Commentary Magazine


Toomey and the Tone Deaf Gun Lobby

Yesterday, Larry Pratt, the head of Gun Owners of America, told CNN that his group would be looking to find a Republican to challenge Senator Pat Toomey in 2016. The group, which is to the right of the National Rifle Association, spoke for some on the right who are angry about Toomey’s decision to join with Democrat Joe Manchin to create a compromise on background checks for gun purchases that would close the gun show loophole while exempting sales or exchanges between family members. The proposed amendment to the legislation that Senate Democrats have presented for debate falls far short of the gun control ideas presented by the administration. But it still goes too far for absolutists who are so afraid of a slippery slope toward abrogation of Second Amendment rights that they are prepared to oppose any bill that so much as mentions guns, even if it doesn’t limit the right to own for those who are neither criminals nor mentally ill.

Toomey is taking plenty of flak for crafting the compromise. The grousing on the far right will only be fed by a Politico story that paints his decision to work with Manchin to moderate the bill up before the Senate as a prudent political decision based on a need to shift a bit to the center for his 2016 re-election race. But any assumption that Toomey’s shift on background checks will endanger his hold on his party’s nomination three years from now is ridiculous. The notion that support for background checks will be enough to fuel a primary challenge to Toomey ignores the fact that it is virtually impossible to get to Toomey’s right on fiscal or social issues as well as his history as the standard-bearer of conservatives against a genuine RINO, the late Arlen Specter.

Rather than an indication that Republicans ought to fear any deviation from the line set by the NRA and its allies, the knee-jerk reaction to Toomey’s move on background checks only reinforces the impression that the gun lobbies really are hopelessly out of touch not only with the general public but with Republicans. As with much of the pro-gun movement’s moves since the Newtown massacre, the attacks on Toomey show a tone deafness that will encourage liberals who think the NRA and company are on the decline.

Opponents of background checks take the position that even bills as anodyne as that proposed by Manchin and Toomey are just the first step toward an eventual push to ban guns. That may be what liberals hope will happen, but the reality of the gun debate is that this compromise is as much as they are getting either now or in the near future.

Rather than being co-opted by a left that is using him as a stalking horse for their desire to gut the Second Amendment, what Toomey has done is to co-opt them. By passing a background check bill, Republicans could defuse an issue that President Obama and the Democrats hope to use against them in 2014 without endangering gun rights.

Moreover, since the only people who will be prevented from obtaining weapons as a result of this law would be criminals and the mentally ill, its hard to argue with Toomey’s assertion that this isn’t really a gun control measure in any meaningful sense of the term.

But by opposing Toomey rather than understanding that this idea is the key to spiking a debate that is trending against them, the NRA and gun rights advocates have become the carbon copy of NARAL and other pro-abortion groups. Just as the NRA will fight even the most reasonable gun proposals, NARAL and their friends are willing to fight to the death to prevent even common sense restrictions on abortion, up to and including infanticide.

I understand that Second Amendment supporters fear that this is the thin edge of the wedge that liberals hope to parlay into future proposals about banning types of weapons or ammunition. But they fail to see that by passing a bill that will not meaningfully restrict gun ownership they can prevent Obama and Biden’s desire for bans from being implemented while also preventing Democrats from claiming they prevented legislation that represents a national consensus on the issue from becoming law.

Toomey won’t have an easy time of it in 2016, when he will be hard-pressed to duplicate his narrow 51-49 percent victory over liberal Democrat Joe Sestak in blue Pennsylvania. But his decision to deviate from the NRA line won’t be an obstacle to his re-nomination or his return to the Senate. More to the point, he is pointing the way for congressional Republicans—many of who don’t have Toomey’s conservative credentials—to find a way out of the trap liberals are setting for them on guns.

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