One senator's lonely path to middle ground on gun control

Congress is expected to vote on four partisan gun bills Monday and pass none. Why one senator tried to craft a bipartisan solution and was ignored. 

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Cory Booker (D) of New Jersey (c.) calls for gun control legislation last Thursday during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington in the wake of the mass shooting in an Orlando nightclub.

When nearly 40 Senate Democrats engaged in a 15-hour talk-a-thon to force a vote on gun control last week, only two Republicans got a word in edgewise. One of them was Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania.

“This is not rocket science,” he said.

Everyone ought to agree, he said, that terrorists should not be able to walk into a gun store and purchase guns. And everyone ought to agree that innocent, law-abiding citizens should not be denied their Second Amendment rights because they are wrongly on a terrorist watch list, he added.

In the wake of the Orlando, Fla., mass shooting, “there’s an obvious opportunity here, guys, to work together and find a solution,” he said.

On Monday, the Senate will most likely not take that opportunity. It will vote on four competing gun measures – two from Democrats and two from Republicans – that deal with terrorists and gun purchases as well as expanded background checks. None is expected to pass.

In a Congress largely sorted into two partisan camps on gun control, Senator Toomey is unusual. After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., he teamed up with Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia on a bill that expanded background checks to gun shows and online sales. It failed. Twice.

Then last week, he introduced what he describes as a compromise bill to prevent terrorists from buying guns. Democrats blasted it as cumbersome and politically self-serving as Toomey faces a tough reelection battle. Republicans did little more than sniff at it. It’s not scheduled among the competing gun measures up for a vote Monday.

Yet despite his lack of success, Toomey’s efforts to find some common ground on the issue are noteworthy. It’s an example of how only Republicans in blue or purple states have been prepared to part with the gun lobby.

While polls show a majority of Americans – of all parties and regions – backing background checks, the gun lobby and its intensely committed voters have consistently increased the political stakes.

“They have become much more intransigent about any change,” says Terry Madonna, a pollster and political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. “They think that if they move one inch, they’ll have to give a mile.”

As a result, Republican have avoided stirring up that hornet’s nest unless necessary. For Toomey, representing a state with its own background check laws, it has been a necessity.

But the number of middle-ground lawmakers willing to compromise on gun control seems to have shrunk. When the Toomey-Manchin bill went up for a second vote at the end of last year, it got even fewer votes than in 2013.

What Pennsylvanians want

Various forces would like there to be fewer compromises still. Last week, the National Rifle Association started robo-calls in Pennsylvania, asking folks to call their senators and “express their strong opposition to any new gun control laws,” according to the Associated Press.

The Republican got a similarly cold blast from conservative and gun-rights groups three years ago when Toomey and Senator Manchin teamed up on expanded background checks.

“Pat Toomey betrayed us and our Constitution,” said Kim Stolfer, president of the western Pennsylvania-based Firearms Owners Against Crime, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

But Toomey – a gun owner – was actually in step with Pennsylvanians. The state already had a law covering expanded background checks.

Matt Rourke/AP/File
Sen. Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania speaks at a news conference in Philadelphia last month.

“It’s not like Toomey was going into new territory,” says Professor Madonna. Even in a hunting and outdoors state like Pennsylvania, most voters favor more gun regulation, he says.

In a Franklin and Marshall poll in January, for instance, 55 percent of the state’s voters favored more laws that regulate gun ownership. Some 88 percent favored a federal law that imposes background checks on all potential gun buyers, including at gun shows and online. 

“I do not think [the Toomey-Manchin bill] was nearly as controversial as people said it was. The reaction among Republican voters was minimal at best,” says Madonna.

That points to a national trend that illustrates the congressional divide. Despite widespread national approval of expanded background checks, only 18 states and Washington, D.C., have laws that go beyond the federal standards, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. They are mostly blue or purple states.

Conservative credentials

Toomey had something else going for him – his conservative credentials, explains another Pennsylvania pollster, Christopher Borick, a political scientist and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion.

The senator is a staunch fiscal conservative who got his start in investment banking on Wall Street. He made a name for himself on economic and budget issues in the United States House of Representatives. After six years there, became president of the Club For Growth – famous for its no- new-taxes pledge. He won his Senate seat in 2010.

“He’s been so highly regarded by conservatives, there’s never been talk of a primary challenge,” says Mr. Borick. “He can afford to alienate some members of the base, because there’s a belief that they’re not going anywhere in a general election.”

Pennsylvania is a battleground state that has consistently voted for Democrats in presidential elections. It’s one of six states where Senate Republicans face particularly tough races this year; Democrats have to win only five states (four if they take the White House) to regain control of the Senate.

To win in Pennsylvania, Toomey needs to appeal to the center, Borick points out. By making gun control a signature cause, it shows he can moderate, the pollster says. 

Toomey has said he never sought the gun-control issue, but after Newtown, when he realized it was heading toward the Senate floor, he wanted to have input on a bill so it would protect gun-owners’ rights. He does not believe that keeping guns from criminals or the mentally ill infringes on the Second Amendment, though he does not support a ban on assault weapons, as many Democrats do.

The senator’s latest bill seeks to address the sticky issue of due process for people wrongly on terrorist watch lists. It allows the attorney general to draw up a list of people banned from purchasing firearms, but the list would have to be cleared by the Foreign Intelligence Service Court. Authorities could temporarily ban new suspects not on the list while showing the court probable cause for a permanent ban.

Democrats described this process as far too time consuming, while the campaign of Toomey’s Democratic opponent, Katie McGinty, called it a “political calculation” meant to give him “political cover.” The senator’s staff had been working with the staff of the gun regulation group Everytown for Gun Safety, but the talks broke down.

In a conference call with reporters last week, Toomey said he was “open” to talks about his bill and described some of the complaints as “a very solvable issue.”

But as the Senate’s four competing bills on gun control show, neither Republicans nor Democrats appear very interested in talking about a serious compromise on guns in this election year. They would rather take the issue before voters. 

Says pollster Madonna, “It’s going to be a huge part of the congressional campaigns, given the timing of this.”

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