Has Pennsylvania’s junior Senator earned the support of gun violence prevention groups?
With the November elections rapidly approaching, an interesting split has occurred in the gun violence prevention (GVP) movement concerning the re-election bid of the junior U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, Republican Pat Toomey. The two largest national groups in the movement, Everytown for Gun Safety and Americans for Responsible Solutions (ARS) are supporting Toomey, while most other GVP organizations are backing his opponent, Democrat Katie McGinty.
The debate raises important questions about the level of support a Republican should demonstrate for gun reform before earning such support, particularly during an election cycle in which the stakes are so high. Toomey is rated A by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and running against a candidate who supports tough gun laws across the board. Are the two largest PACs in the GVP movement setting a troubling precedent by backing a man who has done so little to reduce gun violence? And given the Democratic Party’s newfound zeal for gun reform, and how close the party is to retaking the U.S. Senate, can the GVP “Bigs” really afford to embrace a Republican who brags that he has “a perfect track record with the NRA”?
Everytown and ARS’ support for Toomey center around the fact that he co-sponsored an amendment to expand background checks with Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) following the gruesome mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012. In an ad released two weeks ago by Everytown founder Michael Bloomberg’s Independence USA PAC, Erica Smegielski of the Everytown Survivor Network says, “When it came time to vote on background checks, Pat Toomey crossed party lines to do the right thing, and I’m grateful.” [Erica is the daughter Dawn Hochsprung, the Sandy Hook Elementary principal who was killed in the shooting.] ARS PAC executive director Peter Ambler expressed a similar sentiment, saying, “Senator Toomey stood up for responsibility, stood up to the gun lobby, and stood up to many in his own party.”
The state GVP group CeaseFire Pennsylvania, however, has endorsed McGinty. While acknowledging Toomey’s leadership in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy, Ceasefire PA notes that “since then…[he] has let others assume the mantle of leadership.” They also point out that Toomey “has failed to embrace the broader policy agenda we believe is necessary to substantially reduce gun violence.”
So who’s got it right? Did Toomey earn the support he’s received from Everytown and ARS or not? A closer look at the senator’s record on gun violence prevention yields important insights.
In the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, there was broad speculation that the U.S. Congress would finally pass some type of gun reform legislation. During this time, Senator Toomey and Senator Manchin (who also enjoys an A rating from the NRA) came together and co-sponsored an amendment to require background checks on certain private sales of firearms (currently, 32 states allow private individuals “not engaged in the business” of dealing firearms to sell guns without conducting background checks on their purchasers or maintaining any records of sale). Specifically, the amendment would have required background checks on all commercially-advertised private sales of firearms; to include sales at gun shows, through classified ads, and over the Internet.
Taken on its own, this provision represented an important advance in federal gun law. The problem is it wasn’t the only provision in the Manchin-Toomey amendment. The gun lobby was allowed to add harmful language to the amendment that would have weakened gun laws in critical ways, by:
· Rolling back longstanding anti-trafficking laws to allow individuals to cross state lines to purchase handguns from federally licensed firearms dealers.
· Exacerbating the “Charleston Loophole” by allowing federally licensed firearms dealers to proceed with a gun sale if they have not received a response from the FBI’s NICS system after 48 hours (as opposed to the current 72 hours). After four years, that time would be reduced even further, to 24 hours. The loophole became a national issue after the mass shooting at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015, which left nine dead. The shooter in that case, Dylann Roof, was allowed to buy a handgun from a gun store in West Columbia despite the fact that he was a prohibited purchaser (due to a drug-related offense) because an FBI clerk could not find the appropriate criminal record in the required three business days.
· Prohibiting the federal government from creating any type of computerized database of gun sales by federally licensed firearms dealers. Under the Manchin-Toomey amendment, any government employee who attempted to do so would be criminalized, facing up to 15 years in prison.
· Shielding private sellers from civil lawsuits as long as they conduct background checks on their buyers, even if these sellers behave negligently in some fashion (i.e., they consummate a sale event though a buyer appears intoxicated/under the influence of narcotics). Currently, only licensed dealers enjoy such unprecedented protection, under the highly controversial “Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act” drafted by the NRA.
Alan Gottlieb of the Second Amendment Foundation (SAF) bragged that the two senators allowed his staff to write sections of the amendment. “It’s a Christmas tree,” Gottlieb boasted. “We…hung a million ornaments on it” and “snookered the other side.” Senator Manchin has indicated that the NRA also participated in drafting the amendment. [SAF and the NRA would later reverse their support for Manchin-Toomey under intense pressure from their radicalized memberships and more extreme pro-gun groups like Gun Owners of America and the National Association for Gun Rights.]
These pro-gun provisions made the Manchin-Toomey amendment a tough pill to swallow for the GVP movement. But GVP organizations ultimately unified in support of it after determining that the unprecedented expansion of background checks at the federal level represented forward progress, even in the face of the amendment’s numerous shortcomings.
The lynchpin behind this decision was Toomey. GVP groups hoped his leadership would convince enough of his fellow Republicans to cross the aisle to give the amendment the votes it needed to pass. But these hopes never materialized. Only three Republicans joined Toomey in supporting the amendment and it failed to garner 60 votes.
Did Senator Toomey actively lobby his colleagues to support the amendment? It’s difficult to say. Accounts vary. But one thing is patently clear. Since the vote on the Manchin-Toomey amendment failed in April 2013, Toomey has been terrible on the issue of gun violence prevention.
Back to Square One
Senator Toomey was put to his next big test in June of this year following the nation’s worst-ever mass shooting in Orlando, Florida. On June 20, the Senate voted on competing versions of legislation dealing with background checks and prohibiting individuals on terrorist watch lists from buying firearms.
The gun violence prevention movement (including Everytown and ARS) supported amendments introduced by Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy and California Senator Dianne Feinstein.
· The Murphy amendment would have required universal background checks on all private sales of firearms, with reasonable exceptions for transfers between immediate family members, hunting partners, or co-inhabitants engaging in acts of emergency self-defense.
· The Feinstein amendment would have enabled the Department of Justice to block gun sales to suspected terrorists if they had a reasonable suspicion that a person was known or suspected to be involved in terrorism.
The NRA countered with amendments by Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley and Texas Senator John Cornyn. These amendments purported to seek a reduction in gun violence, but would have further weakened federal gun laws.
· The Grassley amendment would have provided incentives for states to submit disqualifying mental health records to the FBI’s NICS system, and required federal courts to do so. It also would have allocated funding for prosecutions of individuals who lie on ATF Form 4473 when attempting to purchase a firearm. Simultaneously, however, the Grassley amendment would have made it significantly easier for dangerously mentally individuals to purchase firearms. First, it would have allowed those who have been involuntarily committed to legally purchase firearms as soon as they are discharged from a psychiatric hospital. Second, it would have removed hundreds of thousands of veterans who have been declared mentally incompetent by the VA from the NICS database (and made it harder to add them to the database in the future). Both these categories of individuals are currently prohibited from buying/owning firearms for life.
· The Cornyn amendment would have given the government just three days to bring a suspected terrorist to court to prove that he/she was about to commit an actual act of terrorism. The amendment was so weak it would have made it more difficult to block a gun sale to a suspected terrorist than it currently is to indict one.
Senator Toomey voted the wrong way on all four amendments: NO on the Murphy amendment, NO on the Feinstein amendment, YES on the Grassley amendment and YES on the Cornyn amendment. In contrast, the senior Senator from Pennsylvania, Bob Casey, voted the right way on all four amendments.
Toomey added further fuel to the fire by issuing a statement that described Senator Murphy’s legislation as an “extreme background check amendment.” He also accused Murphy and his Democratic colleagues of engaging in a “partisan charade.” This was an odd choice of targets given that Murphy obtained hero status in the gun violence prevention movement after leading the Senate filibuster that spurred these votes in the first place. It’s also curious to describe universal background checks, a policy routinely supported by 90% of the American people, as “extreme.”
At a campaign stop a month later, Toomey then bragged to constituents, “I have a perfect track record with the NRA.”
None of this pro-gun ballast was intended to insulate Toomey from a potential primary challenge from the right. Senator Toomey went unopposed in the Pennsylvania Republican primary, which was held on April 26.
Toomey’s opponent in the general election, Democrat Katie McGinty, has none of his liabilities. She supports universal background checks and a whole host of other gun reforms, to include renewing the assault weapons ban, restoring federal funding for gun violence research, and even requiring background checks on the sale of ammunition. McGinty earned a 100% rating on the CeaseFire Pennsylvania candidate survey.
Her race with Senator Toomey is a close one. A recent Emerson poll has Toomey leading by 7 points, but it’s an outlier among a number of recent polls that show McGinty ahead.
How important is this race to the Democratic National Party? The Senate Majority PAC just launched a $970,000 ad buy in Pennsylvania to counter the ad that Mayor Bloomberg’s Independence USA PAC is running in support of Toomey. The Senate Majority PAC ads highlight the gaping difference between Toomey and McGinty when it comes to support for gun policy. The Dems need to pick up four seats to regain control of the Senate if they win the presidency (because the vice president gets to break a 50–50 tie); five seats if they don’t.
Everytown/ARS support for Toomey has the feel of a Lose-Lose situation. If November’s Senate races turn out closer than prognosticators expect and the GVP Bigs’ support for Toomey is decisive in Pennsylvania, it’s at least possible they could help prevent the Dems from regaining a majority in the chamber (a Democratic Senate would provide a huge boost to the gun violence prevention agenda). Furthermore, a Toomey win would signal to other Republicans that the GVP movement’s stamp of approval can be bought with the most lukewarm, half-hearted support. Democrats, who are expected to lead on the issue of gun reform, might rightly see this as an unfair double-standard. Meanwhile, the only “win” would be another six years of Pat Toomey in the Senate, during a time when he seems more focused on burnishing his pro-gun credentials.
If Everytown/ARS support for Toomey does not propel him to victory, one can see another harmful narrative developing. The Republican National Party and NRA would almost certainly spin such a loss as a cautionary tale to other Republicans who might consider working with Democrats on gun reform in the future (“Those gun-grabbers will be an albatross around your neck in swing states.”).
I’m certainly not inferring that Republicans should never receive support from GVP organizations. In fact, ARS is endorsing another Republican incumbent this election cycle who is entirely deserving of their time and resources: Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois. Kirk has an F rating from the NRA and has been a consistent supporter of the GVP movement going back many years before the Sandy Hook tragedy. Last year, he received a lifetime award from the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence. To not support Kirk would be an act of hypocrisy on the part of the GVP movement. Plus, he’s a guy whose vote you can count on, even in tough situations.
But Pat Toomey? When the GVP movement stood with Toomey in 2013, it felt like an act of necessity. The promise of accomplishing something very real beckoned. But that dream is long dead and three years have passed. Supporting Toomey now feels like begging for table scraps, and lean ones at that.
The GVP movement is stronger than it has ever been — in large part because of the unprecedented resources and reach of Everytown and ARS — and for the first time in history, our grassroots activists have more energy than those on the other side. In the wake of the Senate filibuster and House Sit-In, these volunteers are feeling more confident than ever and are tired of playing a weak hand.
Leaders at GVP organizations would do well to follow their lead.