Bloody weekend renews hope of passing new gun control measures in D.C., Pennsylvania
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, says he is optimistic the bill he and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., first partnered on in 2013 to expand background checks for gun sales now may have the momentum it needs to become law.
Toomey said President Trump, who previously supported then shied away from expanded background checks, called him Monday, less than two days after the shootings that claimed 31 lives, and offered support for the Manchin-Toomey proposal introduced in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre that claimed 27 lives, including 20 young children, in a Connecticut elementary school.
“The president has indicated a constructive wish to engage on this. … I am hoping this allows us to build the momentum we need so we can finally make some progress,” Toomey said.
He declined to predict how soon such a bill might advance, or endorse measures such as banning semi-automatic weapons or high-capacity magazines that have allowed gunmen to mow down scores of victims in a matter of seconds.
Toomey said he spoke with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Monday. He called their conversation constructive, but refused to say whether McConnell, who has kept similar bills bottled up in committee, vowed to bring Manchin-Toomey to a vote.
The Pennsylvania Republican said only that he will do whatever he can to persuade McConnell to bring the bill to a vote once it has amassed sufficient support to pass.
A House bill calling for extended background checks that passed 240-190 in February has been sitting in committee in the Senate since then.
In the wake of the weekend shootings, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Mt. Lebanon, called on McConnell to move the House bill to a vote.
Lamb and Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, supported the bill; Republicans Mike Kelly of Butler, John Joyce of Blair County and Guy Reschenthaler of Peters, opposed it. Kelly dismissed it as a “universal annoyance to law-abiding Americans.”
“My thoughts and prayers are with the victims, the victims’ families, and the people of El Paso and Dayton,” Reschenthaler said. “I also want to thank the incredibly brave law enforcement officers who quickly responded to these tragedies. Racism, white nationalism, and extremist violence have no place in our society, and our nation must work together to stop this radicalization.
“I believe we need to address the root causes of gun violence, including improving our nation’s mental health system, and enforce the laws we already have on the books that keep guns out of the hands of those who wish to do harm. I support legislation that deters and prevents gun violence without infringing on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Pennsylvanians. For example, I’m a cosponsor of the Mass Violence Prevention Act of 2019, which would improve law enforcement coordination and response, reduce the flow of firearms into the black market, and give law enforcement additional resources to prevent firearm violence by prosecuting criminals for their firearm-related crimes.”
Joyce commended Trump for his remarks Monday condemning hatred and bigotry behind the shootings in El Paso and Dayton. He said he would be willing to work with Trump once the president provides “details for the legislation he envisions.”
“In the meantime, I’ve already cosponsored the Mass Violence Protection Act, which will address the challenges that have contributed to some of the nation’s recent tragedies, including failed coordination and response efforts by law enforcement,” he said.
Toomey refused to call out Trump for prior comments that have been characterized as encouraging racial division.
“I think it’s very important that we assign responsibility where it belongs, with the people who are responsible for murders of innocents in El Paso and Dayton, the people who pulled the trigger,” he said.
Pennsylvania’s senior senator exercised no such restraint.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, who came out in support of gun control measures in the wake of the Sandy Hook killings, called those who refuse to act to reduce gun violence “complicit in this carnage” and blasted Trump.
“Over the last few years, we have seen a rise in hate crimes, and we need to be honest about why. We have a president of the United States that uses white nationalist rhetoric and engages in racism,” Casey said.
Trump took a different tone Monday, condemning racism, bigotry and white nationalism. He offered support for Sen. Lindsey Graham’s proposal to pass legislation promoting so-called red flag laws at the state level that would allow judges to seize weapons from people considered a risk to themselves or others. Graham’s proposal would extend federal grants to states that pass such laws to pay mental health professionals to help weigh such requests.
Although a red flag law failed to pass the Pennsylvania Legislature last fall, one leading Republican hailed Graham’s proposal.
“Sen. Graham’s proposal will bring mental health front and center in the Legislature and provide us with more tools to address the issue. It will enable us to put into place a more comprehensive examination of mental health issues in our commonwealth,” said state Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield.
Locally, the conversation on gun violence and racial division continued in Pittsburgh and across Westmoreland County.
Monday, the Westmoreland Diversity Coalition announced it will sponsor a keynote speech “Not Hate-Not Here” by former white supremacist Arno Michaelis on Aug. 29 at the Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College.
Carlotta Paige, co-founder of the coalition, said the public event has been in the planning for months. She hopes it will spark a positive conversation.
“I am concerned about gun violence. I think more of our leaders should speak out on unity and start telling people our differences are our strengths, instead of hiding behind politics,” Paige said.
In Pittsburgh, where officials passed laws to restrict semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity magazines in the wake of the Tree of Life shootings last fall, those laws remain in limbo, pending court challenges.
But Mayor Bill Peduto, who said he has had death threats over those laws, said he’s confident local officials can influence the national conversation.
“Our legislation won’t change this country, and we get that. But the fact of the matter is things such as red flag laws are now being discussed in Washington when they hadn’t before, and Republicans are coming out and supporting it,” Peduto said. “If we do this in city after city, we’ll make the water warmer to make the big changes that are needed.”
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .