The congressman came to talk about access to mental-health treatment, but community members at a forum Wednesday night in Greensburg had something else on their minds: gun control.
One after another they came to the microphone, most to ask Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, to support expanded background checks for gun purchasers, and some to ask him to keep Democrats from infringing on Second Amendment rights.
The hearing was spurred by the December school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Its aim was to open a discussion about alternatives to strict gun-control measures.
It came two weeks after the U.S. Senate failed to pass a background checks proposal sponsored by Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin.
"It was really depressing for me to see that after 20 kids were killed and six adults," said Tom Skidmore, a Navy veteran who spoke at the hearing. "Even this watered-down legislation couldn't pass."
Opponents of background checks say they wouldn't have saved the Sandy Hook victims, who were killed with a gun legally registered to the shooter's mother.
"I agree with that. I see it, but there's nothing in the bill that would have prevented your average law-abiding citizen from buying a gun, so why not pass it? That's what I don't understand," Mr. Skidmore said.
Other speakers, meanwhile, urged Mr. Murphy to oppose any additional restrictions on gun owners.
"What can we do as normal citizens as a way of getting your colleagues away from the Second Amendment? What can we do?" James Sieminkewicz asked. Background checks are "not the answer. Mental health is the issue," he said.
Former state Rep. Tom Tangretti of Hempfield, an outspoken proponent of gun control, provided the night's most impassioned speech.
"Someone who can't pass a background check conducted by a licensed dealer can still buy a gun and "all the ammunition he can carry" at a gun show, where background checks aren't required, Mr. Tangretti said.
He pressed Mr. Murphy to take a stand.
"Congressman, I need to ask you: Are you in favor of background checks for everyone across the board who buys a gun?" he asked, drawing applause from many of the 100 attendees, including several who stood in approval.
Mr. Murphy, who has avoided saying whether he supports or opposes background checks, again skirted the question.
Rather, he said the current background check system is ineffective. Of 76,000 people denied gun permits in 2010, only 13 were successfully prosecuted for attempting to obtain firearms, he said. Secondly, he said, the screening system's mental health data excludes people who voluntarily committed themselves to mental institutions.
Mr. Murphy said that as the only practicing psychologist in Congress, he feels a responsibility to have a "laser focus" on the mental health component of the gun debate.
"That may not get applause, but somebody in America has got to stand up and fix this system," he said.
"This issue divides a lot of people. I'm trying to bring people together," Mr. Murphy said.
Several speakers, mostly mental health workers, asked the congressman to work to provide more federal funding and more access to health care for the mentally ill.
"Unfortunately, we live in a society where it's far more easy to get a gun than to get access to mental health," said psychiatrist Robert M. Davis of Family Services of Western Pennsylvania.
Wednesday's hearing was the latest in a series of discussions Mr. Murphy has been holding locally and in Washington to explore the relationship between mental illness and violence.
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: firstname.lastname@example.org, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.