How one week in the Capitol drove home our destructive paralysis on gun laws | John L. Micek

September 26, 2019 11:57 am

Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro (center), flanked by Sens. Vince Hughes (L) and Pat Browne (R) discusses the effectiveness of a school safety hotline. The three held a roundtable Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019 with students in the Cumberland Valley School District, near Harrisburg (Capital-Star photo).

MECHANICSBURG, Pa. — So here’s another one of those times when you get to see the unintended through-lines of policy.

On Wednesday, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro held a roundtable with students in the sprawling Cumberland Valley School District, about 25 minutes from Harrisburg, to discuss the effectiveness of the state’s new “Safe2Say” hotline program, and how they’d been using it.

We didn’t get a chance to hear what the students had to say — journalists were ushered out of the room before that happened. But we do know this: According to an Aug. 1 report by Shapiro’s office, the hotline logged some 23,490 reports in the 2018-19 school year.

And while it was originally intended to prevent the kind of mass casualty events that we’ve seen at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., students are more often using it to report incidents of harassment and bullying. And critically, students are using it to let authorities know that they’re worried that a friend or fellow student might be thinking about harming themselves.

The majority of these calls, district Superintendent David Christopher told me, are coming after school hours.

That’s an unusual extension of the already all-consuming role that school plays in students’ lives. Not only are we asking school officials to keep our young people safe during the school day, now that oversight extends, in a measurable way, well into the night — in those dark hours when students are looking for someone to turn to, either for themselves or for a friend.

Christopher said the program’s initial rollout, and you’ll forgive the pun here, was “ready, fire, aim.” District officials have learned on the fly about the resources both they, and the three local police departments that serve Cumberland Valley, along with the Pennsylvania State Police, need to make it function effectively.

Speaking to reporters before the event, Shapiro said that as he’s traveled the state doing listening tours on the program that one thing — regardless of geography or the wealth of the school district — has stayed constant:

“Students are struggling with stress, they’re struggling with mental health issues,” he said. “They need more resources, people they can talk to. I think the tips demonstrate that need that exists in our schools today.”

Shapiro was accompanied on this trip by state Sens. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, and Vincent J. Hughes, D-Philadelphia, who sponsored the legislation that created the program back in 2018.

Browne chairs the budget-writing Senate Appropriations Committee. Hughes is the panel’s ranking Democrat. Both said that meetings such as Wednesday’s are critical to understanding the need for resources created by the hotline.

Those findings “will be included in budget discussions,” Browne said. Speaking later to students, Hughes added, “Let us know what’s going on, so that we can do what we need to do. Tell us what’s up.”

Listening to Shapiro and the two lawmakers, it was hard not to contrast their forward-thinking remarks against those of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, who said earlier this week that his panel won’t consider a so-called “red flag” law — or any other gun-violence prevention measures — as long as he serves as chairman.

Now in place in 17 states and the District of Columbia, the laws authorize “extreme risk protection orders,” which allow law enforcement, acting under court order, to temporarily seize weapons from people who pose a clear risk of harming themselves or others.

“We will not be considering red flag in the House Judiciary Committee so long as Chairman Kauffman is chairman,” Kauffman said, referring to himself in the third person, the Capital-Star’s Stephen Caruso reported. The House version of the bill is being sponsored by Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery. A separate Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Tom Killion, R-Delaware, is now before the upper chamber.

Kauffman said his focus is on “making sure that guns stay out of the hands of criminals,” and not abridging the rights of law-abiding citizens, even though research has clearly shown that ERPOs can prevent both suicide and mass casualty events.

Hughes said the Republican lawmaker’s intransigence was a “boil on the butt of progress — and you can quote me.”

Also on Wednesday, the state Senate Judiciary Committee wrapped up two days’ worth of hearings on gun violence prevention measures. As the Capital-Star’s Elizabeth Hardison reports, the committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, says she has concerns about red flag laws, but isn’t closing the door on them like her colleague in the House.

So, on the one hand, the Legislature managed, despite itself, to do something good by implementing the Safe2Say tipline. On the other, they’re keeping a critical tool out of the hands of law enforcement to prevent suicides and mass shootings.

This kind of blind alley thinking happens all the time in the Capitol, notoriously on matters of abortion access. The implications here, though, for both public safety and the 2,000 Pennsylvanians who die by suicide each year could not be more stark. About half of those suicides, by the way, will involve a firearm.

It was also hard not to think Wednesday about my last trip to Cumberland Valley High School in March 2018, about a month after the Parkland massacre.

At the time, a Cumberland Valley student named Madeline Bailey grimly described the mass casualty drills that are now a fact of life for Pennsylvania’s school students.

“You just sit in a corner and pray you don’t get shot,” she said.

The Safe2Say program gets Pennsylvania about halfway to allowing students such as Bailey to worry less about that kind of horror. A red flag law may not prevent violence entirely, but it’ll go a long way to getting the rest of the way there.

We owe these students, the Sandy Hook Generation, nothing less. And their voices have been noticeably absent in the Capitol this week. As the hotline program demonstrates, they’re crying out for help.

Lawmakers need to listen a lot harder.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.