The bipartisan gun violence prevention bill approved by Congress, highlighted by a limited expansion of background checks and substantial funding to support mental health initiatives and state-based red flag laws, moved into law on the signature of President Joe Biden.
It’s been nearly 30 years since federal lawmakers acted to tighten gun laws, and this followup hardly approaches the depth of that 1993 bill that resulted in a since-expired ban on assault weapons.
However, for one state Republican legislator, it signals that his own gun safety proposal in the Pennsylvania General Assembly may just yet get serious consideration.
“That just shows there are folks from the gun rights side of the discussion that recognize red flag bills have merit and support their adoption,” state Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery County, said, referring to the 15 Republican U.S. senators who voted in favor of the measure. “That certainly can help bolster the argument for bringing them here to Pennsylvania.”
There are dozens of bills introduced in the state Legislature, almost wholly by Democrats, seeking to address gun possession and purchasing:
Raising the age to 21 to buy certain semi-automatic rifles. Requiring background checks on ammunition purchases as well as the private sale of long guns. Mandating six hours of training from a certified instructor before obtaining a concealed carry permit. Outright bans on specific semi-automatic firearms magazines and trigger activators – and banning 3-D printed guns and untraceable ghost guns and parts.
Stephens’ proposal would create Extreme Risk Protective Orders – red flag laws – allowing for temporary emergency court orders to remove firearms from the possession of someone deemed a credible risk to harm themselves or someone else.
While mass shootings and, less so, daily violence inspired the latest thrust behind gun violence prevention, the ERPO bill intends to address the leading cause of gun deaths in America – suicide.
A Pew Research Center analysis of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s gun violence statistics found that 45,222 people died from gun-related injuries in 2020, the latest available data. That’s the highest count on record. Of those, 54% were suicides — 24,292, the second-highest figure recorded.
Some common ground
Adam Garber, executive director of the gun violence prevention group, CeaseFire PA, said the new federal law will save lives. But he says more should be done to disrupt illegal trafficking through mandated reporting of stolen firearms — another proposal in the state Legislature — and by establishing ERPOs to counteract the rate of suicides.
“I hope (the federal action) will embolden Republican leadership to realize they can put the lives of their constituents above the gun lobby,” Garber said.
Public polling continually reflects overall support for strengthening regulations on gun ownership as a violence prevention measure, though largely on the strength of responses from Democrats and Independents.
However, a national Pew Research Center survey of 4,042 adults in spring 2021 identified two specific areas of bipartisan support: preventing people with mental illnesses from purchasing guns (supported by 85% of Republicans, 90% of Democrats) and making private gun sales and all gun show sales subject to background checks (70% of Republicans, 92% of Democrats).
Provisions within the newly adopted federal gun law exist within those areas of bipartisan support: expanding background checks to include juvenile mental health records for purchasers aged 18 to 20, offering federal aid to support states with red flag laws, creating penalties for straw purchasers who attempt to buy firearms for others who wouldn’t pass a background check.
Total aid carried in the bill is estimated at $13 billion, largely for mental health and school supports such as crisis intervention, remote consultations through community behavioral health clinics, school mental health counseling and training.
Legislative proposals in the Pennsylvania General Assembly land in those polling categories with bipartisan support, too, such as Stephens’ ERPO measure.
State Senate Democratic Leader Sen. Jay Costa noted how the federal law includes initiatives Senate Democrats have long sought. State House Democratic Leader Rep. Joanna McClinton credited the U.S. Senate for “demonstrating that bipartisanship works when it comes to advancing gun safety reforms.”
“While Congressional Republicans have shown their courage to withstand pressure from the gun lobby, Republicans here in Pennsylvania continue to pander to the NRA and obstruct any opportunity to debate gun safety proposals supported by an overwhelming majority of Pennsylvanians,” McClinton said. “House Democrats will not be discouraged and will continue to push for widely supported gun safety measures that will save lives here in the commonwealth.”
Democrats in the House and Senate have sought to pry from committee assignments a combined 10 bills on guns through discharge resolutions. If successful, it would have forced floor votes on the measures in each chamber, a work-around to get a stalled bill out of committee.
The Senate’s Republican majority twice voted down discharge resolutions in June that sought votes on separate measures, one on universal background checks and another on a Senate version of an ERPO bill.
House Republicans, under the steward of Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre/Mifflin, carried the rejection of a discharge resolution in late May seeking a vote on a proposed ban on certain semiautomatic weapons. Another was defeated in late June seeking to raise the age limit for the purchase of certain semiautomatics to age 21.
In mid-June, the House Judiciary Committee re-referred four gun measures – including Stephens’ ERPO bill – to the Local Government Committee, effectively neutering discharge resolutions for those bills. The other bills address safe storage requirements, local control on firearms regulation and the aforementioned weapons ban.
The Judiciary Committee’s chairman, Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, pledged in 2019 to never consider a red flag law while he is in that leadership role.
Education vs. legislation
Dillon Harris, a gun owner and hunter, is an attorney with Prince Law Offices in Central Pennsylvania. The firm’s namesake, Joshua Prince, is an ardent defender in theory and in practice of gun rights. Harris himself is focused on firearms-related law, dealing most often with background check denials and restoring the rights of those who lost them for varied violations. Most often, he said, it’s an impaired driving arrest that interrupts his clients’ gun rights.
Asked about proposals in Pennsylvania regulating guns, Harris raised multiple issues from the gun rights perspective.
The low burden of proof and vague legal definitions for emergency court-ordered confiscation of guns under “red flag” laws is one area of concern, he said. The act of limiting the private sale of personal property makes expanding background checks problematic, he added, especially since it’s already a crime to sell a firearm to someone known or to reasonably be known to be prohibited from possessing guns.
Bans on “assault weapons” are folly because the proposal he reviewed was “largely based on cosmetic features” and includes, for example, definitions of large-capacity magazines that have long been standard.
“I think education goes a lot farther than legislation with potentially touchy enforcement problems. Having grown up around firearms and having been educated from early on, I knew what the proper Do’s and Don’t were. That’s just how I was raised. I know that’s not everyone’s experience,” Harris said, suggesting people consider a hunter safety course for basics about firearms and safety.
Getting rid of ‘ghosts’
Concerns have grown over privately manufactured firearms without serial numbers, particularly in attempting to trace such “ghost guns” recovered at crime scenes.
President Joe Biden announced in April new rules would take hold in late August regulating the weapons. According to The White House, about 20,000 ghost guns were recovered by law enforcement in 2021 nationwide. The new rules include a ban on unserialized kits to build the guns, categorizing the kits with newly required serial numbers as firearms, and requiring sellers to become federally licensed and run background checks during purchases.
Christopher T. Fernanders is serving a life sentence for fatally shooting his ex-wife, Heather Sue Campbell, 46, of Trevorton, and Matthew T. Bowersox, 52, of Mifflinburg, outside a Snyder County restaurant in July 2020.
He committed the murders with a homemade 980 polymer 9 mm pistol, or ghost gun, months after his licensed firearms were seized following Campbell’s request for a protection-from-abuse order against her then-estranged husband.
It was the first confirmed case involving a ghost gun prosecuted by Snyder County District Attorney Michael Piecuch.
“The nature of ghost guns is that they are in the shadows,” he said of the untraceable firearms that are assembled from kits. “We don’t know the scope of it.”
Piecuch supports efforts to put serial numbers on manufactured gun parts to track what are now untraceable weapons.
Bipartisan efforts in the state legislature did bring about multimillion-dollar investments in school safety initiatives in 2018 in the wake of the deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stonemason Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
The legislation established a School Safety Committee at the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and created the School Safety and Security Grant Program funded annually at $60 million since the start.
Additionally, threat assessment teams were created within the Pennsylvania State Police to provide no-cost assessments of a school’s security, and a Safe2Say Program was implemented for anonymous tips of threats of violence and other concerns like bullying and self-harm.
Josh Fleitman, Western Pennsylvania manager with CeaseFirePA, noted that Republicans didn’t fail in elections following the passage of this law.
“That goes to show that the narrative painted from extremist organizations doesn’t bear out on the ground,” Fleitman said of Republican voters and the idea that there’s majority opposition within to all gun control measures.
Erica Clayton Wright, spokesman for the Republican Senate Caucus, said more than 86,700 tips were generated since the program’s inception in 2019, including more than 26,000 this school year. The Attorney General’s Office estimates that 73% of the tips are centered on bullying and cyberbullying, suicide, harassment and mental illness.
“We have taken decisive action and saved lives — not by taking away people’s rights but by keeping our focus on addressing the cause of the problem. But it can’t be ignored that as our country’s economy continues to spiral downward, the mental health crisis in our country continues rise, and we must consider additional actions,” Wright said.
Marcia Moore of The (Sunbury) Daily Item contributed to this report.