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Toomey won't retreat from background-checks amendment

| Wednesday, April 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
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Sens. Pat Toomey (left), R-Lehigh County, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., discuss their compromise plan on Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, April 14, 2013.

Angry words from some conservative Republican constituents won't keep U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey from working to secure votes needed to pass a gun-control amendment that would expand background checks on firearms purchases, he said Tuesday.

“This isn't about politics; it's about common sense,” Toomey told the Tribune-Review. “If I decide to run in 2016, then let the chips fall where they may.”

The vote that could be taken Wednesday on the proposal — authored by Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., two politicians positively rated by the National Rifle Association — could indicate the strength of the gun lobby versus the power of public opinion.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found most Americans, including half of all gun owners, say it is possible to enact laws without infringing on gun rights, and overwhelming majorities support expanded background checks at gun shows and for online gun sales.

With NRA opposition to the measure, and GOP opposition to some provisions, Manchin and Toomey were trying to round up 60 votes needed for Senate passage. Their proposals likely will gather even more challenges in the House.

“Not that long ago, the NRA itself supported such an expansion of background checks,” Toomey said.

He insists he isn't straying from a long-held belief of doing what's necessary to keep criminals from obtaining guns.

“I voted for similar legislation in 1999 when I was a member of Congress,” he said. “It is in line with what I have consistently stood for.”

He acknowledged that staffers are handling hundreds of calls and emails from people angered by his teaming with Manchin to become part of the broader Senate bill to increase penalties for gun trafficking and expand money for school safety programs.

Their announcement created a media frenzy and Saturday Night Live parody. Before their news conference ended, Twitter lit up with comments such as this one from @JoethePatriotic: “Bad bill, should be DOA. Shame on @SenToomey.”

“This bill will not pass and you will be done! I actually donated to your campaign. Never get my vote again!” Nancy Holpert of Starlight, an unincorporated community in Wayne County, posted on Toomey's Facebook page.

Another Pennsylvanian, Joe Salorino, posted: “Just a gentle reminder, via the PA Constitution, that my right to bear arms ‘shall not be questioned'.”

Over the weekend, several Tea Party-affiliated groups sent Toomey a letter with a political warning to withdraw his support for the amendment. Yet on Monday, the Philadelphia-based Independence Hall Tea Party Association, the region's oldest and largest Tea Party group, praised him for taking a leadership role on the bill.

The association gave Toomey its highest Republican rating — a 90 — in its 2013 Tax Day Congressional Scorecard for votes related to taxes and spending.

Its president, Teri Adams, said in an email that although the group understands people have legitimate concerns about the bill, the group believes Toomey “has done a superb job in defending the 2nd Amendment from those liberal Democrats who support outright bans on certain weapons and on magazines.”

Adams said the association in February surveyed members and found 2-to-1 support for universal background checks.

Toomey likely faces little real political risk, said Jeff Brauer, a political science professor at Keystone College in northeastern Pennsylvania.

“Poll after poll has the expansion of background checks with approval ratings around 90 percent, with even very high numbers among NRA members,” Brauer said.

Gun rights are important in Pennsylvania politics but that doesn't mean the average person is not reasonable about gun safety measures, said Brauer.

Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason said party officials received calls from some GOP voters who opposed the Toomey-Manchin amendment, “but we also heard from people who thought it was a good thing,” he said.

“His credentials are impeccable as a conservative,” Gleason said about Toomey. “This is not going to hurt him at all. He showed leadership working with a fellow (senator) and people want to see the logjam loosened in Washington.”

Toomey and Manchin on Tuesday met with former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and her husband, Mark Kelly, who chair an organization advocating stricter gun laws, before the couple gave a closed-door presentation to the Democratic caucus.

Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at szito@tribweb.com. The Associated Press contributed.

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