Fitzpatrick, Meehan back background checks for gun buyers

Posted: January 17, 2013

WASHINGTON - Signaling a way forward for some new gun laws but a difficult road for others, two local Republican congressmen embraced the idea Wednesday of tougher background checks while steering clear of President Obama's call to ban assault weapons and high-capacity clips.

Philadelphia-area Republicans Mike Fitzpatrick and Pat Meehan, both the kind of moderates whose votes will be needed to move any gun bills through the GOP-controlled House, endorsed closing loopholes in background checks, one of Obama's top initiatives.

"Our focus should be on measures which have the widest positive effect that have the support of both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. My sense is those include background checks and mental-health-records reporting, with the goal of keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of dangerous people," Fitzpatrick, of Bucks County, said in a statement. "It is imperative that we close the loopholes and fix the nation's background-check system."

Meehan, a Delaware County resident and former U.S. attorney, said, "I agree with the president that we can and should strengthen the nation's background-check system," including at gun shows. His statement also endorsed tougher laws against gun trafficking and straw purchases.

But neither Fitzpatrick nor Meehan, whose districts stretch from the Philadelphia suburbs to more rural reaches of the state, took a stand for or against the most high-profile of the proposals Obama outlined Wednesday: bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

Neither did other Republicans in the area, though some said they were open to new ideas.

The Republicans' early reactions illustrate the fragile support for any new gun laws.

Obama's plans will face fierce opposition from many Republicans and some Democrats - in contrast to predictably strong backing from Philadelphia-area Democrats, including Mayor Nutter, who testified here Wednesday at an emotional hearing alongside two people with ties to victims of mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Tucson, Ariz.

Janet Robinson, Newtown school superintendent, told a panel of House Democrats that her first graders "were no match for a troubled person with an AR-15."

Listeners' eyes welled with tears as Emily Nottingham described learning that her grown son, Gabe Zimmerman, had died in the 2011 Tucson shooting. She likened it to a nightmare "where you knew where you were supposed to be but couldn't get there."

"It took hours to find out that he had died before he hit the ground, and his body still lay on the sidewalk," Nottingham said.

She said her son, an aide to former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, had planned to pick out a gift for his fiancee on the day he was killed. She urged lawmakers to think of their children or young aides when considering new limits on guns.

"Imagine that cellphone in your pocket vibrating, and the message says they have been murdered by a stranger with an assault weapon. Imagine that," she said. "Then shore up your resolve and keep working."

Nutter, president of the National Conference of Mayors, cited numbers: 100,000 people shot in America each year; 50 children and teens shot each day, including five who die.

"If this was disease killing that many people, if this were accidents killing that many people, if this were bags of tainted spinach killing that many people, this country would immediately take swift action," the mayor said.

But he was speaking to a friendly panel composed entirely of House Democrats. Opponents spoke up elsewhere.

"Nothing the president is proposing would have stopped the massacre at Sandy Hook," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) "Rolling back responsible citizens' rights is not the proper response to tragedies committed by criminals and the mentally ill."

The National Rifle Association called the coming legislative battle "the fight of the century" and, in a fund-raising letter, warned that Obama's plan is about "banning your guns . . . PERIOD!"

Local Republicans were not nearly as strident, and even those who did not back any specific measures said they were open to reasonable proposals.

"Second Amendment rights are important to many Pennsylvanians and must be protected, but there may be areas of agreement with the White House that can be addressed to improve public safety," U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) said in a statement. U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan (R., N.J.), who, like Toomey, has had campaign backing from the NRA, said he would consider "any good-faith proposal that makes our communities safer."

Obama stressed he would have to go beyond "the usual suspects" of gun-law supporters to win approval for his plans.

Local House Republicans, who have shown a recent willingness to vote against some of their more staunchly conservative colleagues, could be key to passage of any new gun limits with the legs to get through Congress.


Contact Jonathan Tamari at jtamari@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @JonathanTamari. Read his blog, "CapitolInq," at www.philly.com/CapitolInq.

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