Local Jewish groups may not have been part of the full-court press directed at Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey to resist joining GOP Senate colleagues, who had threatened to filibuster gun control legislation. But that doesn’t mean Jewish voices weren’t part of the conversation.
“I don’t know how much influence the Jewish community had on this, but certainly our voices were heard,” said Robin Schatz, director of government affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
On April 10, Toomey, a conservative Republican best known for fiscal issues, and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) announced they were cosponsoring an amendment to the first major new federal legislation the Senate will take up in two decades. The amendment will expand background checks to include gun shows, though it would exclude so-called “personal transfers” that would allow relatives and neighbors to sell firearms to one another without a background check. The announcement was seen as key in enabling the Senate vote on Thursday allowing the debate on the legislation to proceed.
“I am a gun owner. I revere the rights enshrined in our Second Amendment,” Toomey said in a statement. “My record shows this. Criminal background checks are just common sense. If you pass a criminal background check, you can buy a gun. It’s the people who fail a criminal or mental health background check that we don’t want having guns.”
Toomey, who had previously said he was open to more stringent background checks, had been under enormous political pressure to help prevent a Senate filibuster. Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group sponsored by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, had run TV ads targeting Toomey. (They have announced they will now run ads thanking him.) On April 9 – the day before Toomey and Manchin unveiled their proposed legislation — CeaseFirePa staged a rally outside Toomey’s Center City office featuring speeches by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.
Shira Goodman, who directs CeaseFirePA and sits on the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council, as well as the board of the Jewish Publishing Groupm which oversees the Jewish Exponent, said Toomey’s stance may convince other Republicans to get on board. Toomey has said he opposes other measures backed by gun control advocates, such as a renewed assault weapons ban.
“The bill is not perfect, but it does extend the background check system to cover sales that we were not covered before. We think that is a really important start,” said Goodman, who met with Toomey on the issue in February.
Schatz didn’t meet with Toomey directly about this issue. But on March 19, she and about 30 members of Federation’s Women of Vision initative met with Toomey staffers as part of a day of lobbying on Capitol Hill. She wasn’t surprised Toomey found a way to compromise on the issue. “He is the sort of person you can have a good conversation with, and he listens and makes his own judgment.”
In the wake of the shootings in Newtown, Conn, the Jewish Community Relations Councill, an arm of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, has made gun control one of its top priorities. In January, the group cosponsored a rally for new legislation in Harrisburg. On April 29 at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, JCRC is sponsoring a lobbying training session for rabbis, synagogue social action chairs and other community members. Gun control will be discussed along with immigration and food insecurity.
“We have made it a real front-burner issue,” said Adam Kessler, JCRC’s executive director. “All of our representatives have been made very well aware of our stance on the issue.”