Local GOP leaders soften gun stance

Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) says there may be areas of agreement with the White House.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) says there may be areas of agreement with the White House.

Area Republicans were once firmly opposed to new laws. They're sounding a new openness since Newtown.

Posted: January 21, 2013

WASHINGTON - When he was running for the Senate in 2010, Pat Toomey said his "idea of gun control is a steady aim."

But when President Obama rolled out his plan last week to curb gun violence, the Pennsylvania Republican offered a much more nuanced response.

"Second Amendment rights are important to many Pennsylvanians and must be protected," a Toomey statement read. "But there may be areas of agreement with the White House that can be addressed to improve public safety."

Like Toomey, several House Republicans from the Philadelphia suburbs also crept tentatively toward some of Obama's ideas last week, in sharp contrast with GOP colleagues elsewhere who flatly rejected the plans.

Their willingness to consider the proposals, or at least not slap them away, has gun-control advocates hoping some of those local Republicans, despite ties to the National Rifle Association, might provide votes to advance at least part of Obama's package.

Unlike in the past, "we're not hearing 'Absolutely not, no way, never' from the Pennsylvania folks," said Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFirePA.

The comments from Toomey, whom the NRA endorsed in 2010, were perhaps the most surprising and encouraging to gun-control advocates such as Goodman, even though he did not endorse any specific steps and has not elaborated on his statement.

"I didn't expect him to say, 'Yes, yes, yes,' " Goodman said, "but the fact that he didn't say, 'No, no, no,' I thought was a good sign."

Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray, Pennsylvania chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, met with Toomey's staff Wednesday and came away with the impression that the senator might support tougher background checks for gun buyers - the part of Obama's plan that appears to have a strong chance of becoming law, and which was also backed by two local House members.

The deep emotional reaction to the December schoolhouse massacre in Newtown, Conn., "has changed the whole discussion," Gray said.

He hoped Toomey also would be willing to discuss other ideas, but conceded it was unlikely the senator would endorse an assault-weapons ban, the Obama proposal that faces the steepest odds.

A call to ban high-capacity ammunition magazines has a better chance in Congress but also faces a tough political fight.

Hoping to build its case, the mayors' group, founded and bankrolled by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, plans to intensely lobby Philadelphia-area Republicans such as Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick of Bucks County, Rep. Pat Meehan of Delaware County, and Rep. Jon Runyan of South Jersey. All have received financial backing from the NRA, but all also represent moderate suburban districts and have expressed openness to Obama's proposals.

Fitzpatrick and Meehan endorsed tougher background checks and left the door open to other ideas. "I am prepared to give a full and fair consideration to any reasonable piece of legislation," Fitzpatrick said in a release.

Runyan said he, too, would "give consideration to any good-faith proposal that makes our communities safer."

For Obama, winning support from even a few lawmakers who have traditionally opposed new gun laws will be critical to overcoming strong resistance from most Republicans and even many Democrats.

The statements last week from Toomey and the local GOP congressmen offered few specifics, so it's not clear how much, if any, of Obama's plan they will ultimately support. But they also left more room to maneuver than some other lawmakers, who saw the proposals as ineffective and a threat to Second Amendment rights.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R., S.C.), for example, said he was confident of bipartisan opposition to Obama's plan, and Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R., Kan.) said, "The Second Amendment is nonnegotiable." He called the plan "yet another display of the Obama administration's consolidation of power."

With local Republicans, by contrast, open to discussion, activists on both sides of the issue are already gearing up to persuade them.

Kim Stolfer, the Western Pennsylvanian who heads Firearms Owners Against Crime, said the statewide group began preparing for this political battle immediately after the Newtown shooting, and intends to enlist the passion of gun owners who fear an intrusion on their rights. Stolfer said he had a 30,000-person e-mail list.

"We've got a pretty sizable motivational group," he said. "We're using every facet of political education and political outreach that is at our disposal."

The NRA, in a widely reported fund-raising letter, has promised "the fight of the century."

On the other side, people such as Goodman and Gray urge supporters of tougher gun laws to write and e-mail lawmakers. "The public is engaged in a way that the public hasn't been before," Goodman said.

Local lawmakers have seen that firsthand. Fitzpatrick's staff said his correspondence had doubled in the last week. An aide said the comments pouring in ranged from very brief ("don't ban guns" or "support Obama") to "three-page, well-reasoned treatises on natural law."

Fitzpatrick, in a telephone interview, said the response had been roughly split down the middle - and he knows more is coming. "I fully expect there to be a very significantly heightened public involvement," he said.

Public opinion polls report a shift in favor of new gun laws since the Newtown shooting. A New York Times/CBS News poll last week found nine in 10 Americans support tougher background checks. Limits on high-capacity clips had better than 60 percent support; 53 percent said they would back a ban on some semiautomatic guns.

Already, the Newtown tragedy has caused one historically pro-gun-rights senator, Bob Casey (D., Pa.), to reverse course and say he will support bans on assault weapons and high-capacity clips.

Casey reiterated that support Friday, saying, "We have a moment here with some urgency to it and some momentum."


Contact Jonathan Tamari

at jtamari@phillynews.com or follow

on Twitter @JonathanTamari. Read his blog, "Capitol Inq," at www.philly.com/CapitolInq.

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