Toomey could be key to a deal on guns

Posted: April 06, 2013

WASHINGTON - Could Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey be a Republican bridge who helps secure a deal on background checks on guns?

His office confirmed Friday that Toomey, a strong Second Amendment advocate, was in discussions on pending gun bills that have struggled to gain traction with Republicans and many pro-gun Democrats in the Senate.

"Sen. Toomey and his staff are talking to a lot of folks - both in Pennsylvania and in the Capitol - on the issue of guns in the hopes that we get to an approach that works," his spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail.

There was no agreement as of Friday afternoon, and it was not immediately clear how close any deal might be. But word of Toomey's role set off intense interest in his stance from both sides of the gun debate.

Politico reported that Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) had reached out to Toomey to try to find a GOP partner on a bill requiring background checks for gun buyers, a measure that has faltered in the face of bipartisan resistance. The website said the two senators had exchanged draft proposals since talks began Wednesday. (Toomey and Manchin previously teamed up on shared efforts on environmental and energy policy).

Shortly after news broke about the discussions on guns, Mayor Nutter and former Gov. Ed Rendell announced that they, along with the gun-control group CeaseFirePA, would gather outside Toomey's Philadelphia office Tuesday to urge him to back "commonsense gun legislation . . . especially the expansion of the background-check system."

Shira Goodman, CeaseFirePA's executive director, said that event had been in the works for about a week. She has met with Toomey and stayed in touch with his office, monitoring his stand. He has neither embraced background checks nor ruled them out, and has made few if any public comments on proposed gun limits since a statement in January generally expressing openness to ideas without endorsing specifics.

Toomey is "certainly not a 'no,' but we didn't know if we had a 'yes,' " Goodman said Friday. "I think we're getting to a moment where we want to know where he stands, what's he going to do."

Gun-control advocates believe they need a credible conservative voice, preferably from a state with a strong gun culture, to sign on to a background-check bill in order to rally enough support and overcome fears - stoked by the National Rifle Association - that broader checks will lead to a national gun registry or allow for seizure of firearms. An endorsement from a gun-rights Republican could add critical momentum for President Obama's last, best hope for significant gun legislation.

Toomey would fill the bill. The NRA endorsed his 2010 Senate run, and the group's lobbying arm features one of his speeches on its website.

But he also signaled that he might be open-minded after the Newtown, Conn., school shooting. In January, after Obama rolled out his package of proposals, Toomey issued a statement saying in part that "there may be areas of agreement with the White House that can be addressed to improve public safety."

From a meeting with Toomey and from contact with his staff, Goodman got the impression he would consider expanding background checks, though he was unlikely to support an assault-weapons ban or limits on high-capacity magazines, she told The Inquirer Friday. Other gun-control advocates who have met with Toomey made similar comments in January.

Reports of Toomey's talks with Manchin have "given us reason to be optimistic," Goodman said. In a best-case scenario, she hoped Toomey "becomes the trigger point to get this done."

The Tuesday rally will go on either way, she said - to show public support for gun limits, or to thank Toomey if he announces his support. "We want to make sure that he is hearing from Pennsylvanians," she said.

If Toomey were to support background checks, the Washington Post reported, that would give Democrats hope of winning over House Republicans in the Philadelphia suburbs - such as Mike Fitzpatrick in Bucks, and Pat Meehan in Delaware County, who represent moderate districts where new gun laws might be more politically palatable.

Recent Pennsylvania polls show wide support for background checks. But gun-control advocates aren't the only ones vying for Toomey's attention.

By dinnertime Friday, an NRA-affiliated group, Pennsylvania Gun Rights, was on Twitter, telling followers, "Reports are that @sentoomey may be working on a gun control bill . . . Call him and tell him to stand with us!" The tweet gave a phone number for Toomey's Allentown office.  


Contact Jonathan Tamari at 609-217-8320, jtamari@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JonathanTamari. Read his blog, "Capitol Inq," at www.philly.com/CapitolInq.

Inquirer staff writer Amy Worden contributed to this article.

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