The untouched takeout coffee cup perched on the conference table of the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Campaign Committee’s Center City office is the only visible indication of how long US Sen. Bob Casey’s day has been. The commonwealth’s senior senator, green repp tie still firmly knotted in place, has been crisscrossing the region today to drum up support for Senate Bill 1520, the Protecting Domestic Violence and Stalking Victims Act.
According to the bill’s summary, it “would protect victims of stalking by prohibiting their stalkers from obtaining and possessing firearms if they are convicted of stalking or under a restraining order related to stalking.” Casey’s support of this bill comes just months after he introduced gun control legislation of his own in response to the June mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, and is the latest example of his startling transformation on the issue.
A longtime gun rights supporter who was long viewed favorably by the National Rifle Association for his support of legislation like a 2009 bill to allow firearms in checked baggage on Amtrak trains, Casey’s stance on gun control was forever changed by the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, and his conviction that the status quo on firearms legislation had become unacceptable.
Since Sandy Hook, Casey has backed every major proposal aimed at combatting gun violence. He sat down to talk with City & State PA about the future of gun control, how his stance might impact his re-election chances, and what difference a President Clinton or Trump would make in his battle.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
It’s been almost four years since the tragic events at Sandy Hook caused you to change your position on gun control legislation. What have you learned since then about what is – and isn’t – possible to achieve on the issue?
Sen. Casey: It’s hard to be categorical about it. There are some areas where there are at least the beginnings of a consensus: For example, it’s difficult for anyone to argue that if someone has been judged to be either a terrorist – or we suspect them to be a terrorist such that they cant get on an airplane – why would we allow that terrorist, or that suspected terrorist to have a firearm? That seems to be almost self-evident. On that kind of a common-sense gun measure, you have a lot more movement and even a consensus in the right direction of passing something, even though we didn’t get there a few months ago.
Most of it, frankly, has been bad news, at least in terms of the question of what you can get done. We’ve had a series of votes on background checks. You would think that would be an area of great consensus. We haven’t gotten the votes for background checks yet; we haven’t gotten the votes for limitations on magazines – the number of bullets a person can discharge from a weapon at one time; there’s no ban yet on the military style weapons – this is a series of measures that are common-sense and don’t in any way infringe on the Second Amendment, and yet we cant get it done. It’s been more frustration than anything.
Could you elaborate on your push to have gun control legislation treated with the same sense of urgency and determination by Congress as was evidenced by post-9/11 legislation?
It’s not a perfect analogy, but we learned something in the aftermath of 9/11. Out of the outrage and the horror, you can come together to take action and sustain it over time. I think it is in some ways more difficult with this issue because it doesn’t have the kind of seismic impact on people’s lives that 9/11 had. In a lot of ways, that was the Pearl Harbor of that generation.
I do think there are some lessons there – if you sustain the argument and continue to engage, you can make progress. As horrific as 9/11 was for the whole country, its aftermath didn’t guarantee that we would stop terrorists from flying into buildings. We figured out a way to pass laws to the point of creating the Department of Homeland Security, a brand new agency. We spent a lot of money doing it. In this case, in order to make progress on gun violence, you don’t need to form a new federal agency, you don’t have to spend a lot of new money – you just have to get the policy aligned with the reality that in a country awash with hundreds of millions of guns – often in the hands of people that are far too dangerous to have a weapon.
What drew you to support Senate Bill 1520? Are you and other supporters advocating for this bill differently than previous gun control legislation?
I have always tried to focus attention on the issue of domestic violence, going back to when I was in state government. It’s a problem that haunts this country. That’s one of the reasons why I sponsored the bill we passed in 2013, the Campus Save Act, which was incorporated into the larger Violence Against Women Act.
This is another way to plug a loophole. We still have this terrible loophole when it comes to gun shows, there’s a loophole on mental health – people with mental health issues are still getting access to guns. We still have a lot of areas to pass legislation on.
If you’re involved in stalking that rises to the level of misdemeanor, you can still get access to a gun, as opposed to stalking that results in a felony. That’s another reason why, in addition to supporting this bill, I have my own bill on hate crimes, so that if you were engaged in hate crimes at a misdemeanor level, under my bill, you would be denied a firearm. We are, in essence, trying to plug these gaps in policy that have been there for a long, long time.
Over the course of the past number of years, you’ve gone from securing an A rating from the NRA to being honored by the Sandy Hook Promise program. How have your constituents and colleagues responded to your evolution on gun control?
It probably depends on where you stand. Sure, there will be some people who appreciate how I have voted since 2012, and others who won’t – that’s just the nature of it; it will play out in two years. There are a lot of groups that can commit to come into your state to advertise and take you on.
Sounds like you’re getting ready for an onslaught.
SC: You have to prepare yourself. We have a Senate election now (between Republican incumbent Pat Toomey and Democratic challenger Katie McGinty) that’s almost impossible to comprehend – and I’ve been in a lot of campaigns – where there has been $80 million spent. Sixty million of that has been spent by outside groups – and that 60 is likely to grow closer to 80. Say it ends up being $70 million from these groups; the total will end up being close to $100 million when you factor in the candidates’ spending. Four years ago, in my re-election, the total outside spending was around $750,000 for each side. So that’s $1.5 million vs. $60-70 million in four years. If someone did not understand Citizens United prior to this election, now they understand it.
How does the calculus for this bill’s passage and other gun control legislation change depending on a Clinton or Trump presidency?
If our side prevails in the election, I think that is a fairly significant statement of validation for common sense gun measures. If you read what she has proposed, and you listen to her answers to questions, I don’t think what she has proposed in any way undermines the Second Amendment. It doesn’t guarantee an outcome. Obviously, if you have a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate, you can have a better chance of passing some of these measures. I hope we can reach a compromise on some of these measures – on domestic violence, on hate crimes, on plugging the terrorist loophole – if they’re too dangerous to get on a plane, they shouldn’t have a weapon.