Gov. Wolf, state lawmakers join Philadelphia Mayor Kenney to call for gun control after six officers shot

By: and - August 15, 2019 5:03 pm

Rep. Jason Dawkins and state lawmakers call for gun control after the shooting of six officers in Philadelphia (Screenshot)

Gov. Tom Wolf and Democratic state lawmakers joined Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney during a Thursday press conference to call for action on gun control after six police officers were shot during a seven-hour standoff.

Meanwhile, in a private email chain shared with every House lawmaker, Republicans pointed to the alleged shooter’s criminal record to question how additional restrictions would have made a difference. 

Both Democrats and members of the GOP praised the actions of the city’s law enforcement who responded to the scene in North Philadelphia. The six officers who were shot have all been released from the hospital.

“They deserve our greatest respect and thanks for what they did,” Wolf said Thursday. “They walked toward the line of fire, not away from it.”

But the Democratic officials assembled at City Hall did not shy away from outlining specific actions they think state and federal lawmakers should take — and from calling out their Republican colleagues.

Sen. Sharif Street, a Democrat who represents part of North Philadelphia, listed a number of bills pending in the GOP-controlled Legislature that would require universal background checks, the safe storage of firearms, and licensing, as well as ban assault weapons.

“We can’t get a vote on that either,” he said.

Street grew increasingly passionate as he talked about how gun violence has affected his five children.

“No, we in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania have not done everything we’re supposed to do. We are derelict in our duties, and it is because the majority caucus is afraid of the NRA,” Street said. “They turn their backs on the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. They turn their backs on the people that were murdered in Squirrel Hill. They turn their backs on the people that are shot in our communities every day.”

Mike Straub, spokesperson for House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said the idea that Republicans have not moved on the issue is “unfair.”

He pointed to a bill passed by the Legislature last session that further restricted convicted and accused domestic abusers’ access to firearms, and to House Judiciary Committee hearings on gun violence last June. 

Straub also noted bills from two members of the House GOP caucus: a red flag proposal from Rep. Todd Stephens of Montgomery County that would allow for the temporary seizure of firearms from people deemed at-risk of harming themselves or others; and legislation to close Pennsylvania’s long-gun background check loophole from Rep. Chris Quinn of Delaware County.

Jenn Kocher, spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, questioned what additional law could have prevented the incident Wednesday.

“A convicted felon who was illegally in possession of a firearm unleashed terror on Philadelphia last night,” she said by email. “What law could we enact that a man who has already shown such blatant disregard for the law will follow?”

‘It’s easy to say what you won’t do…’

The alleged shooter, Maurice Hill, was known to police and has past convictions for illegal possession of guns, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

In the House, a virtual floor debate erupted when Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, emailed all 203 members of the chamber to argue against additional gun laws by citing Hill’s criminal record.

The email thread, seen by the Capital-Star and confirmed with multiple lawmakers, started at 2:50 p.m. Thursday.

In his initial note, Everett noted Hill’s extensive criminal record. “No enhanced background checks or any other gun laws would have stopped this guy,” he said. 

Attempts to reach Everett, who chairs the House State Government Committee, were not immediately successful. 

Everett also made reference to a 2016 study from the University of Pittsburgh, which analyzed 762 cases from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police’s Firearm Tracking Unit. In those cases examined, 79 percent of perpetrators did not legally own the recovered firearm.

The study also found that just 30 percent of guns recovered were reported as stolen.

“How the guns left the possession of their lawful owners is unknown, and collecting this data proves to be challenging,” the study states. “Future studies should be conducted to assess the pathway in which guns travel from legal to illegal ownership.”

Everett concluded his email by saying he’s “not much interested in passing any new laws restricting the rights of law abiding gun owners” “until we solve the problem of criminals who do not have he right to possess firearms committing murder and crimes involving guns with guns obtained illegally.”

The first response came 11 minutes later, at 3:01 p.m., from Rep. Austin Davis, D-Allegheny.

“So what’s your solution???? It’s easy to say what you won’t do…,” the email reads.

Davis confirmed the email exchange to the Capital-Star and said he replied out of frustration, feeling that Republicans only say no to gun control proposals after mass shootings, without offering their own suggestions.

The Democrat’s suggested solutions including universal background checks, a red flag law, and possibly, an assault weapons ban.

At 3:11 p.m., Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuykill, addressed both Everett and Davis.

“Thanks for sharing, Garth. Austin, we’re all willing to consider something that truly addresses the problem, not just passing something so we can say we did so,” Knowles said.

Two minutes later, Davis replied: “Good to know Jerry! I’m still waiting for someone to actually propose a solution from the Republican side seeing that you all hate every proposal that democrats come up with!”

One lawmaker, Rep. Mike Zabel, D-Delaware, suggested that he and his colleagues take the conversation they were having in private to the public.

“My esteemed colleagues, I truly enjoy working with you all, but this email chain is not a productive venue for an important policy discussion,” Zabel wrote. “If we’re going to have this debate (which it seems many of us are eager for), let’s do it in a public hearing or on the floor of the House this fall.”

That’s going to happen this September, at least in the upper chamber. Following the mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas, Senate Judiciary Chair Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, announced that she plans to hold hearings on guns and mental health next month. No such commitments have been made in the House.

Davis said that chamber-wide exchanges such as Thursdays are “usually … not productive.”

“Usually they’re sent to elicit a rise. I think it was poorly timed and insensitive,” he said.

The chain was not without some levity. At 3:18 p.m., Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, asked lawmakers to consider the utility of the email.

“And now, for a comprehensive list of the amount of good things [ever] to come out of a Reply All chain from members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives,” Schlossberg wrote.

He then wrote a numbered list without any adjacent text.  

“Thank you for reading this comprehensive list. See everyone in September!”

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Sarah Anne Hughes
Sarah Anne Hughes

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.

Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.