Pa. gun violence prevention advocates optimistic about new White House initiative

“Those of us who’ve been in this fight for a long time have been waiting for real progress,” said Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Austin Davis

By: - September 27, 2023 3:42 pm

President Joe Biden, Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-FL) and Vice President Kamala Harris arrive at a Rose Garden event on gun safety at the White House on September 22, 2023 in Washington, DC. The White House hosted the event to discuss the gun crisis in the nation. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Adam Garber, executive director of CeaseFirePA, was at the White House event last week where President Joe Biden announced a new Office of Gun Violence Prevention. Survivors of school shootings and family members who had lost a loved one to gun violence, many of whom have been fighting for tougher gun control laws for years, were in attendance as well.

And Garber said as they listened to the new plan during the president’s speech in the Rose Garden, there seemed to be a sentiment that was all too rare among this group: Hope. 

“I think people were elated,” Garber told the Capital-Star. “Not only to have a president who understands the crisis and the toll, but is taking action.” 

It was more than just the announcement, Garber added, it was also the Biden administration’s recognition of the hard-won expertise of survivors and advocates to steer policy, not just academics and legislators. 

Biden established the new Office of Gun Violence Protection via an executive order, after U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) introduced legislation in March calling for its creation. Frost, who introduced the president at the Friday announcement, is the former organizing director for March for Our Lives, the student-led organization created after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida that left 17 people dead.

Maxwell Frost joins President Biden at WH announcement on Office of Gun Violence Prevention

And family members of people killed in mass shootings as well as survivors, had front-row seats during the president’s Rose Garden address. “I think he spoke directly to those people, and recognized the suffering they’re still going through,” Garber said. 

“Every time I’ve met with families impacted by gun violence as they mourn their loved ones — and I’ve met with so many throughout the country — they all have the same message for their elected officials: ‘Do something,’” Biden told the audience at the White House. “We all want our kids to have the freedom to learn how to read and write instead of duck and cover, for God’s sake.” 

He added that he will continue to urge Congress “to take commonsense actions that the majority of Americans support,” like enacting universal background checks and banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. 

There have been 506 mass shootings this year alone, according to Gun Violence Archive, an organization that tracks gun violence in the U.S. 

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Austin Davis met with Biden administration officials the day before the announcement, to talk about how he, in his role as the chair of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime Delinquency (PCCD), will coordinate with the new office. 

“I’m ecstatic that the President took this step,” Davis told the Capital-Star. He has often described how he was motivated to enter public service after an act of gun violence in his McKeesport neighborhood, going to a city council meeting and creating a youth advisory council as a teenager. Over the summer, Davis embarked on a listening tour in communities across the commonwealth, as part of the Safer Communities initiative to highlight local efforts to prevent gun violence. 

“Those of us who’ve been in this fight for a long time have been waiting for real progress,” Davis said. “This is a recognition that the president has the power and responsibility to help move the agenda as it relates to gun violence prevention.” He noted it was one of several actions the Biden administration has already taken, including passing the bipartisan, Safer Communities Act last year. 

Biden said that the office, which will be overseen by Vice President Kamala Harris, will have four primary responsibilities: overseeing the implementation of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, coordinating support for survivors, families, and communities affected by gun violence, identifying new executive actions to reduce gun violence, and expanding the “coalition of partners” to get more state and local gun safety laws passed.

“To be clear, none of these steps alone are going to solve the entirety of the gun violence epidemic,” Biden said. “But together, they will save lives.”

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It’s that local angle, the “nuts and bolts work” that Davis said he’s keen to get started working on. “I think immediately, I’d like to see a big push on coordination,” he said. That includes coordinating funding for local initiatives because the money for gun violence prevention comes from several different federal sources, like the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Justice, he added. 

But in order to make significant progress against gun violence, Davis said, prevention efforts also have to deal with the root causes.

 “That means making sure folks have access to a workforce development program to get a family-sustaining job and join the middle class, and making sure that we’re investing in our education system, making sure that we have the basic ladders of opportunities to succeed,” he said. 

“One of the best things that I ever heard is, the best way to take a gun out of somebody’s hand is to put a paycheck in it. And until we start addressing the root causes of those issues, we’re going to continue to see gun violence in our community.” 

Davis also said he thinks gun owners in Pennsylvania are on board with commonsense reforms, and the research bears that out. “They’re not trying to get untraceable ghost guns,” he said. “They’re willing to submit to a background check. If you went into a rural community and said to a farmer, ‘if your gun is stolen, what are you going to do?’ Nine times out of ten they’ll say ‘I’m going to call the police.’” 

But there’s no law requiring citizens of Pennsylvania to report lost and stolen firearms, he added. “And when you tell them that, they’re shocked.” 

Garber acknowledged that as with any action taken via executive order, there’s always the concern about a future administration overturning it. But he said going the traditional route to legislate gun violence prevention hasn’t produced enough results.

“I think what the president saw was we couldn’t afford to wait another day, that there’s a real cost to waiting, lives that can never be restored,” he said. “Will the next president end the Office of Gun Violence? Possibly, but can we implement policy change in the meantime that saves lives? Definitely. And if we do a good enough job, it will be much harder to undo.”

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Kim Lyons
Kim Lyons

Kim Lyons is a veteran western Pennsylvania journalist who has covered people and trends in politics and business for local and national publications. Follow her on Threads @social_kimly