Pa. lawmakers revive gun debate, but likely to stall

Marc Levy
The Associated Press

HARRISBURG — The debate over guns was revived Tuesday in Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled Legislature after a year of shocking violence, although Democrats went away frustrated and warning the process could end up actually loosening gun laws.

The day marked the start of a two-day Senate committee hearing on gun violence and a slate of House committee votes on gun-related legislation that drew some votes from Democrats but also left untouched bills they have made their top priorities.

The House Judiciary Committee unanimously advanced legislation to more swiftly take away guns from someone who was involuntarily committed for mental health treatment, changing the period from 60 days to 48 hours.

However, another bill that passed the committee — to make it harder and more expensive for municipalities to defend their firearms ordinances against lawsuits — swiftly drew a veto threat from Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

Not included: The committee’s agenda did not include bills favored by Democrats and a handful of Republicans, including expanding background checks, requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms, and empowering relatives or police to seek the immediate, if temporary, seizure of someone’s firearms.

After the hearing, Democrats got more unfavorable news.

“We don’t have any intention of addressing further gun control measures this session,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin.

Kauffman framed the slate of bills as comprehensive and addressing weaknesses in how Pennsylvania keeps guns out of the hands of dangerous people without treading on gun ownership rights.

The committee also passed several bills to expand penalties for suspects committing crimes with guns, including reinstating mandatory minimums that had been struck down by courts as unconstitutional because Pennsylvania law lets judges, not juries, impose them using a lower standard of evidence.

Action urged: In a statement, Wolf said he was extremely frustrated at Kauffman’s stand against further votes on gun control legislation and urged Kauffman to reconsider.

“As citizens across Pennsylvania demand gun safety action, the chairman is going in the opposite direction,” Wolf said.

The action follows rising gun violence in Philadelphia, which has brought calls for action, and last month’s wounding of six city police officers in a standoff with a suspect whose long criminal record barred him from legally owning a gun.

It is also 11 months removed from the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history and Pennsylvania’s worst mass shooting in decades, when a gunman authorities say expressed anti-Semitic hatred killed 11 people in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue.

Pennsylvania’s Legislature is historically protective of gun rights, and a year ago passed its first anti-violence legislation in more than a decade that dealt directly with firearms. That bill forces people with a domestic violence ruling against them to more quickly surrender their guns.

Democrats remained hopeful that the Senate would still advance some sort of gun control measure in the coming months.

Doctors speak: Among those testifying Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee were two emergency room physicians, Dr. Zoe Maher of Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia and Dr. Raquel Forsythe of UPMC Presbyterian in Pittsburgh, who was part of the medical team that responded to the Tree of Life shooting.

They told about daily battle to save gunshot victims coming into their emergency rooms, the staggering injuries that result and the families they have to tell when they can’t save someone.

Maher told senators that it is still within their reach to do something about gun violence, although it may not be within reach much longer.

“Everyone here has an opportunity to work together to make choices that are going to help our communities,” she told them.