Pat Toomey pushed for gun control after Sandy Hook. Can the Republican senator lead again?

WASHINGTON — After the U.S. House passed sweeping gun control legislation in February, freshman Democratic Rep. Madeleine Dean went to see a fellow Pennsylvanian: Sen. Pat Toomey. 

The two-term senator had been the lead Republican sponsor of an effort to expand background checks for guns in the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. Toomey’s effort, co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, failed in April 2013 and again in 2015. 

“I went over and asked for a meeting with Sen. Toomey on the gun violence stuff after we passed the two bills,” Dean told the Capital-Star in a June interview, referencing House-passed legislation to expand background checks and give the FBI more time to conduct then. 

Dean got the meeting — “and he certainly was gracious to take the meeting,” she says — and asked Toomey, “‘Will you partner with me? How can we get your leadership to take up these bills? They will save lives.’”

“And he said, ‘They’ll never be taken up,’” Dean recalled of their 20-minute conversation. “He said, ‘It’s not going to happen.’ If anything, he would offer an amendment to some vehicle that begins there — a weaker background check bill.” 

The legislation that cleared the House in February is stricter than Toomey’s effort. His Senate bill would have required background checks on all commercial gun sales; the House bill would mandate federal criminal background checks on all gun sales, including private transactions. A second gun control bill passed by the House in February would extend the timeframe for the FBI to conduct background checks. 

“I was very disappointed at his lack of passion for the issue, because remember where he was?” Dean said in June. “He was Toomey-Manchin after Sandy Hook, and I give him great credit for that bipartisan push, but he needs to renew that.” 

A Toomey spokesperson said Friday his office doesn’t discuss the senator’s private conversations with his colleagues. 

“No one in the U.S. Senate has worked harder than Senator Toomey to achieve a bipartisan consensus on expanding background checks to keep guns out of the hands of violent criminals and the dangerously mentally ill,” Toomey’s spokesman Bill Jaffee said in a statement. “Even now, while others give speeches and interviews, Senator Toomey is actively working with Democrat and Republican senators, and President Trump, in order to achieve an outcome.”

Finding a ‘sensible center’

Since the Capital-Star’s conversation with Dean, GOP leaders have shown a renewed interest in gun control efforts in the wake of massacres in El Paso and Dayton. Those were followed by a police shooting in Philadelphia this week in which six officers were injured. 

As President Donald Trump and Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., appear open to debating legislation to curb gun violence, Toomey is again attempting to position himself as a consensus builder on a polarizing issue that stands to dominate the discourse on Capitol Hill when lawmakers reconvene in September after a month-long recess. 

Toomey is pushing legislation to strengthen background checks and to promote state “red flag” laws, which allow courts to temporarily restrict people’s access to guns if they’re deemed a threat to themselves or others. Toomey has been in talks with Trump and McConnell, and said he intends to work with Democrats to get legislation across the finish line. 

But Toomey has failed to muster support from his GOP colleagues in the past, and it’s unclear whether he’ll have any more success this time around in a Senate that’s long been deeply divided on the issue. 

Meanwhile, Democrats on Capitol Hill and in Pennsylvania want the Senate to take up the broader gun control bill that passed the House earlier this year. 

“Mitch McConnell is caving, and the US Senate will soon vote” on gun control, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party wrote on Twitter. “Next, we need to ensure the bills voted on aren’t watered down, [National Rifle Association]-approved decoys.” The organization is urging voters to call Toomey and ask him to get behind H.R. 8, the background check bill that passed in the House. 

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

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., has introduced companion legislation to H.R. 8 in the Senate. That bill, S. 42, has the backing of 40 Democratic senators and Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, but no Republicans have signed on as co-sponsors and the bill hasn’t gone anywhere since its January introduction. 

Toomey told CNN earlier this month that the House bill is “much broader” than his effort and stressed that his legislation would not require background checks for private transactions between family members and friends. Toomey also said this month that he opposes a ban on assault weapons because the firearms are “extremely popular.” 

Phil English, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, said the prospects for gun control legislation this Congress could depend on Toomey’s ability to convince other GOP lawmakers to follow his lead. 

Enacting legislation will also depend on House Democrats’ willingness to “find a middle ground where they can agree on something that can pass the Senate,” English added. 

“If anyone can get the Senate Republicans into a middle place, I think it’s Pat Toomey,” he said. “He has been willing to argue for a sensible center that is actually the only area where I think we’re going to see effective action in this Congress.”  

The Senate landscape isn’t the same as it was when his past efforts failed, Toomey told CNN. 

“I think that the sentiment has changed somewhat and maybe it’s just the accumulation of pain from all of these horrific experiences.” 

He added, “We haven’t had a vote in a number of years and I’m hoping that we’ll be able to persuade some folks. There are a lot of new senators who weren’t here the last time we voted on Manchin-Toomey, so we’re going to have another chance I think, and I hope soon.” 

Some gun control advocates are cautiously optimistic that legislation could be enacted this year. 

“Gun violence in this country is a crisis,” said Chelsea Parsons, vice president of gun violence prevention policy at the liberal Center for American Progress. “At some point it really does become extremely difficult for Senate Republicans to just keep refusing to even have conversations about this issue.” 

Parsons said the fact that Trump, McConnell, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., “all feel some level of pressure to at least say that they are going to consider some gun violence prevention bills is a pretty big sign of progress, because that has not happened before.”

Democrats and gun control advocates could be forced to decide whether to seek compromise with Toomey and other Republicans or to push for tougher legislation that the GOP-led Senate won’t support. 

Shira Goodman, executive director of the advocacy group CeaseFirePA, said there are two arguments: “You take what you can get and keep going,” or “you fight for what will really be a better policy” and put people on the record on the issue. 

At the moment, Goodman said she’s in the “we have to fight for what we want” camp. “I think we can’t be asking for crumbs anymore.” 

She said it’s important to have Republicans who are respected by their colleagues and who have conservative credentials to be involved in the debate. But she added, “We really need people to lead … It’s not enough to just put your name on something.” 

As for discussions about reviving the Manchin-Toomey effort, she said, “Why are we going backward to an older bill that has a lot of loopholes? … We kind of feel like that was six years ago and we need to move forward.”

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