Back in 2013, shortly after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, stalwart Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania was scorned by the NRA for helping craft legislation for limited gun background checks with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin.
Known as Toomey-Manchin, it attempted to beef up the nation’s background check system, applying it to online sales and purchases at gun shows. But the measure left carve outs in cases such as selling a firearm to a family member or a friend. It won bipartisan support, yet fell six votes short in the Senate.
Now, said Toomey, there’s again chatter about the bill.
“I am having conversations with people about it, and I think we should do it,” he said.
The duo never tried to revive their bill after it was defeated five years ago, but Toomey said the upcoming Congress, with Democrats controlling the House, may be different.
“There really never was a path forward, but that may have changed,” he said.
As a compromise measure, Toomey-Manchin also loosened some regulations by allowing dealers to sell handguns across state lines and allowing active duty service members to have more access to weapons. It also banned the federal government from setting up a registry of firearm owners.
Some newly elected Democrats don’t like the measure because of those aspects.
“I think there’s a lot more we can do,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, who represents a district centered in Delaware County. Sworn in last month to fill the unexpired term of Pat Meehan, Scanlon is itching for stronger gun control measures than something written in 2013.
“I think times have changed since then. In Pennsylvania this year, we had the first gun violence prevention law that we’ve seen in a decade, so I think things have changed,” she said. “I think this election brought more change and, hopefully, we’ll see that continue.”
In Pennsylvania’s 4th Congressional District, Democratic U.S. Rep-elect Madeleine Dean said pressure is mounting on lawmakers to act after 11 people were shot to death at a Pittsburgh synagogue last month.
“I feel a real change. I would have thought it would have happened after Sandy Hook. I think we’re all baffled that it didn’t. When a congressional baseball field was shot up we would have thought something would happen.
“Certainly the Parkland Shooting changed attitudes because we saw these young people stand up for themselves and say enough is enough,” Dean said. “So I do think that the NRA’s control or grip on this issue is not nearly as strong as people thought it was.”
But Bucks County Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick is hoping Democrats will take up a more limited bill like Toomey-Manchin because it’s already got bipartisan support.
“We’re very confident that we can get this done in the next Congress,” he said.
Fitzpatrick knows that bill won’t end gun violence, but he said it’s a start.
“It’s one piece of the puzzle – it’s a very important piece of the puzzle, but it’s one we’ve got to get done,” he said.
Pennsylvania’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey supports both Toomey-Manchin and stronger gun control measures. Passing the more modest bill would signal a big change in Washington, he said.
“I think it shows that commonsense gun measures can be a majority position in Washington. That has not been the case — and not just a majority, but even an almost super majority,” Casey said.
Calls for tougher gun laws helped fuel election wins in the Delaware Valley region as well as Colorado, Texas, Florida, and even Georgia. And Casey said the GOP is paying attention.
“The main problem they had on their side this time is they got annihilated in suburban communities, and there are a lot of folks in those communities who want something done,” he said.
If Democrats push for more broad-based gun laws, they could include renewing the assault weapons ban; universal background checks; and having the federal government once again study gun violence.
Experts say those broader reform measures face an uphill battle in the GOP-controlled Senate, and that’s why Toomey said his legislation is as good a place as any to start the debate.
“We won’t know until we actually consider legislation and have some votes,” he said. “I’m open to revisiting the details of Manchin-Toomey, but I would say that’s a very good place to start, considering it did have bipartisan support not that long ago.”
Democrats are expected to debate gun control early in the new year, but there’s been no commitment from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring the issue to the Senate floor.