The Lead

Pa. House Dems call for legislative special session to address gun violence

By: - August 5, 2019 10:27 am

State Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell speaks at a rally during Gun Violence Awareness Day on Wednesday, June 5, 2019 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

After 31 people were killed in less than 24 hours in mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, some state House Democrats are calling for Gov. Tom Wolf to call a special session to address gun violence.

Under the state Constitution, the governor may call the Legislature back to debate and pass laws related to a specific topic. The Legislature is not required to pass anything at all.

Rep. Kevin Boyle, D-Philadelphia, asked for the executive measure in a tweet Sunday evening.

In an emailed statement, J.J. Abbott, spokesperson for Wolf, said that the governor stands ready to work with legislative leaders to address gun violence, from mass shootings to suicides.

As for a special session, the “governor is open to calling a special session if there are commitments to allow votes on critical reforms that will save lives. Without such an agreement, there is no guarantee of action.”

No such guarantee of quick votes seems forthcoming. Mike Straub, spokesman for House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said in an email that “the solemn events of the past week are devastating for all of us.”

“We will continue to carefully examine what is causing these tragedies within our society, and how we are addressing the most dangerous and mentally ill members of our communities,” Straub added. “Special session, or in regular session, our members are working to find an answer to ending horrific acts of violence while recognizing there are millions upon millions of Pennsylvanians who responsibly and legally own firearms.”

Over the weekend, the governor renewed calls he’s previously made for stricter gun laws, such as universal background checks and an assault weapons ban.

He also called for the General Assembly to “target white nationalism,” “promote tolerance,” and “invest in mental health care and help those struggling.”

At least one of those calls has backing from a powerful lawmaker, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson.

Boyle, who told the Capital-Star he is actively recruiting other lawmakers to his side, called gun violence “a plague” that is visible in the commonwealth’s cities, from Philadelphia to Allentown to Pittsburgh, whether in a mass shooting or a homicide. He specifically cited wanting solutions addressing guns.

According to a 2016 study from the American Psychiatric Association, “mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1 percent of all yearly gun-related homicides.”

Rep. Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh, agreed with holding a special session. His district includes the Deja Vu night club, where in June of this year 10 people were wounded in a mass shooting the Allentown Morning Call described as “one of the worst mass shootings in Lehigh Valley history.”

But Schweyer also pointed out that just bringing lawmakers back together doesn’t guarantee results.

“What would be every bit as helpful would be if some of these NRA-backed members — that’s Democrats and Republicans … these folks afraid to have honest conversations on gun control — would come to districts dealing with a wave of gun violence,” Schweyer told the Capital-Star.

Gun legislation is a tough sell to the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Activists had to wage an uphill fight to pass a bill restricting accused domestic abusers’ access to firearms last year. It was the first major piece of gun legislation to pass in a decade, and passed in a caucus splitting vote for both parties.

Last fall, Pennsylvania had its own mass shooting when a white supremacist shot and killed 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

The last special session in Pennsylvania was held in 2010, called by former Gov. Ed Rendell to address transportation.

This story was updated at 12:24 p.m. with comment from the House Republicans, and at 2:58 p.m. with additional comment from the Wolf administration.

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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.