Relatives of gun violence victims hold pictures of their loved ones at a CeaseFirePA and March For Our Lives rally at the Pennsylvania Capitol on Thursday, March 23, 2023. (Capital-Star photo by Peter Hall)
With more than a dozen gun safety bills already awaiting its attention, the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on Thursday from the parents, doctors, educators, police and prosecutors on the frontlines of Pennsylvania’s gun violence epidemic.
Marked by the heartache and anger of mothers whose children were killed in places where they should be safest, and the frustration of leaders who have seen their communities devastated by endless killing, the 2 ½-hour hearing also brought rays of hope for solutions.
For the first time in more than a decade, the Judiciary Committee is controlled by Democrats, and Chairperson Tim Briggs, D-Montgomery, said the committee would do everything in its power to stop the next shooting and to end the violence.
“I think it’s critical for lawmakers to look into the eyes of the people and children most impacted by their actions or inactions,” Briggs said. “The Legislature has stood by and watched death after death, shooting after shooting with no action. Today, that changes and we begin the process to do something to stop the carnage.”
Adam Garber, executive director of the gun violence-reduction group CeaseFirePA, said that although the stories of gun violence survivors are heartbreaking, each one points toward a policy solution.
“I want you to look at those stories. I want you to find the solution that you can put forward and then I want you to work to make it happen. That’s what we owe each other,” Garber said.
When it had control of the House and its committees, Republican lawmakers blocked most gun-safety legislation, saying they would infringe on the rights of law-abiding gun owners.
Former Judiciary Committee Chairperson Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, once vowed that gun violence bills would never pass as long as he was in charge, and promoted legislation to do away with Pennsylvania’s requirement for a license to carry a concealed weapon.
On Thursday, following an emotionally-charged rally on the Pennsylvania Capitol steps, witnesses told the lawmakers that the gun safety laws they want don’t target responsible, adult gun owners. Rather, they’re aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of children and others who should not have them.
They urged the committee to consider and advance legislation to require robust background checks for every gun purchase, and require gun owners to report lost or stolen weapons to prevent people prohibited from possessing firearms from acquiring them through straw purchases.
They said a requirement for guns to be securely stored would keep them out of the hands of curious children who shoot themselves with alarming frequency. And they asked the committee to give courts the authority to take guns away from people deemed to be an extreme risk to prevent domestic violence and suicide.
Meredith Elizalde’s 14-year-old son Nicholas was killed in a Sept. 27 shooting that also injured four other teenage boys as they left a football scrimmage at Roxborough High School in Philadelphia. Three teenage boys are charged in the shooting.
Elizalde told the committee about hearing 60 shots ring out and running to her son to find him shot through the heart.
“You cannot imagine what it’s like to see the whites of your child’s eyes and to see him gasping for breath. Afraid that with those gasps, he’s inhaling the dirt that he’s lying in,” Elizalde said.
While it’s still unknown how the alleged assailants got the guns used in the shooting, the ammunition they used was purchased by a felon who was not allowed to purchase it but was able to do so anyway.
“How could you possibly argue against stronger background checks? What could possibly be a higher priority than the safety of our children? Why are we not stopping the flow of illegal guns into the hands of those who murder children at school? Why do we accept this as our reality when it is an entirely man-made, uniquely American problem with a solution?” Elizalde said.
Chester County Deputy District Attorney Erin O’Brien said the statistics on childhood gun deaths are alarming. Among the more than 4,000 children killed by guns in 2020, about two thirds were homicides, 30% were by suicide and 5% were accidental.
“The statistics don’t tell the human toll of what we’re talking about,” O’Brien said. “They don’t tell the human toll on the victims on our children, and on all of those who touch these cases and live with this violence.”
O’Brien told the committee about a sentencing she handled last month for an 18-year-old man charged in the shooting death of his 4-year-old brother who, O’Brien said, idolized him.
The man had asked another person to buy a gun for him the day before his 18th birthday, when he could not legally own one. Two weeks later, the man left the gun in his bedroom with a round in the chamber. And he left his door open so that his dog didn’t have an accident.
The 4-year-old brother went into the room, found the gun, and shot himself in the face. He died instantly, O’Brien said.
“If that gun had just been made safe and kept away, if it hadn’t been in that home or in that room, or if he hadn’t been able to get it, then that boy would still be here and that family and everyone else would not be dealing with the consequences of those actions,” O’Brien said.
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