Senator Toomey, Don’t Be So Gun-shy
One fall evening not so long ago, I was getting frustrated with my trusted pal Google. I’d searched for the same information over and over to no avail: every time I typed a variant on “senator pat toomey gun control” into the search bar, the same uninformative links came up. I kept smacking the keyboard in anger. The next day I was supposed to play Senator Toomey’s opponent Katie McGinty in a school-based mock election, and if I didn’t know his stance on gun control, how could I possibly explain to my “voters” why it was wrong?! Besides, why was a man who once received an A rating from the NRA being so close-mouthed about his current positions? Despite the fact that it was getting late, I kept poking around in the dark corners of online newspaper archives. Yet the more I read, the more confused I became.
My state, Pennsylvania, holds an unusual position in the political geography of the country. Because we’re a state that’s often described as “Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with Alabama in between,” we tend to go Democratic in presidential contests (though not this past year), and Republican for nearly everything else. The wide variety of political ideologies across the state means that our elected representatives tend to be more moderate, which can actually be quite useful in forcing compromise. On the other hand, a moderate stance can render officials annoyingly silent on controversial or polarizing issues.
Moderate Republican Senator Pat Toomey is one of those silent guys, especially on gun control. Officially, Toomey is “a champion of the Second Amendment” but still believes we “should take common sense steps to protect the American people from gun violence.” That all sounds good to me—I’m not trying to take away anyone’s constitutional rights either, but gun violence is bad and we should work on stopping it. If this was the only thing I knew about Pat Toomey’s gun control policy, I’d probably be okay with it.
Back in November though, when I was a woman on a mission, when I had a “campaign” to run, I of course had to dig deeper. And what I eventually found upset me. Toomey co-sponsored legislation designed to increase background checks for gun sales in 2013, earning praise from gun-safety advocates for being the only Republican to do so, but that bill never passed the Senate and he never made much of an effort to revive it. When the June 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting happened, both parties introduced amendments on an existing bill to deny the sale of guns to people on the terror watch list. One Republican amendment would have put a three day hold on gun purchases by people on the no-fly list so that the government had time to present a case in court to stop them. I think three days is a laughably short amount of time for government bureaucracy to get anything done, so generally I agreed with Toomey’s comment that it’d be hard for law enforcement to make it “workable.”
Meanwhile, the main Democratic amendment was a straightforward “no-fly, no buy” measure, which seems to me like a pretty basic way of ensuring that suspected terrorists are unable to buy guns. But Toomey put party loyalty ahead of practical measures, voted for the Republican bill, and in the end both bills failed. Toomey then introduced his own bill addressing the terror watch list, but it was never brought up for a full Senate vote. Then and now, I just couldn’t understand why Toomey, who had come out so strongly in favor of a gun control law just three years before, would choose voting with his party over everyone’s safety, why he would choose partisanship over doing anything at all.
I’ve tried to consider his circumstances. 2016 was a reelection year for Senator Toomey, and our state’s divided nature meant he had to be circumspect about some things in order to get votes. And I get that gun legislation is a particularly fraught issue that can be difficult to wade into, especially when there are so many other problems demanding Congress’ attention. But when one of your main endorsers drops you, as the NRA did this year, what else do you have to lose? People who vote just about gun rights were going to be lost to Toomey anyway, so why continue to be silent on issues that affect so many Pennsylvanians?
To be frank, there’s no “other side” or “let’s wait and see” for gun safety. From 2005 to 2014, 13,781 people in Pennsylvania were killed by guns. In the past two years, two Pennsylvanian toddlers killed people because they had access to unsecured guns. We’re ranked 16th highest among states on the rate of gun homicides per 100,000 people. Since 2010 (which, incidentally, is when Toomey was first elected to the Senate), more Pennsylvanians have died from guns than from car accidents. With so much tragedy, it doesn’t really matter what party you belong to. Either you care that people in your state are dying because of a specific problem and you take multiple, frequent steps to fix that, or you don’t.
Senator Toomey has had repeated opportunities over the years to introduce or support bills (from both major parties) that would have an effect on the damage gun violence is doing to our state and our country. Instead he’s voted against banning high capacity gun magazines, against banning sales of assault weapons, and against basic proposals to prevent people already under government suspicion from buying guns. Until I can go entire months, or G-d willing, years, without seeing local news stories about gun violence constantly pop up on my social media feeds, Mr. Toomey and I will not be on good terms. Unless he comes around and truly enacts those “common sense” measures, he can kiss my vote goodbye.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.