Can doctors and rising suicide rates convince Pa. lawmakers to act on guns?

A doctor attends a gun control rally in the Pa. Capitol, January 2019. Gov. Tom Wolf/Flickr

When more than a dozen moderate Republican lawmakers lost their re-election bids in 2018, some advocates worried that the new makeup of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly could stymie legislation on progressive policy issues.

As one of the state’s leading advocates for gun-control, Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFire PA, knows that moderate lawmakers can drum up crucial votes from colleagues who are hesitant to break rank in hyper-partisan policy debates.

Pennsylvania’s state Legislature has a slim record on gun control. In October, it passed its first substantive firearm policy measure in decades: a bill that requires the surrender of guns in abuse cases.

Advocates hope that victory, along with the not-too-distant memory of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue massacre and a growing scourge of firearm suicides in rural areas, will propel more gun control bills to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk this year.

That could include a “red flag” law, an assault weapon ban, or a bill requiring universal background checks on gun sales — something Wolf has called for almost every year he’s held office.

And while advocates will still rely on moderate Republican lawmakers to support legislation, CeaseFire is also tapping a new source of lobbying firepower: Pennsylvania’s physicians.

“I’ve been with doctors all morning, and they’re going to help us bridge the divide,” Goodman said at a Jan. 29 rally that capped off a day of advocacy in the Capitol. “They see gun violence every day, and they’re very credible messengers about what a gunshot wound does to a human body.”

#thisismylane

Advocacy organizations that represent doctors — such as the Pennsylvania Medical Society and Pennsylvania Academy of Family Physicians — say they haven’t taken official stances on gun control policy.

But Goodman said individual doctors across the country were galvanized after the National Rifle Association tweeted in November that “self-important doctors should stay in their lane” on gun policy.

The NRA tweet spawned the hashtag #thisismylane, which scores of medical professionals used to call for gun control or to share stories of treating gunshot victims.

Late last year, Goodman was approached by a group of trauma surgeons from across the state who wanted to participate in CeaseFire’s advocacy efforts.

She said their ability to offer sound data and compelling, first-person accounts of the impact of gun violence makes them a uniquely effective voice in the fight for gun control.

“We protect the public from what we see with gun violence, but it’s time for us as physicians to start speaking out about what we see so that we can help legislators protect our communities,” Raquel Forsythe, a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center surgeon, said at the rally. “Every community in Pennsylvania is impacted by gun violence.”

Forsythe noted that gun violence isn’t confined to urban areas or places with high crime rates — rising suicide rates among men in Pennsylvania’s rural counties have greatly increased the state’s firearm death tally in recent years.

Research from the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence shows that 60 percent of Pennsylvania’s gun deaths in the past decade were suicides. And while the state logged fewer than 800 gun suicides in 2008, that number rose to almost 1,000 in 2017 — a nearly 24 percent increase.

The counties with highest firearm suicide rates — such as Elk, Clarion, Somerset, Jefferson, and Cambria — are rural areas with relatively low incidences of violent crime.

“If you want to move the needle on gun violence, you have to address suicides,” Rep. Todd, R-Montgomery, said.

A ‘no-brainer’ to stop suicides

Stephens spent much of last year lobbying his colleagues to support his version of a “red flag” law, a gun control measure that’s once again a top legislative priority for CeaseFire in 2019.

Stephens’ legislation (HB 2227) would allow a judge to issue an Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) to temporarily restrict a person’s ability to purchase or possess firearms, as long as a petitioner could prove the individual posed a danger to himself or others.

Both the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the NRA opposed Stephens’ bill, arguing it would which said it would restrict the rights of people who had not committed crimes. It was voted out of the House Judiciary Committee with significant amendments in June, and never brought to the floor for a vote.

The Republican from the Philly suburbs plans to re-introduce the amended version of the bill this session.

Sen. Tom Killion, a Republican from Chester County, plans to introduce a nearly identical companion bill in the Senate, his chief of staff, Shannon Royer, said last week.

It’s likely that both bills will draw renewed opposition from interest groups. But Stephens says the proposed legislation provides substantial due process to gun owners, since the burden of proof for getting an ERPO is high and subjects of the order can contest it in court.

His bill also contains a provision to penalize anyone who submits false information when filing a petition.

Red flag laws are already making a dent in firearm suicide rates in other states, Stephens said.

A 2018 study found that EROP laws reduced suicide rates by 7.5 percent in Indiana and 13 percent in Connecticut. And in Maryland, courts have found probable cause to seize firearms from 148 people since an ERPO law passed there in October.

“To me it’s a no-brainer,” Stephens said. “It’s working in other states, and we have really good data to show it.”

On the agenda

Goodman has high hopes that ERPO legislation will pass this year, given its similarities to the gun control measure lawmakers passed in October.

CeaseFire still supports legislation that would ban assault rifles and bump stocks and mandate universal background checks on gun purchases, Goodman said. It also opposes bills that would arm teachers in Pennsylvania’s public schools.

In addition to his ERPO bill, Killion is co-sponsoring legislation this session that would require anyone buying a long gun in a private transaction to undergo a background check. He is also co-sponsoring an assault weapons ban, another vestige from the last legislative session.

Wolf supports both measures, but they’re likely to face pushback from Republicans. House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, has already said he could support exploring an ERPO bill, but he was less warm to calls for increased background checks.

At a Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon last week, Cutler said that Pennsylvania already has stringent background check laws.

Last year, bills that would have created universal background checks failed to advance through House and Senate committees. But Goodman is optimistic that measures would be more successful if they went before a full chamber for a vote.

“We didn’t know we were going to pass the domestic violence bill last year, but its first time through the senate the vote was unanimous,” Goodman said. “I feel like we can get to the votes if we can move the bills out of committee and get them on the agenda.”

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