Haunted by images surrounding the shooting massacre of 20 schoolchildren in Connecticut last week, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey said he has changed his gun policy stance and will support bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips. The moderate Democrat and longtime gun rights supporter had the change of heart after watching hours of coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary School carnage in a rare, full weekend at his home in Scranton, Pa.
"It was a very disturbing and emotional for me and a lot of people. I knew I had to confront the issues in a way I didn't before, and in a lot of ways I was unfair to families across the country that have suffered from gun violence like this over the years," he said in an interview from Washington, D.C.
The father of four said he was "really haunted" by two thoughts in particular.
"There was the horrible nature of how they died. A high-powered rifle shot at close range, every child hit with multiple bullets. I can't imagine a 6-year-old child with so many bullets in them and the very powerful ammunition coming out of a gun over and over and over again," he said. "And the potential horror haunts me still of what would have happened had [the shooter] gotten to other classrooms. By the time he got to other classrooms he could have killed another 300, 400, 500."
Mr. Casey has a B+ rating from the National Rifle Association. His about-face is similar to those from other Democrats who are highly rated by the gun lobby, such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. Outright support for limiting assault rifles or ammunition is more difficult to find among Republicans in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey -- who often said in his 2010 campaign that "my idea of gun control is steady aim" -- is among those rather focusing on the mental health aspects of gun policy.
"My constituents have reached out to me asking for policies that will be effective in keeping us safer," the Allentown Republican said in a statement. "Among other things, we need to implement more effective methods of identifying and protecting ourselves from dangerous and deranged individuals who seek to carry out such atrocities. I would also consider legislation that would make it more difficult for criminals and deranged individuals to acquire guns."
U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, a psychologist, led a discussion at a private House Republican meeting Tuesday on mental health issues and mass shootings. "We have to stop pretending it doesn't exist. We need to understand what it is that triggers changes in someone," he told The Associated Press. "I see it as the center of the issue. Get mental illness out of the shadows."
Gov. Tom Corbett is also in that camp. "The assault weapons are already out there," Mr. Corbett, a Republican and former state and federal prosecutor, said Thursday. "A new ban isn't going to make them safer. I wish it would. It doesn't. But if we help with mental health, hopefully that will make us safer."
The governor has called for a statewide moment of silence at 9:30 a.m. today in memory of the Sandy Hook victims, who besides children included six educators.
U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Butler, said in a statement that the massacre "has left our nation stunned and in mourning, and has sparked a national debate about gun rights, the culture of violence our children are routinely exposed to, and mental health treatment in America. We need to review all of the facts surrounding this horrendous act of violence, and continue to have an informed discussion about ways to prevent another devastating attack on innocent American lives."
Congressman-elect Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, lost the National Rifle Association endorsement to incumbent Democrat Mark Critz of Johnstown this fall, but won the nod from the more conservative Gun Owners of America. In response to the Sandy Hook shooting, the GOA called this week for teachers to carry concealed handguns. Mr. Rothfus could not be reached Thursday.
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who made headlines and sparked widespread home-state criticism when he said Monday that it was time to "move beyond rhetoric" on gun control, tried to clarify those remarks Wednesday. "I'm not supporting a ban on anything. I'm supporting a conversation on everything," the Democrat told the West Virginia website MetroNews. Of the NRA, he said, "These are my friends. They're good people. They're hurting. They're in pain the same way as every American about what happened to these 20 little children. And I'm not going to let anybody be villainized."
NRA officials are scheduled to make their first public comments on the shooting today.
A Pew Research Center poll of 1,200 nationwide respondents released Thursday shows Americans are still divided over guns since the Dec. 14 shooting, with 49 percent saying it is more important to control gun ownership and 42 percent saying protecting gun ownership rights is more important.
Mr. Casey said he is open to bringing mental health and cultural issues into the shooting debate, as well as extra funding for law enforcement.
"Our state continues to have a hunting tradition and a respect for the Second Amendment, and if someone want to purchase a gun to protect their family or themselves or property they can and should continue to do that," he said.
Mr. Casey and his wife, Terese, have four daughters, with the youngest still in high school. His wife also pushed him into changing course.
"There are things she didn't like in the way I've voted or the position I took in a discussion before. This week, her argument to me had a meaning and a gravity that was much enhanced," he said.
Tim McNulty: email@example.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns. Karen Langley contributed. First Published December 21, 2012 5:00 AM