The floor of the Pa. House of Representatives during a joint session on April 10, 2019. (Courtesy Pa. House Democrats)
Legislative leaders in the state House and Senate said exactly the right things as they gathered in a rare joint session Wednesday to honor the victims of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh last October.
State Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said the massacre, which targeted members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community for no other reason than their faith, was a reminder of the “dark underbelly of hatred and anti-Semitism that exists in the world.”
House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said the rampage in the city’s picturesque, and historically Jewish, Squirrel Hill neighborhood was “an attack on everyone.” Cutler evoked the memory of the shooting at Nickel Mines in Lancaster County in 2006, that resulted in the deaths of five Amish schoolgirls.
House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, reminded the audience that “hate is not appropriate at any time. Anti-Semitism is wrong.”
And then the assembled House and Senate lawmakers stood together to unanimously approve resolutions declaring that “our Commonwealth is stronger than hate.”
It was a beautiful, touching, and poignant moment. And it absolutely, positively cannot end there.
If lawmakers want to permanently honor the memory of the extraordinary — yet so very normal — people who died that day, then they can do these three things:
Approve legislation sponsored by state Rep. Dan Frankel, who is Jewish and whose district includes Squirrel Hill, that would extend anti-discrimination protections to Pennsylvania’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender residents.
For years, Turzai has parked Frankel’s bill in the House State Government Committee, where its former chairman, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, of Butler County, was content to let it wither and die. The panel’s new chairman, Rep. Garth Everett, told The Capital-Star’s Stephen Caruso in February that he’s open to considering the bill.
That’s progress. But it’s not enough. The bill needs to go the floor — where it will most likely pass.
In floor remarks Wednesday, Frankel, who sponsored the House “Stronger than Hate” resolution, talked about the rise of hate crimes worldwide. That included the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., that specifically targeted LGBTQ people; the shooting at Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in South Carolina, where black worshipers were gunned down; Tree of Life, and the recent mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand.
“This is a story that we, as Jews, have heard before,” Frankel said, adding that when hate speech is normalized and accepted, “it creates situations where tragedies are possible.”
Actually approving Frankel’s anti-discrimination measure, and sending it Gov Tom Wolf for his signature, would give weight to remarks by Scarnati and others that the commonwealth needs to stand up to hate.
Lawmakers can approve, and Wolf can sign, “red flag” legislation which would allow family members and law enforcement to petition a judge to temporarily restrict a person’s ability to purchase or possess firearms, as long as the petitioner can prove the person poses a danger to himself or others.
The measure, sponsored by Sen. Tom Killion, R-Delaware, and Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, was also introduced in last year’s legislative session. It went nowhere. Meanwhile, 387 people nationwide lost their lives in mass shootings in 2018.
Gun control advocates say the “extreme risk protection orders” that would be authorized under the law would reduce the number of firearms-related suicides. They can also be used to prevent mass shootings, according to the Giffords Law Center.
This one is admittedly a long-shot, but lawmakers could at least give a vote to a proposal sponsored by Rep. Angel Cruz, D-Philadelphia, that would require most guns to be registered with the state. Legislative authorization of universal background checks, which Attorney General Josh Shapiro suggested during a House budget hearing in February, seems less far-fetched.
Shapiro, who attended Wednesday’s joint session, told The Capital-Star that he hoped “the voices of the victims, the voices of the Squirrel Hill community, will be voices that lawmakers cannot ignore,” and will prompt them to action.
Thankfully, some lawmakers know that rhetoric, like thoughts and prayers, are worthless without deeds and action.
“I’m grateful that we as a General Assembly have recognized the atrocities that occurred. I’m even more grateful for the families and congregants who attended today,” Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia, said. “It’s in this spirit that I want to make sure that today’s ceremony is followed tomorrow by real, measurable action. Respecting and honoring the dead must include ensuring that hate crimes are curtailed, gun violence is directly addressed, and religious extremism is combated.”
Pennsylvania has already taken some concrete steps to reduce the number of firearms-related deaths. A new state law that took effect Wednesday slapped new restrictions on domestic abusers and subjects of protection-from-abuse orders. Backers of the “red flag” measure hope that’s a good sign for their cause as well.
As freshman Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery, observed Wednesday, there’s a chance now for lawmakers to “shift to moral leadership” on big issues, like gun-control and combating hate crimes, instead of the “transactional morality” that’s been the default.
While the House and Senate annually meet in joint session for the governor’s budget address, Wednesday’s session was the first called for extraordinary reasons since Sept. 25, 2001, when the two chambers gathered to commemorate the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
All told, a total of 2,977 people died between the three attacks in Lower Manhattan, the Pentagon, and in Somerset County, Pa. In 2010 alone, 31,706 people died as a result of homicides, suicides, and unintentional shootings, according to the Giffords Law Center.
That’s more than 10 times the number of people who died on Sept. 11. And it’s not hard to recall the national mobilization that took place in the days and weeks after the attacks.
“We’re going to get to work on what needs to be done,” Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, whose district includes Tree of Life, said in an interview before the joint session. “The violence and hate that took place that day was inappropriate and we have to take steps to contain all that.”
A journey starts with a first step. Here’s hoping it continues.
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