By Mark Scolforo
The Associated Press
HARRISBURG — Black lawmakers in the Pennsylvania House walked off the floor Wednesday to force action on gun-control legislation, and some threatened to boycott the remainder of the year's session.
Members of the Legislative Black Caucus in the House, all Democrats, suddenly asked to be put on leave at the start of a debate over an open records bill.
The walkout was a powerful gesture in a chamber that Democrats control by a single vote. Though the House could continue with its business, Democrats could not pass any legislation without the support of at least some Republicans.
"What we're saying today is it's time for our colleagues on both sides of the aisle to understand that this issue, when it comes to saving lives in our various districts, is extremely important to us," said Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland, D-Delaware, the caucus chairman.
Rep. Rosita Youngblood, D-Philadelphia, said her boycott would last until at least one gun bill was taken up on the House floor. Kirkland said 16 of the 17 House caucus members were involved and that Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, the Appropriations Committee chairman, remained behind.
Through Monday, 369 people had been murdered in Philadelphia this year, and the city has seen an average of one murder a day for the past three years.
Gun bills are always contentious in the Pennsylvania Legislature, where many Democrats represent rural areas with strong hunting constituencies and the National Rifle Association has friends among both parties' leadership.
"I think there's no appetite to do what they want to do, as far as passing additional restrictions on firearms to deal with Philadelphia," said NRA lobbyist John Hohenwarter.
Such bills generally pit urban lawmakers, whose communities have been ravaged by gun violence, against those representing rural areas who believe new gun control measures are not needed to curb the violence.
Gun violence is of "epidemic proportions in the commonwealth as well as nationally," Youngblood said. "And if we don't take a look at it now, before we break, what is going to happen when '08 comes in?"
Kirkland said the 16 would not return to the floor Wednesday and it was unclear how long their action would remain in force. Kirkland said he did not expect movement on the gun bills by the end of next week, when the House is expected to leave for Christmas break.
"We are hoping that a new year brings about new beginnings and new understanding," he said, declining to state a deadline.
Rep. Angel Cruz, D-Philadelphia, said he was willing to remain off the floor through the end of the month.
"If that's what is necessary and we have to recess for the remainder of the '07 year because the issues are not being addressed, so be it," he said. "I hope they come to their senses so we can resolve this issue."
Rep. James Roebuck, D-Philadelphia, said it was "a call to principled action."
"In Philadelphia, we've had a clear pattern of violence, loss of life," he said. "There's certainly not been a sense of urgency on the part of anyone I can see to deal with this. As long as that exists, I am committed to trying to bring that to the public's attention."
The black lawmakers' dramatic move halted the much anticipated debate over amendments to the Right-to-Know Law almost as soon as it began. They requested leave immediately after the sponsor of the Democrats' main open records law amendment, Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Fayette, made brief remarks.
The House could resume debate on the bill without the black caucus members and it was not immediately clear what leadership intended to do. A spokesman for Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, D-Greene, declined to comment.
Gov. Ed Rendell, a former mayor and district attorney of Philadelphia, appeared before the House Judiciary Committee last month to push for bills to limit handgun purchases to one per month and to let local governments enact their own rules. Both measures were defeated in committee.
In April, two people protesting a bill sponsored by Cruz that would require gun registration and a $10-a-gun annual fee carried a banner inside the Capitol that said he should be "hung from the tree of liberty for treasonous acts against the constitution."
Two months later, several members of the black caucus spoke on the House floor about the need to address gun violence and warned of using their votes on the state budget as leverage. A few days later, DeWeese helped facilitate a meeting between caucus members and the NRA to seek common ground.