Some Dems insincere on gun law reforms, Toomey and Manchin say

Listen
 U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania (NewsWorks file photo)

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania (NewsWorks file photo)

In the wake of recent mass shootings, Democrats have been holding high-profile press conferences on gun control in Washington.

Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania put his neck out a few years ago by pushing a provision to modestly tighten background checks. While it would seem to make sense for Democrats to reach out to this Republican in their latest efforts, most have no. And Toomey says that shows they’re not serious.

“The only way we’re actually going to be successful is if it’s bipartisan and balanced. If the Democrats want to just make it politicized, that doesn’t get us any progress,” Toomey said.

In 2013 Toomey teamed up with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin on the background check bill. Facing intense lobbying from the NRA, it failed by six votes. Toomey said he’s still behind the effort, even if gun rights groups oppose it.

“I still fully support the approach that Sen. Manchin and I pursued, and I continue to discuss with him and others on how we might go forward,” he said.

The Democrats’ latest push ranges from keeping guns out of the hands of those under a restraining order to tightening federal background checks. Even Manchin admitted his party’s leaders are playing with the issue.

“Everything here is politicized,” he said. “Everything in Washington is politicized.”

Bipartisan route is only way to change

If Democrats want a policy solution and not just a campaign issue, Manchin said, they need to start reaching across the aisle.

“I’m here basically telling you the Manchin-Toomey bill was introduced two and half years ago. It was bipartisan then. and it’s bipartisan now. It will stay bipartisan,” he said. “Now I’ve talked to, Pat we’re working it hard. We still have the Republican support we had before, we just need more of it.”

Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas has introduced legislation to encourage states to send more data to a federal gun database in the hopes of keeping firearms out of the hands of those with mental illness.

It won support from the NRA and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. But many Democrats oppose the bill because it would allow some patients discharged from psychiatric treatment to purchase guns without first having to get court approval.

At the very least, Manchin said, his party should negotiate with Republicans on the bill.

“I mean, how in the world can we expect, as Democrats, to have Republicans supporting common-sense procedures that we’re asking for when a Republican puts a common-sense procedure and us not, as Democrats, support it?

“I’m going to support whatever makes sense and does not take the rights away, the Second Amendment rights of any law-abiding gun owner,” Manchin said.

Bringing focus on guns to ’16 campaign

Democrats are ramping up efforts to make the gun issue part of the 2016 election.

Riding the subway underneath the Capitol, Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey explained his party needs to win more seats before it can expect to pass gun-control measures.

“Some of it will play out here, but I think it’s mostly going to be about what happens in elections 2016, ’17, ’18 and those,” Casey said.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is promising to spend some $50 million in the election to further gun control, which Casey said will have an impact.

“Because, for years, the side that’s said no more changes — even on mental health, they had a money advantage that I think is starting to … close,” Casey said. “And I think that’s going to change, it’s going to change the issue. What I don’t know is how long does it take.”

Many Democrats disagree with the notion they’re playing politics with guns. U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, a New Jersey Democrat, brushes aside the charge.

“That’s not true. That is not true. Whoever, wherever you got your information, we’re working behind the scenes in front of the scenes that puts some reasonable gun legislation together,” Pascrell said.

For many Democrats, especially in the House, the political math just doesn’t add up. U.S. Rep. John Carney of Delaware said his party needs to focus on mental health issues, because gun control is a nonstarter in the Republican-controlled House.

“Nothing’s going to happen here in the House. They won’t put a piece of legislation on the floor,” Carney said.

Immigration, the economy and unrest overseas are dominating the campaign season so far. But if  gun control is relegated to the backseat once again, it won’t stop both sides from spending millions of dollars on the issue.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.