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Gun safety groups now oppose Pat Toomey's landmark background check bill, urge stronger measure

Top gun safety groups are seeking a more comprehensive background check bill than the landmark measure offered by Sens. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D., W. Va.) in 2013. They no longer support Manchin-Toomey, even though it came closer to passing the Senate than any gun bill in recent times.

Sen. Pat Toomey on his way to a meeting.
Sen. Pat Toomey on his way to a meeting.Read moreJ. Scott Applewhite / AP

WASHINGTON — Some of the leading advocates for tougher gun laws no longer support the background-check bill that Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) co-sponsored in 2013, casting aside a measure that had been one of the driving initiatives in their fight for stronger oversight.

Instead, prominent groups like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Americans for Responsible Solutions are seeking a more comprehensive measure that in their view would have fewer loopholes and "giveaways to the NRA."

They hope Toomey, one of the few Republicans to support some tightening of gun laws, will give a bipartisan stamp to legislation being crafted by Sen. Chris Murphy (D., Conn.).

The groups said Murphy's plan would be more expansive than the bill Toomey offered in his surprising effort alongside Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W. Va.).

"Manchin-Toomey was a compromise bill meant to try to get 60 votes. It failed," said Peter Ambler, executive director of Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D., Ariz.).

The group had supported that plan, written in response to the 2012 elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., because it included much of what its members wanted, Ambler said. But they have turned away from it even though it came closer to clearing the Senate than any other gun control measure in more than a decade.

"There's a lot of provisions that are in there that are giveaways to the NRA and don't do anything for public safety," Ambler said, "and we can't negotiate with ourselves at this stage."

While Toomey's bill would have expanded background checks to cover sales online and at gun shows, gun safety groups said it also would have eased sales across state lines, making it harder to enforce state regulations, and could have shortened the time allowed for background checks on some sales by gun dealers.

The bill "doesn't go far enough to get us to where we need to be to make America safer," said Avery Gardiner, co-president of the Brady campaign.

She called Toomey's role in the issue "complicated," adding, "I'll be interested to see what he plans to do next on this issue."

Their stand throws a new wrinkle into a long-running debate that reignited this week, following the Las Vegas mass shooting.

Thursday morning, Toomey hinted that he might be ready to go beyond his original proposal — but that compromise would still be needed to rget any measure passed.

"We must work together to forge a bipartisan consensus on gun safety, rather than talk past one another with partisan rhetoric," Toomey said in a statement to the Inquirer and Daily News. "While protecting the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens, I am committed to bridging the partisan divide to crack down on illegal gun trafficking, closing the terrorist gun loophole, and requiring background checks on transactions at gun shows, over the internet, and between nonfamily members."

The mention of "nonfamily members" is a signal that he might support making background checks nearly universal. His original bill did not cover unadvertised sales that might happen, for example, between neighbors or friends.

That type of broader bill faces a nearly impossible climb in the Republican-controlled Congress, but could lay down a marker for future debates.

Though Toomey has dedicated his public career to fiscal issues, reporters have sought him out after every mass shooting since Newtown to ask if he would push his measure again, a sign of its standing in the public debate.

It happened again this week. Toomey briefly told reporters he still supported the policy, but took no public steps to proactively push it.

He has long taken a nuanced view of gun laws, supporting some and opposing others (such as proposed bans on so-called assault weapons), and cautiously choosing when to speak about them.

While he has won praise from former President Barack Obama and gun safety advocates such as Giffords and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg — and heavily promoted their support during his narrow reelection victory last year — Toomey's approach has frustrated some gun safety advocates who say he hasn't aggressively pushed his plan and has voted against some of their top priorities.

"If you want to run on this issue, you've got to stand up and say now is the time to act," said Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFirePA, which endorsed Toomey's Democratic challenger, Katie McGinty.

To Toomey, who has a keen eye for when deals are and aren't possible, there's been no political change that would give his bill a realistic chance of success. The Senate is controlled by Republicans and more conservative than in 2013, when his plan failed even with a Democratic majority. Most Republicans argue that broader background checks would have done nothing to stop the Las Vegas attack or many other mass shootings.

"We still want to see our bill succeed," Toomey said in a June interview, hours after a gunman opened fire on congressional Republicans at baseball practice. "I think we have seen that we don't have the votes right now."

Manchin made similar comments this week, according to the Associated Press.

Toomey says he supports measures like background checks that might keep guns from criminals or those with mental illness, without restricting law-abiding citizens. He generally opposes blanket bans on types of guns or accessories, saying those restrict innocent gun buyers.

Toomey reiterated his skepticism about such proposals Wednesday, but said in a statement he is open to hearings on "bump stocks," the accessory that can make semi-automatic guns fire with speeds similar to automatic weapons, and which were part of the Las Vegas killer's arsenal.