W ith all the craziness having to do with Hurricane Sandy for most of last week, you might have missed that Gov. Tom Corbett signed an important piece of legislation into law just as the nasty weather was working its way up the East Coast.
Nobody was talking about it much, though it's been the subject of much debate for a long time in this state.
But for political reasons -- lobbying by the NRA and gun devotees everywhere -- it's never gone anywhere in the General Assembly.
Until, that is, a police officer was killed in Plymouth Township -- near Norristown -- on Sept. 13, by a man using a gun he wasn't allowed to purchase or carry because he was a felon.
For anyone to suggest that wasn't the motivation for the passage of House Bill 898 in the waning days of the legislative session would be disingenuous.
After years of nitpicking the legislation to death, or ignoring it altogether, it was finally passed just four weeks after seven-year police officer Bradley Fox was killed by a man named Andrew Thomas with a firearm allegedly purchased for him illegally by Michael Henry of Philadelphia.
That's called a straw purchase -- someone legally buys a gun for someone who can't legally buy or own a gun. And it's always been illegal, though rarely enforced for repeat offenders.
So it took a death to convince the state General Assembly and Gov. Corbett that it made sense to pass a straw gun purchase bill, in which a five-year minimum sentence is restored for anyone who is caught making straw gun purchases in this state.
The bill has become known as the "Brad Fox Law," named after the police officer who was killed just seven weeks ago.
It's an early Christmas present for Pennsylvania. That's how I look at it now that the governor has signed it into law. It will take effect in 60 days.
It is worthy of note, too, that CeaseFirePA, "a coalition of survivors and advocates taking a stand against gun violence and criminals who use and traffic guns illegally," according to its own website, does mention Brad Fox's death in a call to action on its website. But in a press release that followed Gov. Corbett's signing, it took full credit for passage of the bill without any mention of Officer Fox or his death.
"Without the determined actions of the CeaseFirePA coalition, this might not have come to pass," Max Nacheman, the CeaseFirePA executive director, said. "Pressure from supporters like you helped to move this bill quickly to the governor's desk, and his signature sealed the deal."
Then he added, "The bill never would have been signed, if not for the loud voices of support from this coalition demanding action."
That's a lot of malarkey, to be honest, sounding a lot more like a fundraising campaign than a statement of fact.
Not that CeaseFirePA hasn't been lobbying lawmakers on this bill, because it has. But the bill has been hanging in the General Assembly for the best part of two years -- only two members of the York County delegation, Seth Grove, R-Dover Township; and Ron Miller, R-Jacobus, signed on as sponsors of the bill -- and it never made much headway until a police officer was shot with a straw-purchase gun.
As it turns out, the cop killer used his illegal firearm -- it was a Beretta 9 mm semiautomatic handgun -- to take his own life as police were closing in on him after he shot Officer Fox.
But Henry -- the alleged straw purchaser -- is facing multiple felony weapons charges for buying guns in Montgomery and Chester counties to resell to Thomas, who was on probation in Montgomery County and not allowed to buy or own a gun.
It's always been illegal to buy, obtain or receive a firearm through a straw purchase in Pennsylvania, but there was a loophole in the law that prevented enforcement of an enhanced penalty for all straw purchase offenses after the first one.
Now that loophole is closed.
About time. House Bill 898 passed the state House on April 26, 2011, in a 186-10 vote. Why in the world did it take 18 months for the state Senate to pass the bill unanimously, 49-0? Politics, of course. All the CeaseFirePA lobbying in the world didn't speed up the process.
Fox's death did, however.
Too bad someone had to die before the state Legislature developed enough intestinal fortitude to insist that illegal straw purchases of firearms will no longer be tolerated in this state.
Columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.