell the deal to constituents. Democrats framed the agreement as historic, while Republicans emphasized what they hadn’t agreed to. Cornyn even displayed a chart on the Senate floor titled “Ideas Rejected in Negotiations,” which included universal background checks, according to the Times.

On June 21, the Senate passed the bipartisan gun-safety bill in a 64-to-34 vote, with 14 Republicans, including McConnell, voting in favor. In addition to closing the boyfriend loophole, the law offers federal grants to states to implement red-flag laws or other crisis-intervention programs and gives authorities more time to review the juvenile and mental-health records of gun purchasers under age 21. It also provides funds for mental-health treatment and school security, and makes it a federal crime to purchase a gun on behalf of someone barred from a firearms purchase, Politico reports.

Though modest by Democrats’ standards, the law was notable for passing at all. “Our bipartisan group of senators rejected the notion that legislating must be a zero-sum game with winners on one tally sheet and losers on the other,” said Sinema. “The potential we have to save lives is worth any sort of concession we might have had to make during the negotiation,” Cornyn said.

Tips for Closing the Deal in Negotiations

Wondering how to close a deal? Here’s advice from the gun-safety talks.

  1. Get the right people at the table. With McConnell’s help, Sinema identified Republicans who were committed to reaching a deal. Including the NRA in talks helped reduce the odds that the organization would be a deal spoiler. As David A. Lax and James K. Sebenius write in their book 3-D Negotiation, ensuring that the right people are at the table is a crucial early step toward closing the deal in negotiations. This aspect of deal design can be especially important in a complex team negotiation.
  2. If you’re far apart, be pragmatic. Negotiators on both sides came to believe even modest reforms would be superior to none at all. Republicans were clear about where their redlines lay, and Democrats were careful not to cross them. When any agreement would be better than none, negotiators may need to settle for incremental progress.
  3. Frame the deal for maximum appeal. Selling your agreement to constituents is another crucial step toward closing the deal in negotiations. For that reason, it’s important to frame the deal for maximum impact. In most cases, you’ll want to play up all you’ve achieved—but, as the Senate Republicans recognized, there are times when underselling may be warranted.

What other advice do you have to offer for closing the deal in negotiations?

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