In a move that could help ease gun legislation through Congress, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., announced a bipartisan compromise Wednesday that would broaden background checks for firearm purchases.
The Senate deal, set for an initial procedural vote today, would alter existing gun-control proposals in hopes of bringing wider congressional support to the discussion. Toomey's plan - spearheaded with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. - requires criminal and mental health background checks for most firearm buyers, including those at gun shows and on the Internet.
"Criminals and mentally ill people shouldn't have guns," Toomey told reporters Wednesday. "And I don't think that should be a controversial idea."
Titled "The Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act," the senators' legislation hardly resembles the gun-control proposals first introduced after the December shooting that left 26 people dead at a Newtown, Conn., school.
Not mentioned are assault rifles or high-capacity magazines, items some in Congress had sought to restrict in the wake of the massacre.
Instead, Toomey and Manchin's proposal expressly bans the implementation of a national firearms registry and guards gun owners' ability to easily transfer weapons to friends or relatives.
"It would not require record-keeping by private citizens. ... I think it is a reasonable common ground," Toomey said.
The plan would close the so-called "gun show loophole" that allows people in some states to buy firearms at trade shows without any background checks. Federal authorities would be required to place a higher priority on gun-show background checks than on checks at local gun stores.
Toomey stressed that the bill would exempt family sales and sales between neighbors from the background-check rule, though a summary posted online
didn't indicate how the exemptions would be determined.
Other proposed exemptions include a rule that gun buyers could use a valid concealed-carry permit in place of a background check, according to the bill summary.
States would be encouraged to turn over criminal and mental health records to the national background-check system. Anyone misusing or retaining the records illegally could face up to 15 years in prison, the bill states.
"I think this is a win for gun owners," Toomey said.
Although the bill is vastly less restrictive than some earlier proposals, gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association issued lukewarm responses Wednesday.
An NRA statement questioned the usefulness of background checks, noting that they likely wouldn't have prevented the mass shootings that garnered public attention in recent years.
"Expanding background checks at gun shows will not prevent the next shooting, will not solve violent crime and will not keep our kids safe in schools," the NRA statement reads.
The statement from the NRA - which wields considerable influence in Congress - didn't mention Toomey by name. Toomey has received high ratings from the group in the past.
With its bipartisan support, the proposal could draw more senators to a gun-control vote and help get the discussion past a threatened Republican filibuster. Whether it could pass the Senate - or the Republican-controlled House of Representatives - has yet to be seen.
Some local House representatives didn't respond to requests for comment Wednesday. A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9th District, said Shuster would announce an opinion if and when the bill clears the Senate.
U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-12th, who represents parts of Cambria County, said in a statement that he would consider the legislation when it arrives in the House.
"Any effort to do this must not infringe on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens," Rothfus said.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Toomey's Senate colleague, Bob Casey, D-Pa., noted that Casey has already supported stricter regulations, including universal background checks and high-capacity magazine bans.
Today's expected vote would determine whether the Toomey-Manchin proposal moves on to Senate debate.
On Wednesday, Toomey dismissed the suggestion that he was supporting "gun control," a term gun-rights advocates often associate with overreaching, even oppressive, laws.
"I don't think trying to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous criminals is gun control," he said. "It's common sense."