The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Toomey, sensing ‘momentum,’ plans revival of bill to expand background checks

Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), left, and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) speak to reporters about background checks for gun purchases at the U.S. Capitol on  April 10, 2013, in Washington. (Allison Shelley/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), who once spearheaded an unsuccessful bipartisan agreement to strengthen gun laws, said Tuesday that he plans to introduce legislation in the coming weeks that would expand background checks on firearm purchases, giving a jolt to gun-control efforts in the wake of last week’s mass shooting in Florida that left 17 people dead and left scores injured.

“It does feel like we have a shot at getting a little bit of momentum on background checks,” Toomey said in an interview with The Washington Post, after the long holiday weekend when he spoke by phone with several senators. “We’re going to take a swing at that and I’m hoping we’ll be able to do it.”

Toomey said the legislation he is readying is a revival of the measure that he introduced in 2013 along with Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), a moderate Democrat. That legislation, which expanded background checks to include unlicensed gun-show dealers and online sales, failed to move forward.

Manchin-Toomey gun amendment fails

But Toomey’s attempt Tuesday to jump-start his bill came amid a flurry of activity, including at the White House, leaving the Pennsylvanian’s latest push far from certain to be the consensus choice for fellow Republicans.

“I haven’t spoken with President Trump,” Toomey said, but he said he is hoping to at some point soon.

Days after police say a 19-year-old gunman wielding an AR-15 entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, President Trump has expressed support for a bipartisan plan that would create financial incentives for states to quickly report information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) and reinforce that federal agencies must do the same.

How the response to the shooting in Parkland compares to other recent massacres

Trump also signed a memorandum Tuesday afternoon directing Attorney General Jeff Sessions to craft regulations to ban “bump stocks” and other devices that turn semiautomatic firearms into automatic weapons.

The device was used by the shooter who opened fire on a country music festival in Las Vegas in October, immediately prompting calls for lawmakers to ban such devices. At the time, the White House and the National Rifle Association made clear that they were open to the idea, but no action was taken.

Toomey said that regardless of the concerns some senators may have with his proposal, it remains the best possible base for action on gun control in the narrowly divided Senate.

“We should be taking a run at that and looking at areas where we could probably come together pretty soon,” Toomey said.

Trump recommended outlawing bump stocks. Here’s what they are.

Other issues that Toomey and some colleagues are targeting include access to guns for people on the no-fly list and people who do not properly disclose their criminal records when attempting to buy guns.

“It’s insane that people who aren’t allowed to board a plane can buy an AR-15,” Toomey said. “And if you’re denying your criminal history, you should pay a price for that. These are the king of things that do not infringe on law-abiding gun owners.”

The original Manchin-Toomey compromise dominated Senate debate for weeks in 2013 in the wake of the deadly shooting at a Connecticut elementary school that killed 20 young children.

Manchin exerted significant political capital and put his A-plus rating from the NRA at risk, even challenging the organization to publish the bill in its membership magazine to allow members to read the full text and decide whether to support the legislation.

But the NRA refused to endorse the bill, scuttling its chances in the Senate by putting pressure on Republicans and a handful of moderate Democrats who faced reelection that year and ultimately voted against the legislation.

In the years since, Manchin and Toomey have expressed support for their legislation but done little to whip up fresh support for a vote and its passage.

During a news conference last week to tout a bipartisan plan to revamp immigration policy, Manchin stood silently and didn’t answer when a reporter asked him and 13 senators of both parties on stage what, if anything, they might do to address the scourge of school violence caused by firearms.

Among those on stage, only Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) spoke up and touted the Manchin-Toomey legislation as “another bipartisan bill that would strengthen background checks. And I believe personally that needs to be done.”

Collins has also proposed legislation to ban people on the federal no-fly list from purchasing guns.