WASHINGTON – Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, one of the few congressional Republicans who believes in expanding background checks on gun purchases, reiterated his support for the idea Monday afternoon, but added through a spokeswoman that the U.S. must also focus on stopping "violent Islamist extremism."
The statement came as reaction to the weekend's mass shooting in Orlando quickly turned to the debate over U.S. gun laws, and as Toomey faces a difficult reelection battle in which he has used his support for background checks as a sign of his bipartisan credentials. It also came hours after Democrats announced plans to press Toomey and other Republicans to support new gun laws in the aftermath of the worst shooting in U.S. history, including a ban on firearms purchases by anyone on the federal terror watch list.
"Sen. Toomey knows we could be doing more to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them," Toomey spokeswoman E.R. Anderson wrote in an e-mail Monday afternoon. That's why, she said, he co-sponsored a 2013 bill with Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W. Va.) to expand background checks for firearms purchases – a move that has since placed him in a politically-charged position during nearly every subsequent debate on guns.
"Sen. Toomey continues to strongly support this measure, as well as others, to make it harder for terrorists, criminals, and mentally ill people to obtain guns." Anderson wrote. "But Sen. Toomey also knows that stopping terrorist attacks on American soil is about much more. It's about stopping the spread of violent Islamist extremism."
She said the senator wants to see stronger intelligence gathering, increased military action against ISIS, and changes in policies that hinder law enforcement.
Hours earlier, Democrats said they will use this latest killing to shine a spotlight on vulnerable Republicans who have resisted new gun laws, specifically their push to ban purchases by anyone on a federal terror watch list. Democratic leaders hope to force Republicans to vote on that proposal again after GOP Senators, including Toomey, blocked it last December following mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.
"Are we going to take the painfully obvious common sense steps and make sure terrorists can't get guns, or are we going to bow down to the NRA?" Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said on a conference call with reporters. "Our Republican colleagues, particularly so many of them in difficult political season, are going to find it very, very difficult," to vote 'no.'
Toomey and nearly every other Republican Senator voted against the bill late last year, citing concerns that people who are wrongly on the watch list could be stripped of their Second Amendment rights. Toomey instead supported a less stringent GOP version that gave authorities less power to stop gun sales involving suspected terrorists.
While the Pennsylvania Republican has won praise for sponsoring his background check bill after the 2012 mass shooting at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, CT, his Democratic rivals have questioned his commitment – pointing out that he has not reintroduced the measure and rarely lobbies for it – though he faces questions about the issue after nearly every shooting. Toomey voted for the measure again last year after Democrats forced a vote on it.
He has opposed other proposals, such as banning so-called assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
The renewed debate quickly reverberated Monday from the White House to the presidential campaign trail to Senate and House races.
On Monday Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) introduced a bill to ban anyone convicted of misdemeanor hate crimes from buying guns, though it's not clear if that plan will get a vote in the new Democratic push.
"If you have proven you will commit criminal acts based on hate, you absolutely should not have access to a gun. It's common sense," Casey said in a news release. "It is time we as members of Congress do something."
Toomey's Democratic challenger, Katie McGinty, quickly embraced that proposal.
"It is not enough to simply talk about reducing gun violence; we need solutions," McGinty said in a statement. "We cannot allow senseless acts of gun violence and terror to become the norm in America."
And in South Jersey, Democratic Congressional candidate Dave Cole wrote on Medium, "There is no place in a free society for the kind of assault weapons used in this and similar attacks. By making machines designed solely for mass killing so easily accessible, we are literally arming our enemies."
On Twitter Cole chided the man he is challenging, Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R., N.J.), for not speaking out for stronger gun laws.
Republicans, however, have long argued that criminals would simply flout new gun laws, and that such rules would restrict law-abiding citizens' rights. They have called for a stronger focus on terrorism and radical Islamic groups.