Toomey Dances on Guns and Terror

Lots of politicians are willing to take the National Rifle Association's money. When it comes to endorsing the NRA's policy positions in the heat of an election campaign, that's another matter entirely.

Take the case of Pat Toomey, the Republican candidate for Senate in Pennsylvania. A darling of the radical right, Toomey's long-held position on gun control is expressed by his snarky soundbite, "gun control is a good aim." Yet, in Wednesday night's debate against his Democratic opponent, Congressman Joe Sestak, Toomey performed an elaborate song and dance to avoid endorsing the NRA's position that being on the terrorist watch list should not be a disqualifier for gun purchases.

Debate moderator George Stephanopoulos cited GAO findings that persons on the terrorist watch list have been able to buy guns and explosives from dealers over 1,000 times during the last six years. This travesty exists because federal law does not bar such purchases by known or suspected terrorists who have not yet committed a felony (or fall within another established category of prohibited purchaser.) Noting Al Qaeda's new tactical emphasis on small-scale urban attacks with guns and explosives, Stephanopoulos asked whether the law should be changed to close this loophole.

Sestak responded with an unequivocal "yes," because "when you know someone's on a watch list to be a terrorist, yes, we should ensure that they do not get access to a weapon." Toomey responded this way: "I think we should make sure we have a very sophisticated and adequate background check mechanism to make sure that terrorists, certainly, and other dangerous people, and certainly criminals, don't have access to guns. I would not support restricting the rights of law-abiding citizens however. And, I think that's a very important distinction. We talked about terrorists."

This both answers the question . . . and then begs the question. Toomey at first seems to be agreeing with Sestak that the Brady background check system should be strengthened to add suspected terrorists to the list of prohibited gun buyers. He then draws a distinction between "law-abiding citizens" and "terrorists," in an effort to avoid the issue at hand: Should evidence of an individual's association with terrorist activity be sufficient to bar him from buying guns, even before he commits a serious crime?

Despite Toomey's effort at obfuscation, one thing is clear. He knew he could not appear opposed to legislation to close the "terror gap" in our gun laws. The NRA has denounced such legislation as "patently anti-American," but Toomey knew it would be politically disastrous to agree, even in Pennsylvania with its huge NRA membership and tradition of hunting. After all, a survey last year showed that 86% of gun owners and 82% of NRA members support "prohibiting people on the terrorist watch lists from purchasing guns." Earlier in the debate, Sestak had denounced Toomey's extremism on the gun issue. Nothing would prove Sestak's point more decisively than for Toomey to oppose barring terrorists from buying guns.

It is instructive to contrast Toomey's "terror gap" answer to the approach taken by Carly Fiorina, who continues to tack far to the right in her California Senate race against incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer. Fiorina seems entirely undisturbed by the paradox that suspected terrorists can be barred from boarding airplanes, but not from buying guns. Indeed, she has asserted that because the no-fly list "isn't particularly well managed," barring those on the list from having guns would create "a terrible problem." Does she similarly feel that barring those on the list from boarding airplanes also is "a terrible problem"?

Needless to say, Fiorina is getting hammered by Senator Boxer on the "terror gap" issue, as Boxer accurately characterizes her opponent as "someone who believes that those on the suspected terrorist no-fly list should be able to buy a gun." It is hardly a stretch to suppose that Pat Toomey has taken Fiorina's experience to heart and learned its lesson: Take the NRA's money, declare your allegiance to the Second Amendment, but keep your distance from the NRA's extremist views on gun regulation (at least until the campaign is over).

Don't look for the NRA to denounce Toomey for his failure to embrace the gun lobby's views on the "terror gap" issue. It all reminds me of the third Bush/Kerry Presidential Debate in 2004, in which the candidates were asked whether they would support renewal of the federal assault weapon restrictions that were set to expire. As I recount in my book Lethal Logic, President Bush expressed his support for renewal of the law, despite the NRA's vehement opposition. He even volunteered that he also favored closing the "gun show loophole" that allows purchasers from private sellers at gun shows to avoid Brady criminal background checks, again in direct opposition to the NRA's views.

Karl Rove obviously recognized there would be a stiff political price to pay for association with the NRA's extremist policy positions. The NRA knew it as well. With a wink and a nod, the gun lobby worked to elect a candidate who claimed to support two of the major priorities of the gun control movement.

Of course, President Bush's "campaign conversion" on the gun issue was forgotten as soon as he was reelected. If Pat Toomey is elected to the United States Senate, he will no doubt do everything in his power to ensure that the "terror gap" endures, as well as working to weaken the few federal gun laws on the books. As long as he is seeking votes in the heat of a political campaign, however, a wink and a nod from the NRA will suffice.

For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009)