HARRISBURG — Political pressure to change gun laws is growing for lawmakers at both the state and U.S. capitols.
President Donald Trump on Friday expressed support for universal background checks, saying he thinks the Senate can tackle the issue when they return in the fall. At the state level, Gov. Tom Wolf has repeatedly called for changes to the state’s gun laws, including universal background checks and a red flag law that would make it easier to get guns out of the hands of people deemed dangers to themselves or others.
“We must do everything we can to ensure people are not planning to kill before we sell them guns,” Wolf said. “And we must restrict access to the weapons that are primarily used — time after time — for mass murder.”
The renewed focus on the issue was spurred by the pair of deadly shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, that claimed a combined total of 31 lives. It follows similar lobbying that followed a shooting in October that claimed 11 lives at a Pittsburgh synagogue and the school shooting in February 2018 that claimed 17 lives at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
“Any time one of these horrible tragic events happens, they try to politicize it to get an agenda they’ve wanted for a long time,” said state Rep. Aaron Bernstine, R-Lawrence County.
Democratic lawmakers called on Wolf to summon lawmakers for an early return to Harrisburg for a special session on gun reform.
“I’ve sat with way too many families who have lost loved ones to gun violence. People are dying because of our inaction,” state Rep. Malcom Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, said Wednesday.
In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam convened a special session on guns in the wake of a May shooting at a Virginia Beach government building that left 12 people dead. Republicans in that state’s Legislature ended the special session after 90 minutes without voting on any gun reforms.
Wolf is open to the idea, only if there is an agreement with legislative leaders that reforms will be put up for a vote, his spokesman J.J. Abbott said.
“Without such an agreement, there is no guarantee of action,” Abbott said.
“However, what is desperately needed is broader recognition that change is necessary to protect all Pennsylvanians.”
Gun rights groups are bracing for the fight to pass legislation in the fall, said Kim Stolfer, president of Firearms Owners Against Crime.
Officials in both chambers of the General Assembly made it clear that gun reforms will be discussed after lawmakers return to the Capitol in September.
Senate Judiciary Committee chairwoman Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne County, said that committee will hold hearings on the gun debate. Those hearings, she said, are intended to be “a prelude to action,” she said. “Advocates and opponents will have the chance to make their respective cases in full spotlight and answer the hard questions about their positions,” Baker said in a statement.
State Sen. Vince Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said Friday that he hopes that Baker’s hearings include a universal background check bill he authored, Senate Bill 88.
“Expanding and strengthening background checks has strong bipartisan support in Pennsylvania and across the U.S. and the time is now to get this done,” he said.
On the House side of the state Capitol, the judiciary committee will consider which gun bills should move, if any, said Mike Straub, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster County.
Straub said that the debate over universal background checks often overlooks that in Pennsylvania, universal background checks are already required for handguns. Pennsylvania is one of 21 states that require background checks for all handgun sales, he said.
“That isn’t to say we believe the issue is solved, or there isn’t potentially updates to make,” he said.
State Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery County, has written to Republican leaders urging them to act on his red flag legislation.
The red flag bill, House Bill 1075, would create Extreme Risk Protection Orders, which Stephens described as “an evidence-based approach that studies show has saved lives in other states and are now available in seventeen states and the District of Columbia. “
With Extreme Risk Protection Orders, relatives can ask a judge to order that the guns be taken from people deemed a risk to themselves of others.
But critics say that the orders are unfair to gun-owners and they haven’t prevented mass killings in other states with them.
California, where a gunman shot and killed 3 people on July 26, has had a red flag law since 2014, and has the strictest gun control measures in the country, Stolfer said. That state passed the legislation after a gunman with a history of violence shot and killed six people in Isla Vista.
Stolfer said the red flag laws and other gun-free zones haven’t stopped the shootings in California and gun rights proponents don’t think they’ll prevent violence if similar legislation is passed in Pennsylvania.
Bernstine said there are other concerns with the red flag law. Taking the guns away from people creates dangerous situations, he said. And gun-owners who want to fight to get their guns back will likely have to spend thousands of dollars to prove they aren’t a danger, Bernstine said.
Stolfer said that gun-owners are “rattled” by the increased pressure to change the laws and are angry that these gun-control measures, which they don’t think will work, appear to be getting fast-tracked.
“If these laws do pass,” Stolfer said. “Gun owners are going to put legislators on notice, that the next time a mass killing takes place, they will be held accountable politically, because it’s all a lie.”
While much of the focus has been on the proposal to expand background checks or adopt a Pennsylvania red flag law, those aren’t the only proposed gun reforms introduced at the Capitol. For instance, lawmakers in both the House and the Senate have introduced proposed assault weapon bans – House Bill 307 and Senate Bill 292.
Stolfer said that the assault weapon ban would be a heavy lift for lawmakers and he expects the other proposals are more likely to remain the focus of the debate at the Capitol.