The Lead

Pa. House committee will vote on mandatory minimums for gun crimes, much to Democrats’ chagrin 

By: - September 23, 2019 4:39 pm

In the wake of a summer of mass shootings, a Pennsylvania House committee is poised to vote on a bill that expands prison sentences for gun crimes but not on a “red flag” proposal.

On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee will consider a package of 12 firearms or violence-related bills.

Two of those bills would increase sentences for gun crimes by reinstating mandatory minimums for offenses committed while carrying a firearm, including drug crimes, and for felons who have illegal guns.

Under two other bills, judges would be required to use consecutive sentencing for gun crimes, rather than concurrent sentencing. 

In concurrent sentencing, a person sent to prison for multiple crimes serves his sentences at the same time. In consecutive sentencing, the individual must serve all the time he was sentenced to.

The state Supreme Court in 2015 found mandatory minimums to be unconstitutional. The House has tried unsuccessfully to place a new system into law.

The votes on mandatory minimums also strike a discordant note with the criminal justice reforms that have brought Republicans and Democrats together over the past few years.

Three of the bills to expand sentences come from Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, a former federal prosecutor who is also the prime sponsor of an extreme risk protection order proposal. That bill would allow family and law enforcement to petition a judge to temporarily confiscate firearms from a person deemed at risk of harming himself or others.

While Stephens thinks his red flag bill could help address rural suicide rates, he told the Capital-Star stiffer punishments are a sound tactic to fight urban gun violence.

“The bottom line is, incapacitation is a legitimate goal of sentencing,” Stephens told the Capital-Star. “Where you have a repeat violent offender who is using guns, we are safer when they are behind bars.”

As for his ERPO bill, Stephens said he has continued talking with Judiciary Chairman Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, to try to get it on the agenda.

Despite bipartisan talks at the state and federal level on expanded background checks and an extreme risk protection law, none of the bills are yet on the agenda.

The PA SAFE Caucus, a group of House and Senate lawmakers that advocates for stricter gun laws, criticized Tuesday’s planned votes.

“The only thing worse than doing nothing as the death rate continues to climb is pretending to do something,” Philadelphia Democrat Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, SAFE Caucus co-chair, said in a statement. “We will not stop pushing until we can honestly say we’ve done all we can to end gun violence and keep our constituents safe.”

The agenda includes bills to:

  • Allow out-of-state groups to sue a municipality for passing restrictive gun laws in violation of state law. A recent Commonwealth Court ruling has already expanded who can sue to overturn gun laws. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mark Keller, R-Perry, would also let a plaintiff get back both attorneys fees and “any loss of income suffered because of the illegal ordinance” if they win the suit.
  • Force individuals involuntarily committed for mental health care to hand over their guns within 48 hours of their release from care.
  • Create a voluntary, no firearm purchase list for “individuals who believe that they are a threat to themselves or others.” Individuals can place themselves on it for one year.
  • Prevent people who attempted, solicited. or conspired to commit certain crimes, such as rape, robbery, or murder, from purchasing guns.
  • Clarify that “a lawful gun owner may transport a firearm in a motor vehicle for a lawful purpose, as long as it is unloaded and not directly accessible to an occupant in the vehicle” without a license.
  • Get rid of restrictions on carrying guns and gun sales during a declaration of a state of emergency.
  • Refine Taser laws. One,by Rep. Bill Kortz, D-Allegheny, clarifies that they may be carried in self-defense. Another, by Rep. Matthew Dowling, R-Fayette, would let individuals carry Tasers without an instructions label, as they must have under current law.

While the list lacked many of the top demands of Democratic advocates, it included some bills sponsored by Democrats, which committee chair Kauffman — who decides what the panel will vote on — noted to the Capital-Star.

“I think it’s a rather robust agenda that has some of [the Democrats’] bills on it,” Kauffman told the Capital-Star. “So I can certainly remove theirs if they’d like.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.