Situated within the corporate office buildings along Market Street in Center City Philadelphia was United States Senator Bob Casey, who sat with AL DÍA News for a brief interview about some of the Democrats’ major triumphs in Congress during the Biden administration’s half term.
It has been a busy two years for Democrats in Congress, tasked with following through with landmark promises made during the last presidential campaign — including gun reform, mental health, and inflation — while also looking to cater to bipartisanship without alienating centrists and progressives.
“A lot of Americans, a lot of Pennsylvanians, [and] a lot of Philadelphians have seen the scourge of gun violence affects their daily lives, sometimes their own families and their own communities,” Sen. Casey said of his thoughts on gun reform.
In June, Congress successfully moved forward the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act into law. The measure strikes a balance between limiting the number of deadly weapons that travel through the market without restriction and tackling mental health challenges along with it.
It’s an issue from which Americans are continuously forced to continue to heal. Strings of mass shooting incidents are recurring news with “very little action for over a quarter of a century,” the Pennsylvania Senator said.
And whereas Congress has tried for decades to pass common-sense laws, the gun lobby has stood firmly in the way of any headway.
“This bill was the first defeat of the [National Rifle Association], even beyond the NRA, the most powerful gun groups that have had kind of a strangle over in Washington for 25 years and haven’t allowed any legislation,” Sen. Casey noted.
Negotiations began in late Spring following the tragic massacre at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, an incident that claimed the lives of two teachers and 17 children at the hands of Salvador Ramos, who had legally purchased his assault rifle on his 18th birthday.
The events compelled enough Republican support to rally votes for a bill that strengthened the review process for underage buyers, which could possibly have prevented murderer Ramos from obtaining his gun, given his problematic record.
At the state level, the feds would make funds available for local government officials who “want to do it, but we can’t afford to” and craft policy with the support of a billionaire investment from Congress.
Funding is broken up into different initiatives, like red flag laws, $250 million for community-based violence intervention, and $300 million “to school districts, states, and tribes to implement evidence-based, early-intervention school programs to prevent violence before a weapon ever enters a school environment,” according to Sandy Hook Promise, which helped craft the language in 2018.
The bipartisan effort also closes the controversial boyfriend loophole, which gave convicted abusers leeway. That law used to apply to people who are married to, living with or have a child with the victim.
Under the bill, the term that defines a relationship is much broader.
But there is another angle to the bill on which legislators had to agree on.
“To get Republicans to agree to any kind of common sense gun measures was difficult. To get them to agree to new dollars for Medicaid for any reason has been pretty difficult as well,” Sen. Casey said.
The bill also hopes to forward a significant part of the law’s investment towards mental health services and staff via a $500 million coffer for school districts that most urgently require cash to sustain programming.
Another $300 million will be used to fund the STOP School Violence Act, which provides safety training, and provides support for violence prevention efforts for personnel and students alike.
“It was a breakthrough,” Sen. Casey remarked. “And I think, politically, it showed Republicans that you can vote for common sense gun measures that are totally opposed by the NRA.”
The NRA lobby opposed any form of gun safety reform, including the mental health provisions, which have been the focus of many Republicans in the wake of increased mass shooting incidents in the country.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act is a win in many respects, but for others, it’s the starting line for true reform.
On the day of the vote, outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said that Congress had taken the first step to “fight back on behalf of the American people.”
For Representative Normas Torres, a California Democrat, the bill was the bare minimum, while John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, called it a “good start.”
For Sen. Casey, “it’s not nearly good enough.”
But the bill is modest from what Biden had originally asked of Congress, which included a national ban on assault rifles.
“Here’s what I know. We have a series of bills that Democrats like me have been supporting for a long time (…) But it’s better to have a vote on a measure that you have a chance of passing.”
“I think it’s accurate to say that what we passed this summer is the minimum,” said the Pennsylvania Senator.
Responding to what kind of reform is ideal, Sen. Casey pointed towards a series of bills to tackle varying provisions, but maintained that “the bottom line for the country is that if you believe in the promise of America, we can lead the world in so many different ways,” he said.
“The idea that the most powerful country in the world surrenders to this problem — which is what we’ve been doing, we’re basically saying it’s too difficult politically — I just think that’s contrary to the American spirit.”
In the Philly Homebase, Sen. Casey told AL DÍA he hopes the next Mayor — to replace term-limited Jim Kenney, and who will become the city’s 100th mayor — will advocate in Washington as well.