Pa. House Judiciary Committee debate on gun bills shows gulf between Democrats and GOP

Five measures designed to prevent mass shootings and curb untraceable guns passed the committee along party lines

By: - January 19, 2024 3:02 pm

Blue states are major sites of gun manufacturing in the U.S. (Photo: Aristide Economopoulos/NJ Monitor).

The divide on gun policy between Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Harrisburg was apparent this week as members of the House Judiciary Committee debated bills designed to curb mass shootings and stem the proliferation of untraceable firearms.

Five pieces of legislation ranging from a measure to speed the reporting of mental health records for background checks to a ban on future acquisition of assault weapons passed the committee with party line votes. They will now go to the full House for consideration. 

GOP lawmakers who spoke in opposition to the bills citing the Second Amendment and the Pennsylvania Constitution’s provision that the right to own guns “shall not be questioned,” said the legislation would harm their constituents’ rights to defend themselves and even render them criminals.

Democrats from Philadelphia, where more than 1,800 people have died from gun violence since 2020, said the Republican defense of an absolute right to gun ownership is disconnected from the daily reality that millions of Pennsylvania residents face. 

“Why don’t you talk to us? Why don’t you talk to the folks closest to the pain, not the gun dealers, not the gun manufacturers, not the interest groups, but the actual people who were addressing these issues?” state Rep. Chris Rabb (D-Philadelphia) asked.

The bills that passed 14-11 along party lines in the Judiciary Committee this week, in addition to an assault weapons ban and mental health reporting requirements, included a ban on mechanisms to allow faster firing of semi-automatic weapons, known as bump stocks; a ban on gun parts without serial numbers; and a ban on 3D-printed guns.

Two other gun safety measures passed in the full House in May with bipartisan support, which Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D-Montgomery) called the “first meaningful gun safety legislation” in the better part of a decade. 

Those bills would require background checks to buy rifles and shotguns, which are currently exempt, and allow family members of people at risk of harming themselves or others to petition a judge to order them to surrender their firearms, commonly known as a “red flag law.”

Both are awaiting consideration in the Republican-controlled state Senate. Spokespeople for Senate Republican leaders did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Andrew Willinger, executive director of the Duke Center for Firearms Law, said a divided Legislature, such as Pennsylvania’s, makes enacting substantial changes in gun law difficult. States where both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office are held by the same party, such as Michigan, have seen measures including red flag laws enacted. 

And when gun safety legislation does become law, it’s frequently subject to challenge. A 2021 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down New York’s requirement to show a special need for self-protection to obtain a license to carry a concealed firearm renders even well-established gun safety laws vulnerable to appeal. 

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On Thursday, the federal appeals court for Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware struck down 1995 provisions of Pennsylvania’s Uniform Gun Control Act that banned 18- to 20-year-olds from carrying guns outside of their homes in a state of emergency.

In its decision, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cited the Supreme Court’s ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which established a test of whether a restriction is consistent with historical practices. 

“My sense is that the Bruen decision and some of the rhetoric surrounding that has narrowed the window for any cooperation on firearms law,” Willinger said. “You’re only seeing movement when you have the governor and the legislature controlled by the same party.”

Mark Oliva, spokesperson for the firearm industry trade group National Shooting Sports Federation, said his organization would not oppose legislation to improve the accuracy of pre-sale background checks, but said the firearms industry opposes measures that make it harder for individuals to exercise Second Amendment rights.

“The only ideas I hear when people talk about compromise on gun control, is to cede the rights of those who abide by the law. I never see a proposal to make it easier for me to be able to exercise my Second Amendment rights,” Oliva said.

Oliva said the gun industry recognizes societal problems involving guns, such as suicide and access to firearms by children. It promotes solutions through education and voluntary measures, such as safe storage of firearms.

“We’re just not a head in the sand and saying, ‘That’s your problem.’ We’re trying to engage on this on an altruistic level. We want to help,” Oliva said.

Before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, GOP lawmakers raised concerns ranging from questions about the technical capabilities of state agencies to comply with the proposed legislation and about the impact on the traditions that gun owners have followed for generations. 

Rep. Kate Klunk (R-York) questioned whether the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts has the ability to hasten the transfer of records to the state police, as would be required by the mental health records reporting bill. 

The reality is that the possession of a machine gun by a private citizen does nothing to actually protect our communities or national security.

– Rep. Emily Kinkead (D-Allegheny)

Other Republican members suggested that the ban on future sales of assault weapons would create questions about how the state would enforce such a law and how property rights would be protected. 

Rep. Paul Schemel (R-Franklin) noted that as an attorney who handles wills and estates, he is aware that firearms, including assault weapons included in the bill to ban them, are routinely passed down to the owners’ heirs. 

“This bill would … criminalize them for passing on the most popular weapon in my county and what’s the compelling state interest?” Schemel asked, noting that the rifles on the list are functionally identical to traditional semi-automatic hunting rifles, despite their appearance.

The debate also veered into the subject of national defense and the need for citizens to be armed. Rep. Joe Hamm (R-Lycoming) suggested the invasions of Ukraine and Israel by neighboring forces highlights the value of an armed citizenry. 

Rep. Emily Kinkead (D-Allegheny) rejected Hamm’s argument.

“The reality is that the possession of a machine gun by a private citizen does nothing to actually protect our communities or national security,” Kinkead said. “We have the largest standing military in the world. We don’t need to have the same kind of access as the citizens of Ukraine. We have a military that is well equipped to protect us from invasion.”

And Rep. Robert Ledbetter (R-Columbia) brought immigration into the discussion, claiming that the number of people who have crossed the southern border illegally is larger than the U.S. military. Ledbetter’s assertion prompted a forceful response from Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Philadelphia). 

“To hear, at this point, at least two of my colleagues conflate the need for a weapon with folks coming to seek asylum and folks who may have entered our nation illegally, that correlation is violent. It’s dangerous and it’s wrong and it should stop,” Kenyatta said. 

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.

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