(*This piece has been updated to clarify the position of U.S. Rep. Fred Keller, R-12th District)
WASHINGTON — When Congress passed landmark gun violence prevention legislation known as the Brady Bill back in 1993, four Pennsylvania Republicans were among the 54 GOP lawmakers who voted to send the bill to President Bill Clinton’s desk.
Ex-GOP U.S. Reps. Curt Weldon, James Greenwood, Joseph McDade, and William Goodling voted in favor of the bill. Three Pennsylvania Democrats voted against it: ex-Reps. Tim Holden, Paul Kanjorski, and John Murtha.
Gun control politics have shifted dramatically in Pennsylvania and across the country over the past 26 years. Democratic lawmakers have become increasingly willing to support tougher federal gun control laws, the New York Times reported this week, while congressional Republicans have repeatedly blocked efforts to restrict access to firearms after recent mass shootings.
In February of this year, when the U.S. House approved an even tougher background check bill for firearm sales, only one of Pennsylvania’s eight House GOP lawmakers — U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, of the Bucks County-based 1st District — voted to support it. (One House seat was vacant at the time.)
Fitzpatrick was one of just eight Republicans in the House to vote in favor of the bill, H.R. 8, which passed largely along partisan lines with the support of all nine Pennsylvania House Democrats.
The House’s bill would require federal background checks on all gun purchases, including private transactions.
The law currently only requires background checks on sales from federally licensed gun dealers. About one in five U.S. gun sales are conducted without a background check, according to the advocacy group Brady Campaign.
Fitzpatrick said earlier this year that the House plan is a first step to preventing gun violence.
“We must close loopholes in our background check system so that people cannot purchase a firearm unless they clear a background check. This will not restrict the rights of law-abiding citizens, it will prevent those seeking to harm others from accessing firearms,” he said in a statement.
He and other Pennsylvania lawmakers will likely vote again soon on several other high-profile gun bills. House and Senate leaders have vowed to address gun violence following the back-to-back massacres in El Paso and Dayton in early August.
In the wake of those recent shootings, where 31 people were killed and another 53 were injured, gun control advocates demanded that the Senate return immediately to vote on H.R. 8.
But U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refused to call lawmakers back early, instead saying that senators would address the issue after members of Congress are slated to reconvene on Sept. 9.
House lawmakers, however, are returning to Washington ahead of schedule to vote on even more gun control bills. U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., announced his panel will meet on Sept. 4 to vote on several more bills aimed at restricting access to firearms.
The committee plans to vote on bills that would ban high capacity ammunition magazines, incentivize state “red flag” laws that allow courts to seize firearms from people deemed threats to themselves or others, and prohibit people convicted of misdemeanor hate crimes from possessing firearms.
“I’m very happy we’re coming back in next Wednesday,” U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-4th District, told the Capital-Star this week in an interview. Dean, who represents the Philadelphia suburbs, is one of three Pennsylvania lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee.
“I just want to be part of the constant forward drumbeat,” Dean added. “We can’t just have these waves of urgency and interest and let it die down.”
U.S. Reps. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5th District, and Guy Reschenthaler, R-14th District, also serve on that panel, which will get the first pass at the next round of gun control legislation that could later head to the House floor for a vote.
“I think it will be interesting to see what the entire Pennsylvania delegation does with this,” Dean said.
Despite increased pressure from Democrats and gun safety advocates, it’s far from certain that lawmakers will enact significant legislation.
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., is the lead GOP author of background check legislation in the Senate that has failed twice in recent years.
He said Wednesday at the Lehigh Country Club that lawmakers “might be close to a breakthrough” on expanding gun background checks and that he’s in “pretty intensive discussions” with the White House and other senators, according to the Morning Call.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., is a co-sponsor of S.42, the Senate companion legislation to H.R. 8. That bill has no Republican co-sponsors in the Senate.
Casey said at a town hall this month that McConnell must hold a planned September vote on universal background check bills. He also called for debates on measures to ban military-style assault weapons, cap magazine sizes and close other loopholes, the Express-Times, of Easton, reported.
Even as some Republicans from Pennsylvania and other states say they’re eager to pass gun control legislation, others appear reluctant to back sweeping reforms.
Reschenthaler said in February statement that H.R. 8 “presents a false promise.” He added, “The reality is that this would make criminals out of law-abiding gun owners, while doing nothing to address the real causes of gun violence.”
Rep. Lloyd Smucker, R-11th District, said in a February Facebook post that he doesn’t think the background check legislation advanced by House Democrats would effectively combat mass shootings and could impair law-abiding citizens’ access to guns.
He said he supports legislation to bolster the existing background check system, to fund violence-prevention training, and to send more resources to law enforcement.
*Freshman U.S. Rep. Fred Keller, R-12th District, who took office in May, wasn’t yet in Congress during the February vote on H.R. 8. He did not comment on whether he’d support specific gun control provisions, including that bill.
“I will examine any actual piece of legislation that comes before me before making a decision based on its particular provisions,” he said in a statement.
He added, “I am encouraged that the President is showing leadership in working with Congress to find workable solutions. With rights come responsibilities and I am committed to working with my colleagues to find meaningful solutions to this epidemic of violence in our country while protecting our Second Amendment rights.”
‘We are in desperate need of change’
Largely, the public supports more gun control. An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey conducted in August showed that 89 percent of Americans wanted Congress to expand background checks to all firearm sales and 76 percent back “red flag” laws.
Trump suggested a willingness to support stricter background checks after the El Paso and Dayton shootings, but he appeared to reverse course after meeting with the head of the National Rifle Association, multiple news outlets reported.
Christian Heyne, vice president of policy at the Brady Campaign, expects Republican politicians to suffer at the polls if they don’t engage on meaningful gun violence reforms.
“It’s only a matter of time before their inaction that’s costing American lives catches up with them,” Heyne said.
Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFire PA, a gun control advocacy group, said Pennsylvania Republicans in suburban districts have begun to see that gun violence is an important issue to their voters. “I think it will be interesting to see what they do,” she said.
While Trump and other congressional Republicans have indicated a willingness to pass a federal law to incentivize state “red flag” laws, some Democrats suggest that’s not enough.
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called such legislation an “ineffective cop out.” He said Democrats “are not going to settle for half-measures so Republicans can feel better and try to push the issue of gun violence off to the side,” the Hill, a publication that covers Congress, reported.
Marybeth Christiansen, a volunteer with the Pennsylvania chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said she’s willing to support background checks or red flag laws, if Congress can’t find a larger compromise.
“I think it would be great if they would pass both of them, but we are in desperate need of change and if it needs to be incremental change, we’ll take it,” she said. “We won’t be happy about it, but we’ll take it.”