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Pa. Senator Toomey: Background checks aren't gun control

| Wednesday, April 10, 2013, 12:45 p.m.

Two key U.S. senators on Wednesday promoted a deal they hope will expand background checks on gun purchasers and build a compromise on gun legislation as Pennsylvania lawmakers proposed similar changes they said would serve as a backup if the federal law fails.

Pennsylvania's Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, joined Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to propose requiring background checks on all gun buyers, including those at gun shows and purchases made on the Internet. The proposal requires states and the federal government to send all records on criminals and the violently mentally ill to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

“I don't consider criminal background checks to be gun control,” Toomey said. “There is common ground that criminals and the mentally ill shouldn't have guns. Background checks are not a perfect solution, but they do help. This will expand background checks at gun shows and Internet sales. It's a sensible balance.”

The National Rifle Association balked at the proposal.

“Expanding background checks at gun shows will not prevent the next shooting, will not solve violent crime and will not keep our kids safe in schools,” the group said in a statement. “... We have a broken mental health system that is not going to be fixed with more background checks at gun shows.”

Toomey said he's had conversations with the NRA.

“People are going to have a wide range of opinions. I don't think keeping guns out of the hands of criminals is gun control. It's common sense,” Toomey said. “Any law-abiding citizen who doesn't have a criminal record and is not mentally incompetent isn't giving up a thing.”

Toomey said he would vote against bans on military-style weapons and limits on magazine size.

The background check system covers sales only by licensed gun dealers. The compromise would apply the system to all commercial sales, which would have to be channeled through licensed dealers, who would be required to keep records of the transactions.

Private transactions that are not for profit, such as those between relatives, would be exempt from background checks.

Toomey and state lawmakers separately cited the mass shootings in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

“The atrocity in Newtown gave momentum for something to be done,” Toomey said.

State Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, said “now is the time” for state legislation.

Frankel joined fellow Democrats in Harrisburg to propose background checks on all rifles and shotguns.

“Right now in Pennsylvania, criminals may lawfully purchase an assault rifle, even though it is illegal for that same criminal to purchase a handgun,” said Rep. Steve Santasiero, D-Bucks County.

A gap in Pennsylvania's law allows private, non-licensed dealers to sell long-barrel guns, including military-style rifles, without conducting a background check, Santasiero said. His bill would close that loophole, he said.

Fred Burgdolt, 67, the owner of A.R.H. Sport Shop in Buffalo Township in Washington County, agrees that criminals and mentally ill individuals should not have guns but said the proposals would do little to change that. He organizes four gun shows a year at the Washington County Fairgrounds and was setting up for a show this weekend.

“I don't have any objections to keeping people who should not have guns away from guns. The wackos make a bad impression on everybody,” Burgdolt said. “The problem is how will they enforce it unless they do a total registration of all firearms, and I don't want that to happen.

“This is not going to do anything to stop criminals from getting a gun. A guy with a problem is going to steal a gun.”

Burgdolt said wait times on instant background checks can exceed an hour.

“I have sat with a busy signal for an hour and then another 45 to 50 minutes on hold waiting to get through,” he said. “I don't support this the way it's written. It's just going to make a hardship on honest people.”

Santasiero said that despite broad public support, “the word is this bill will not run” in the state House, which like the Senate is controlled by Republicans.

Yet Santasiero and dozens of supporters, including Attorney General Kathleen Kane, said they must forge ahead. A Democrat, Kane called the bill a “common-sense approach” to apply background checks to rifles and shotguns.

“To do nothing is an absolute cop-out,” said Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Luzerne County. “To do nothing is the great example of cowardice and incompetence.”

Santasiero said he has no way of knowing what, if anything, Congress might pass. Five states have laws requiring universal background checks, he said: California, New York, Rhode Island, Colorado and Connecticut.

Two Republicans — Reps. Paul Clymer of Bucks County and Todd Stephens of Montgomery County — joined Democratic sponsors of his bill.

Brad Bumsted and Bobby Kerlikare staff writers for Trib Total Media. Bumsted can be reached at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com. Kerlik can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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