Toomey can lead on new gun reforms

York Dispatch editorial board
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., speaks during a Rotary Club of York meeting at the Country Club of York on Aug. 25, 2021.

The idea that Sen. Pat Toomey’s decision not to seek reelection would somehow free him from the ideological bondage that is today’s GOP was probably wishful thinking. 

Since announcing in October 2020 that he would not run for a third term this year, Pennsylvania’s junior senator has continued to be a reliable Republican vote — from ushering an embarrassingly light-credentialed justice onto the Supreme Court barely a week before a presidential election to turning thumbs down on a domestic terrorism bill last week in the wake of the horrific Uvalde, Texas, massacre. 

But that shooting, which left 19 elementary school children and two teachers dead — and came just 10 days after a white supremacist opened fire on Black shoppers in a Buffalo supermarket, killing 10 — has rekindled an issue on which Toomey has shown previous willingness to break from the GOP pack: federal legislation to curb gun violence. 

Nearly a decade ago, after a similarly numbing school shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, Toomey led a bipartisan congressional effort to mandate federal background checks for buyers of firearms from private dealers, including at gun shows and online. The bill had majority support in the Senate but fell short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. (A second measure, which would have restricted the sale of large-capacity magazines, also went nowhere.) 

The failure to act in the wake of Sandy Hook seemed to be a death knell for common-sense gun laws of any kind. After all, if the slaughter of 20 6- and 7-year-olds (and six adults) wasn’t enough to move hearts and votes for even modest reforms like broadening background checks, what would? 

Not the 2105 shooting deaths of nine parishioners in a Charleston, South Carolina, church. Not the slaying of 50 in an Orlando, Florida, nightclub in 2016. Not the slaughter of nearly 60 at a Las Vegas concert or 26 at a Texas church in 2017. Not the fatal shooting of 17 at a Parkland, Florida, high school early in 2018 or 11 congregants at a Pittsburgh-area synagogue later that year. Not the 23 shoppers mowed down at an El Paso Walmart in 2019. 

But the back-to-back convulsions of gun violence in Buffalo and Uvalde may have opened the door a hair for legislative action. And Toomey is uniquely positioned to take advantage of that opening. 

Having led bipartisan efforts a decade ago, Toomey is not only an established voice on the issue, he’s a proven consensus builder. Don’t forget, his Democratic partner on the first go-around was Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who has expressed a new willingness to explore legislative options in the wake of the recent shootings (so long as they can be achieved without abolishing the filibuster). 

At least one Republican senator, Mitt Romney of Utah, has pointed to the original Toomey-Manchin bill as the type of legislation he’d support. 

That measure should serve as a starting point for a bipartisan group of eight senators, including Toomey, that is now exploring new compromise legislation. Toomey must use his seat at this table to push hard for reforms that fell short in 2012.  

To be sure, strengthening background checks is the least lawmakers can do. A more wide-ranging bill moving through the House, which would raise the minimum age to buy semiautomatic rifles to 21 and outlaw large-capacity magazines, would have greater success in reducing gun violence. 

But advancing even modest gun reforms in the Senate would prove the body is not immune to acting on the issue and could be a first step to more consequential action in the future. 

As his final year in office winds down, Toomey could find no better issue to focus on than mitigating — even in a small way — the mass carnage that is gun violence in America.