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What Pat Toomey has said - and not said - in gun debate

Jonathan Tamari, Washington Bureau

Updated: Tuesday, July 5, 2016, 1:07 AM

Sen. Pat Toomey, one of the few Republicans willing to support new gun laws, says, "I'm the guy that's trying to find common ground."

WASHINGTON - On April 17, 2013, Sen. Pat Toomey stood at the center of the wrenching national debate on guns.

Sen. Pat Toomey, one of the few Republicans willing to support new gun laws, says, "I'm the guy that's trying to find common ground."
Katie McGinty accuses Toomey of political posturing.
Photo Gallery: What Pat Toomey has said - and not said - in gun debate

That day, the Pennsylvania Republican's bill to expand background checks for firearm purchases, written in the aftermath of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., fell six votes short of advancing.

It remains the closest a new gun law has come to clearing the Senate in recent times, and won Toomey widespread praise, including from President Obama, who hailed his courage. Toomey has touted the effort this year in campaign ads.

After that 2013 vote, though, he waited more than three years before giving another Senate floor speech on guns.

It wasn't until two weeks ago, as the nation reeled from the Orlando massacre and Democrats ramped up the political pressure, that Toomey gave another Senate address dedicated to the issue, calling for compromise as the parties debated plans to stop suspected terrorists from buying guns.

An Inquirer review of the Congressional Record and C-SPAN archives shows that in between, Toomey spoke on the Senate floor more than 80 times, but mentioned guns only in passing.

The topics of his talks included federal judges, opioids, the Keystone pipeline, sanctuary cities, the Iran nuclear deal, and Villanova's college basketball championship.

At least 14 times he promoted a bill to keep pedophiles off school payrolls - another measure that has featured in his reelection campaign ads.

When he did mention guns, it was while discussing something else. In May of last year, for example, Toomey said he was "proud of the work I have done" on background checks as he gave a floor speech defending police from growing protests. He promised to keep coming back to that topic, calling it "an important part of this national discussion."

In an interview for this article, Toomey said that tallying floor speeches was "a ridiculous metric" of a senator's work on an issue.

His aides said he had long reiterated his support for background checks in news releases and public comments while also working behind the scenes on ways to get new gun laws through a divided Congress. And Toomey has mentioned his support in other settings, most notably when he was honored last year by Sandy Hook Promise, a group made up of families of those murdered in Newtown.

Toomey remains one of the few Republicans willing to support new gun laws, let alone put his name on such bills. "I'm the guy that's trying to find common ground," he said in the interview.

Still, his relative quiet on the Senate floor - where he and other lawmakers regularly try to draw a spotlight to their most cherished causes - reflects his complicated relationship with the issue.

His work on gun laws has come under scrutiny since the Orlando shooting and has figured prominently in his tough reelection battle, a race that could help determine control of the Senate. While he has touted his background-checks bill as a sign of willingness to work across the aisle, his challenger, Katie McGinty, has accused him of political posturing, and she and other Democrats scoff that his efforts have failed to bring other Republicans on board.

Some gun-control advocates who hailed Toomey's 2013 bill have been dismayed by his recent votes.

In December and June, he opposed Democratic proposals to close the so-called terror gap that allows suspected terrorists to clear background checks. He also helped block a Democratic background-check bill. Instead, Toomey voted for GOP proposals backed by the National Rifle Association.

He also drew up his own plan on the terror gap and was one of eight Republicans to support a compromise offered by Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) last month, but neither gained traction.

"It's a little bit of mixed messages. Does he want to solve the problem? Does he want to be a bipartisan deal-maker? Is this a top priority for him?" asked Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFirePA, which praised Toomey's background-check effort with Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) in 2013.

With Republicans holding the Senate, she said, Toomey should be pushing his colleagues to act: "Putting his name on Manchin-Toomey was a great first step, but there's more we can do."

Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said that while Toomey was "there at a time that we really needed him" on background checks, he was "not off the hook."

"You're off the hook when you've done everything that you can do to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people and make this a safer nation," Gross said.

Toomey said his votes had been consistent. He supports steps, such as expanding background checks, that target people who should not have firearms: criminals and the mentally ill.

But he opposes measures he says could undercut Second Amendment rights of innocent citizens, such as bans on so-called assault weapons. He said he voted against Democratic bills to bar gun purchases by people on terror watch lists because they gave too little legal protection to those who might be listed in error or by overreaching authorities. He said Democrats' background-check bill went too far.

He returned to the Senate floor June 15, amid a Democratic filibuster, urging compromise on the terror gap. He spoke twice more as the debate played out.

Talking on the Senate floor, of course, is just one tool lawmakers have, though it is one of the most visible ways they have to steer debates and draw attention.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D., Conn.) has talked about guns "dozens" of times, he said as he began his 15-hour filibuster. Chris Coons (D., Del.) has spoken on Iran 14 times since December. And Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.) gives a weekly speech demanding action on climate change - 141 in all by late June.

Toomey said he had tried to use floor speeches to build pressure for votes on other bills and topics that had not yet been tested in the Senate and might have a chance at approval. He said it was already clear from the 2013 vote that his background-check plan did not have enough support to pass, suggesting that further speeches would not change that fact. "I do try to spend my time in ways that are likely to be effective," he said.

He has talked about the bill off the Senate floor. When reporters ask, Toomey consistently says he still believes in it.

His most high-profile recent comments on the measure came in his speech to Sandy Hook Promise in June 2015. Toomey said he was "convinced that more background checks will save lives" and "my only regret, really, is that it took me so long to raise my voice on this very important issue."

That was almost exactly a year before he spoke about it again in the Senate chamber.

Toomey argued that quiet work is often more effective than speeches. In October, he met with Everytown for Gun Safety, a group founded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and in December they began talking about how to close the terror gap.

But when Toomey unveiled a plan after the Orlando shooting - amid intense political jockeying - it fell flat with both parties. Everytown, hoping for a measure that had bipartisan support, declined to endorse it, though the group's spokeswoman, Erika Soto Lamb, called Toomey's work on background checks "absolutely meaningful" and praised him for featuring the bill in his campaign ads.

In a moderate state like Pennsylvania, the topic is politically fraught.

While Toomey's support of background checks is seen as a key to appealing to centrist suburbanites, it has angered some on the right. A gun owners' group, Pennsylvanians for Self Protection, urged a write-in campaign against Toomey during April's Republican primary.

Kim Stolfer, head of the Western Pennsylvania group Firearms Owners Against Crime, said, "I get complaints about Sen. Toomey at every location and venue that I go to."

Toomey's changing role

Each of the last three Senate floor fights on guns has put Toomey in a different role.

After Newtown, he was a surprise leader on the background-check bill.

His role was more passive after last year's shootings in San Bernardino, Calif. When Democrats forced a new vote on his background-check bill in December, Toomey again cosponsored it, issued a supportive statement, and voted for it. But he made no comments on the floor. He said in the interview he doesn't speak on every amendment he is involved with.

Last month he tried to play deal-maker, saying his bill struck a middle ground between competing proposals to bar terror suspects from buying guns. But Republican leaders declined to put it up for a vote, and Democrats said it was an unworkable idea meant for political cover. Toomey suggested that Democrats refused to cooperate to harm him politically.

On June 27, he tried to turn the debate back to another issue he has run on, introducing a bill to deter sanctuary cities, where police do not cooperate with federal authorities on immigration matters.

He held a morning news conference and then, to reemphasize the point, gave a speech that night on the Senate floor.

jtamari@phillynews.com

@JonathanTamari

www.philly.com/capitolinq

Jonathan Tamari, Washington Bureau

Read full story: What Pat Toomey has said - and not said - in gun debate

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