She’s a hunter from rural Pa. who supports gun reform. Will lawmakers finally listen? | Wednesday Morning Coffee

March 24, 2021 7:06 am

Carol Lastowka, a teacher from Susquehanna County, speaks during a rally organized by CeaseFirePa on Tuesday, 3/23/21 (screen capture)

(*This story was updated at 10:32 a.m. on Wednesday 3/24/21 to make clear that Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, is the sponsor of extreme risk protection order legislation. Due to an editing error, that information was omitted from an earlier version of this post.)

Good Wednesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

Carol Lastowka grew up around guns. As a child in rural Susquehanna County, she’d see her father returning from the woods with fresh game, and she knew she wanted in. When she was in 10th grade, she got her wish when her father gave Lastowka her first gun.

Now a mother and a teacher, she speaks with obvious pride in being able to provide for her family by putting fresh meat on the table.

But wait a beat, and you’ll hear the equally palpable pain in Lastowka’s voice when she talks about the terrible toll that guns also have taken on her and her family: The one classmate who shot himself in the hand; another classmate who shot and killed his father and then turned his weapon on himself; the 20-year-old cousin who died by gun suicide; an elementary school crush who went on to a career in law enforcement and later died in the line of duty.

“For all the enjoyment and pride hunting has given me, I can’t say guns have positively affected my life or the lives of those I’ve known,” said Lastowka, who was one of many Pennsylvanians, from all corners of the state, who virtually rallied Tuesday for a suite of gun violence reduction measures that have come and gone before the Republican-controlled General Assembly seemingly countless times before over the last two decades.

Those reforms include requiring people to report lost and stolen weapons; the enactment of extreme risk protection orders, popularly known as “Red Flag laws,” which would allow for the temporary court-ordered seizing of someone’s weapons if they pose a risk to themselves or others, and the long-sought passage of universal background checks on all gun purchases.

Republicans have batted those proposals patronizingly away, dismissing them as a Philadelphia thing, or parroting tired lines about gun grabs.

This time around, advocates are counting on a diverse coalition that includes clergy, emergency room physicians and nurses who see the deadly toll of gun violence first hand, gun owners such as Lastowka, and at least one Republican state lawmaker, to prove public support runs broad and deep, and to finally spur the Legislature to act.

“I wish I never had to experience the tragic situations wreaked on my loved ones,” Lastowka said during the rally organized by the advocacy group CeaseFirePa. “As a hunter, teacher, mom, and a patriotic citizen, I implore my elected officials to enact these commonsense reforms … if these policies had been in place, some of the loved ones I lost might be alive today.”

The Aromatherapy Spa in Atlanta, Ga., the site of one of last week’s fatal shootings (Photo by John McCosh, The Georgia Recorder)

The rally came the day after a murderous rampage at a Colorado supermarket that claimed the lives of 10 people, including a police officer, and two weeks after a mass shooting in Atlanta, Ga. that left eight dead, six of them Asian-American women. It also came the same day that President Joe Biden implored lawmakers to act.

But speakers at Tuesday’s rally were quick to point out that, while those shootings have grabbed headlines this month, mass shootings have occurred with numbing regularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. And tragically, so too have the gun suicides that have rocked rural Pennsylvania. They’ve just been shoved off the front page by a historic public health crisis.

“This last year was hard. It was hard for all of us. But it’s been harder in some communities than others. While some focused on COVID-19, [others] also had to focus on the longstanding and unremitting health crisis of gun violence,” Dr. Zoe Maher, a physician at Temple University Hospital said, as she recounted one recent, violence-riddled weekend.

The Rev. Bob Birch, of Leacock Presbyterian Church in Lancaster County, has ministered to two communities shattered by gun violence: Newtown, Conn., and Nickel Mines, Pa.. He argued the moral case for action.

“All of those killed were my neighbors. I cannot be a neighbor to those killed and their families, if I do not seek justice,” he said. “If I am to follow the way of Christ and be a neighbor to 32 innocent people killed … I must work to end the cycle of hurting.”

State Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, speaks during a rally in the Pa. Capitol rotunda on 9/17/19. He is the House sponsor of legislation authorizing an extreme risk protection order law in Pennsylvania, which proponents say will reduce firearms deaths (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

The proposal dealing with lost and stolen weapons traces its origins to the administration of former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendellwho put his considerable political muscle behind it in 2007, months after he romped to re-election to a second term over Pittsburgh Steelers legend Lynn Swann. Even so, Rendell still couldn’t win passage in a General Assembly with a narrow Democratic majority.

Two decades later, Rendell’s Democratic successor, Gov. Tom Wolf, who similarly cruised to re-election in 2018, is making what could well be his final push for gun reform. Wolf leaves office at the end of 2022, when he’ll hit the constitutional limit of two, four-year terms.

“Gun violence is a scourge all across Pennsylvania, and across our nation,” Wolf said Tuesday in tones far more measured than the red-faced Rendell, who swatted angrily at his lectern in 2007. “Every death from gun violence is a tragedy, all the more because we know how to reduce gun violence. We all need to raise our voices together to call for change.”

*The “red flag” proposal also is not new. Its architect, Rep. Todd Stephens, a Montgomery County Republican and a former prosecutor, pushed the bill during the 2019-2020 legislative session, only to see it vanish without a trace in the GOP-controlled House Judiciary Committee.

Stephens pointed to the success of the laws in other states, such as Connecticut and Florida, where they have been shown to reduce violence.

“In the pandemic, we followed the science and the data,” Stephens argued. ” … The data shows is that the decision to take one’s life is made quickly. The data further shows us that a firearm is the most efficient way to do it. And the data shows that temporarily separating someone from their firearms is the best way to save a life.”

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who’s been widely mentioned as a 2022 gubernatorial contender, and who recently made headlines with his efforts to combat unlicensed and untraceable “ghost guns,” decried the lack of action in the Legislature. Shapiro, a Democrat, represented part of Montgomery County in the House when Rendell made his ill-starred push.

“Doing nothing is a choice that a whole lot of policymakers in Harrisburg and Washington have made,” Shapiro said. “But you’ve made a different choice …  We’ve made a different choice to find solutions in the face of this tragic loss.

“Even with the obstacles we face, I refuse to to accept this as the new normal,” he continued. “It’s enough with the thoughts and prayers. I am a person of deep faith, and it’s enough with thoughts and prayers.”

If the Republican-controlled General Assembly didn’t listen when children were slaughtered at Sandy Hook and Parkland; or when concert goers were massacred in Las Vegas, or when elderly worshippers were murdered at Tree of Life, or any of the countless mass shootings since, it’s hard to imagine what will move them this year.

Maybe, finally, it’ll take the word of a deer hunter from Susquehanna County. And maybe it’ll take a man of the cloth who ministered to a flock in House Speaker Brian Cutler’s Lancaster County backyard to make them see the light.

Then they won’t be able to say it’s a city thing.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
Burnt out and beleaguered, county elections officials are asking lawmakers for help ahead of this year’s election season, Elizabeth Hardison reports.

In one of her first major public acts, new state Treasurer Stacy Garrity, a Republican, is backing the Democrat she defeated, ex-Treasuer Joe Torsellato join her on the the state teachers’ pension board. The move comes amid an internal investigation of an error that may have prevented an increase in some teacher’s retirement contributions, Stephen Caruso reports.

The same day that the Wolf administration announced that Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller would vacate her post effective April 30, Gov. Tom Wolf named her replacement: top administration aide Meg SneadCassie Miller reports.

Tucked in the Democrats’ massive coronavirus stimulus package was a long-awaited solution for a financial ticking time bomb: private pension funds on the brink of collapse, jeopardizing the retirement plans of millions of union members. The $86 billion in assistance will aid thousands of retirees in Pennsylvania, Capital-Star Washington Reporter Laura Olson writes, with an assist from me.

The day after the massacre in Boulder, President Joe Biden called on the U.S. Senate to pass a background checks billCapital-Star Washington Reporter Ariana Figueroa writes.

On our Commentary Page this morning, Catie Jacobson, a 17-year-old high school student from Lewisburg, says she’s a member of the ‘Mass Shooting Generation,’ and argues it’s long past time for lawmakers to pass common sense gun reforms. Opinion regular Bruce Ledewitz, meanwhile, explains why, no matter what party you’re in, you should love and embrace one-party rule in Washington.

The Free Library of Philadelphia (Flickr Commons)

The Inquirer
 explains why diversity training at the Free Library of Philadelphia fell short of the mark.
Allegheny County Council postponed a meeting amid a reported COVID-19 outbreak, the Tribune-Review reports.
After a year of pandemic learning, PennLive explains how schools are going to help kids make up lost ground. 
A new Franklin & Marshall College poll has found overwhelming public support for a health department in Lancaster County, LancasterOnline reports.
Housing prices skyrocketed in the Lehigh Valley during the pandemic, prompting concerns for middle- and low-income families, the Morning Call reports.
Local pharmacies in Luzerne County have been cut off from the COVID-19 vaccine, the Citizens’ Voice reports.

Here’s your #Philadelphia Instagram of the Day.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Mira (@lightbender_photo)

Philadelphia won’t follow state guidelines and ease restaurant restrictions, WHYY-FM reports.
Pa. lawmakers have moved to limit the political ties of the next chair of the legislative redistricting commission, the Associated Press reports (via WITF-FM).
Erie County will launch a $17 million rental assistance program, GoErie reports (paywall). 
Former Eastern District U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain has launched a PACIt’s his first move toward a GOP gubernatorial bid in 2022, PoliticsPA reports. takes a look at the effect big winter gas bills are taking on cities’ finances.
Americans stationed at overseas military bases have struggled to get the COVID-19 vaccine, Roll Call reports.

What Goes On.
The House comes in at 1 p.m. The Senate convenes at TK. Here’s a look at the day’s committee action.
In the Senate:
9 a.m., Senate Chamber: 
Finance Committee
In the House:
8 a.m., G50 Irvis: 
State Government Committee
9 a.m., 515 Irvis North: Transportation Committee
9:30 a.m., 205 Ryan: House Finance Committee
10 a.m., 140 MC: Children & Youth Committee
10 a.m, 60 EW: Gaming Oversight Committee
Call of the Chair, 140 MC: Appropriations Committee

What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition).
8 a.m.: Breakfast for 
Sen. Judy Ward
8 a.m. Breakfast for Rep. Mike Schlossberg
5 p.m.: Senate Republican Campaign Committee reception
5 p.m.: Reception for Rep. Regina Young
6 p.m.: 
Reception for House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton
Ride the circuit, and give at the max, and you’re out an absolutely appalling $31,025 today. Credit McClinton, at least, for the $25 top ask at her virtual reception.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Got a birthday, for yourself, or someone else, you’d like to see observed in this space? Email me at [email protected], and I’ll get you on the list.

In your non-political must-read of the morning, here’s this deep dive from The Atlantic on efforts to save the Internet we all grew up with – a Herculean task where data is erased and websites are wiped out all the time.

Dept of Ink-Stained Wretches.
The Cut, meanwhile, has this great interview with CNN’s Abby Phillip, who did smashing work for The Washington Post before making the leap to CNN.

Heavy Rotation.
You will be hard-pressed to find a more touchingly ordinary song about life during the pandemic than this one: Here’s ‘Strong Feelings,’ from Dry Cleaning.

Wednesday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
New Jersey slipped past Philadelphia 4-3 on Tuesday night. It was the Devils’ fourth win in five games.

And now you’re up to date.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

John L. Micek

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