Pa. Sen. Pat Toomey calls for stronger background checks, but says Senate doesn’t need to return early

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., talks about efforts to fight fentanyl trafficking during an event in York, Pa., on 3/21/19 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., on Monday called for universal background checks on all gun purchases, but said he doesn’t think Congress should ban the powerful weapons that are so often used to carry out mass shootings.

Speaking to reporters on a conference call Monday, Toomey said he’d spoken to President Donald Trump about a background check bill he’s pursuing with U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and that Trump had expressed a willingness to work on the issue.

During a televised address to the nation on Monday, Trump called for action on mental health treatment over new gun control measures. The president’s remarks came as Americans mourned mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, that claimed 31 lives and left dozens more wounded.

Toomey told reporters Monday that the bill he’s working on with Manchin would “diminish the risk that someone who’s not supposed to have a firearm will get one,” even as it respects the rights of legal gun owners.

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Toomey said he’d spoken with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., about his legislation, and added that he doesn’t believe it’s necessary for the Senate to cut short its summer recess to act on a background check measure — as some Democrats have demanded.

“I don’t think we’d accomplish anything if we did. I think we need to build support for something,” he said. “This won’t happen tomorrow. And if we force a vote, it probably fails, and that sets back the entire effort. If you want a successful effort, you work toward developing the coalition and consensus.”

Democrats in the U.S. House have remained adamant in their call for the Senate to act.

“It has been 159 days since the House passed bipartisan, commonsense background check bills,” U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5th District, wrote on Twitter. “Words mean nothing without action and the country cannot wait any longer. The Senate needs to do its job.”

This is not the first time that Toomey and Manchin have tried for a universal background checks bill. Previous efforts in 2013, after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and in the wake of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015, both failed, according to West Virginia Public Radio.

Asked why he believes the political environment is different now — after calls for action in the wake of a murderous rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., failed to yield results — Toomey said he believes “there is a new momentum possible” with Trump’s engagement.

When he was reminded that Trump had expressed previous support for background checks, only to withdraw it, Toomey also acknowledged that such a result is still possible.

“I don’t know whether we will get a different outcome this time,” he conceded. “I certainly hope we will. I hope the accumulated pain from so many of these experiences will be motivation to do something.”

“Even if [the background checks bill] had been passed, there’s no guarantee that many of these shootings would have been prevented,” Toomey said. “But we should still make it as difficult as possible” for people who shouldn’t have guns to get them.

Toomey said he was further encouraged by Trump’s calls for legislative authorization of what are known as “extreme risk protection orders,” which would allow families or law enforcement to petition a judge to seize someone’s weapons if they pose a clear threat to their own safety or someone else’s.

But he said such a bill would have to come with strict due process protections.

Pennsylvania’s General Assembly is debating passing its own red flag law, which has support from most Democrats and some moderate Republicans.

How one Republican lawmaker is trying to balance gun rights and due process in Pennsylvania

Asked whether Trump bears any responsibility for encouraging an atmosphere of divisiveness or for fostering the kind of anti-immigrant sentiment that apparently motivated the El Paso shooter, Toomey said he believes “it’s important to assign responsibility where it belongs.”

“People who are responsible in El Paso and Dayton are the people who pulled the triggers,” he said. “I don’t like going around blaming other people for the actions of” others.

Toomey said he hopes Trump “will continue with the constructive tone” he used Monday, saying the president “has a unique bully pulpit to bring the country together to help in the healing process and foster the best possible discourse.”

While Toomey is in favor of some gun-control measures, he said Monday he would not support a ban on semi-automatic, military-style weapons that have become the firearms of choice in so many shootings, saying there’s “nothing inherent about them that deserves to be banned.”

“The category that people refer to as assault weapons are popular firearms that have no more power than a hunting rifle,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to make progress if we ban very, very popular and widely owned firearms.”

Toomey similarly rejected a call for bans on extended magazines of the kind reportedly employed in the Dayton shooting on Sunday night.

“If you’ve ever used these firearms, it takes no time to replace one clip with another,” he said. “The idea we’ll make a big difference by regulating magazine size, I’m just very skeptical.”

An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.

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