House Judiciary chairman says he won’t consider red flag proposal as panel advances mandatory minimums

By: - September 24, 2019 7:55 pm

Rep. Rob Kauffman, GOP chairman of the House Judiciary Committee (Capital-Star photo).

A state House panel advanced mandatory minimum sentences for gun criminals, preemption legislation of local firearms laws, and a slate of other bills Tuesday aimed at deterring gun crime.

The votes by the House Judiciary Committee marked the first legislative action on firearms after a summer dominated by mass shootings, including two in one August weekend that left 29 people dead. 

The day’s agenda drew criticisms from Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration, as well as Democratic members of the General Assembly, who were frustrated by a lack of action on measures favored by gun-violence reduction advocates.

That includes consideration of an extreme risk protection proposal sponsored by Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, which allows for the court-ordered temporary seizure of a person’s firearms.

“We will not be considering red flag in the House Judiciary Committee so long as Chairman Kauffman is chairman,” Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, said, referring to himself in the third person. 

Kauffman said his focus is on “making sure that guns stay out of the hands of criminals.”

“It is not about penalizing law-abiding citizens,” Kauffman said. “So we did both today. We recognized law abiding citizens and their right to bear arms in the commonwealth and enhanced that. We also addressed criminals, those who would harm someone else.”

Everything you need to know about Pennsylvania’s gun laws and the debate to expand them

Kauffman added later that the committee has “no intention of addressing further gun-control measures this session,” from long-gun background checks to mandatory reporting of lost or stolen firearms.

He added that he hadn’t heard any opposition from gun groups. He said the National Rifle Association did not hold a veto over the day’s agenda.

All the measures put before the committee passed, some with bipartisan support, others with just Republican votes.

The measures sent to the full House include:

  • Allowing 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.
  • Forcing individuals involuntarily committed for mental health care to hand over their guns within 48 hours of their release from care.

  • Creating 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.

  • Preventing people who attempt, solicit, or conspire to commit certain crimes, such as rape, robbery, or murder, from purchasing guns.
  • Clarifying 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” with a license.
  • Getting rid of restrictions on carrying guns and gun sales during a declaration of a state of emergency.
  • Refining 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.

In a statement, Wolf said Kauffman should “reconsider his blockade” of some of the measures, such as universal background checks or an extreme risk protection bill, and put the measures up for a vote.

“They would also be real steps to keep guns from dangerous individuals, increase public safety, and reduce gun violence,” Wolf said.

He also promised to veto any measure that expands who can sue to overturn local gun ordinances. Wolf said the proposal “empowers out-of-state special interest groups to sue and take taxpayer dollars from our communities simply for trying to make their neighborhoods safer.”

One topic in particular split the committee: expanded sentencing for gun criminals, whether with mandatory minimums or by changing how individuals serve their sentences. 

Four bills — three from Stephens, one from Rep. Tony DeLuca, D-Allegheny — were focused just on sentencing. Pennsylvania law already adds penalties for committing a crime with a gun.

Stephens told the Capital-Star on Monday that mandatory minimums are worth pursuing because “incapacitation is a legitimate goal of sentencing. Where you have a repeat violent offender who is using guns, we are safer when they are behind bars.”

Stephens made similar defenses Tuesday. However, neither he nor Kauffman cited evidence to back their claim that tougher sentences would deter gun crime. 

“If the deterrent doesn’t work, the bars will keep [gun criminals] out of our hair,” Kauffman said.

Criminal justice reform advocates fired back at the proposals.

Three Democrats — Reps. Ryan Bizzarro, of Erie County; Gerald Mullery, of Luzerne County; and Tina Davis, of Bucks County — voted in favor of tougher sentencing.

One Republican, Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Franklin, opposed all the bills, saying the votes were “an opportunity for us to revisit if mandatory minimums are a good idea.”

One progressive Democrat, Rep. Summer Lee, of Allegheny County, took to Twitter to criticize her colleagues who supported expanded sentencing.

Studies have suggested that it’s the probability of punishment, and not the severity of it, that deters crime. Studies have also found mandatory minimums have a more severe impact on black and Hispanic individuals.

Meanwhile, the sheer cost of incarceration has led conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-backed free market think tank, to throw their weight behind criminal justice reform.

“Go ahead and support these bills, if you want our mass incarceration crisis to increase,” Elizabeth Randol, legislative director for the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Capital-Star.

Gun violence prevention groups pledged to redouble their efforts to make recalcitrant lawmakers like Kauffman hear their voice.

“Rep. Kauffman’s ‘promise’ of inaction is misguided and shameful, and he will be hearing from Pennsylvanians who expect more of their elected officials,” Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFire PA, an anti-gun violence group, said in a statement.

She contrasted the House votes to Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. In the upper chamber, lawmakers heard from eight panels of experts, testifying to a variety of holes in state law to address gun violence.

The panel included testimony on extreme risk protection orders. 

Goodman said a Capitol rally is planned for Wednesday to answer Kauffman’s refusal to take further action outside of Tuesday’s votes.

Ranking Judiciary Democrat Tim Briggs, of Montgomery County, suggested that the chamber’s supporters of gun control might need to get creative — by using floor amendments or resolutions to override Kauffman — to force votes.

An August 2019 poll by Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster found that 64 percent of Pennsylvania voters backed new laws regulating gun ownership. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Americans for Prosperity’s origins.

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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.