Chip Minemyer | Toomey must keep up fight for background checks

Six weeks after his background checks amendment failed, Sen. Pat Toomey said he still favors tighter federal controls of weapons sales online and at gun shows.

“I’m still in the same place with this as I’ve always been,” Toomey, R-Pa., said in a meeting this past week at the Centre Daily Times.

“I think it makes sense,” he said.

Yes it does. That’s why Toomey must continue working to find allies in Congress and keep the issue front-of-mind in Washington, even as the nation’s focus slips away from the debate launched by the December mass killings at a school in Newtown, Conn.

Toomey took heat from conservatives and the gun-rights lobby for breaking away from his own Republican base and co-sponsoring the amendment with Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat.

The measure was attached to the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

On April 17, the amendment was defeated in a 54-46 vote, falling six votes short of the 60 needed for filibuster-proof approval.

“What Joe and I came up with was a common-sense approach,” Toomey told the CDT’s editorial board and reporters. “I really didn’t think of it as gun control. It would just have made it a little bit harder for people who have no business having guns to get them.”

Toomey’s amendment would not have affected most current and prospective gun owners.

It even carried a safe title politically: The Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act, because it contained language that would have prohibited the federal government from creating a national firearms registry.

The plan’s aim was to keep criminals and those deemed violently mentally ill from buying weapons, not a major step forward but representing at least some movement in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings.

“I’m a gun owner myself. I have an A rating with the NRA,” Toomey said. “If I thought this was going to restrict the rights of law-abiding citizens, I wouldn’t have supported it.”

Still, Toomey said, “We got thousands of calls from people who disagreed with what we were doing.”

A counter campaign obscured the intent of the amendment, he said, likely keeping some in the Senate from supporting it.

“The rumors started before the bill even came out,” Toomey said, adding, “We spent the majority of our time correcting people who had misperceptions rather than addressing the positive aspects of our legislation.”

But is there even room on the agenda for talk of gun laws? Toomey said the Senate is working on the farm bill, and will consider an immigration measure and then begin its annual dance around the federal budget.

At the same time, much political energy is being taken up by the IRS scandal and other divisive topics.

“There’s an increased level of distrust of the federal government,” Toomey said, “and the scandals of recent weeks don’t make it easier to overcome the mistrust.”

Of allegations that the IRS targeted conservative groups, Toomey said: “The more you drill down into the specifics, the more disturbing it becomes.”

Five Democrats, including Reid, voted against the amendment, so Toomey and Manchin would need help from both parties to revive the effort.

And Toomey knows that defeated ideas rarely resurface. Even on important topics, and even when the public largely supports a concept such as tighter gun laws, you might get just one bite at the apple.

“I can’t point to people who might change their vote,” he said.

This is hardly the first time a significant violent event launched a push for change that was ultimately thwarted by fear and powerful political forces.

Toomey pointed to a gun bill in 1999 that appeared headed for law just a few months after the shocking Columbine school massacre and days after a shooting incident in Georgia.

Even after such bloodshed, the Senate was deadlocked on a measure to expand background checks on weapon purchases at gun shows. Then-Vice President Al Gore stepped in to cast the deciding vote in a 51-50 passage of that amendment to the trigger-locks bill, but the plan was weakened in the other chamber.

At that time, Toomey was a freshman House member from eastern Pennsylvania. He voted for the background checks bill in 1999, records show.

Now a first-term senator, Toomey recalled that even the NRA was not openly fighting the background checks proposal in 1999. That was not the case with his Senate amendment this past April.

If the tragedies at Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Ariz., and elsewhere were not enough to spur change in how politicians think about gun laws, and if polls showing Americans favor tighter gun controls have not translated to a different outlook on Capitol Hill, what will it take?

Perhaps a conservative Republican from here in Pennsylvania, where the Second Amendment is treated with almost-biblical reverence.

Toomey showed great courage in his push for tougher national gun legislation.

Now is the time for Toomey to show even greater courage, and keep up the fight.