Tree of Life First Anniversary: Our leaders had a chance to make a statement on gun violence. They missed it | Opinion

October 27, 2019 12:06 pm

A Tree of Life vigil. (Gov. Tom Wolf/Flickr)

By Shira Goodman

Last weekend in Philadelphia, we witnessed the senseless murder of two-year old Nikolette Rivera and the horrific shooting of Yazeem Jenkins.

Nikolette was inside her home in her mother’s arms as her home was sprayed with bullets from an AK-47. Yazeem was strapped into his car seat, being driven by his mother, when the car was shot up. Yazeem is still fighting for his life, and Nikolette’s family is burying their little girl.

This does not even count the other nine shootings in Philadelphia last weekend. So far, in the month of October, 24 people have been fatally shot in Philadelphia, and 43 in Pennsylvania.  This does not count suicides, which generally outnumber homicides by 2 to 1.

And this weekend, Pennsylvania will mark one year since the tragic mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, the deadliest anti-semitic attack in U.S. history. This attack is one of a number of hate-fueled murders we have witnessed in recent years in our holy spaces.

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For three days of the work week in between these weekends, the General Assembly was back in session in Harrisburg after nearly a month in the districts. You might think that given the timing of this session week, some attention would have been paid to Pennsylvania’s gun violence problem. You would be wrong.

There was some action on bills related to guns: the Senate passed a bill to loosen training requirements for armed security officers working in our schools, allowing currently serving personnel to continue working as armed security without being certified under the National School Resource Officer training program. The House Game and Fisheries Committee voted out a bill to allow Sunday hunting on several Sundays a year.

This is a clear case of misplaced priorities. In the limited time they spend together debating legislation, our elected representatives and senators have again failed to address anything to make us safer and to reduce the toll of gun violence. Instead, they have worked to move forward gun-lobby priorities and to allow untrained armed personnel in our schools.

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There is good evidence that armed personnel, even when trained, do not make schools safer for students and faculty. Untrained personnel will only make our schools less safe.

There are good bills sitting in committees in both chambers that would reduce our gun violence toll and make us safer.

These include background check expansion bills, Extreme Risk Protection Order bills, safe storage requirements, assault weapons bans, and bills to create exceptions to the state’s preemption law to allow cities the power to address their own gun violence problems. These bills deserve debate and votes. We deserve to know where our legislators stand on these life-saving measures.

We often hear that it’s hard to get things done in Harrisburg. There is partisan polarization, geographic conflict, and just a lot to do in a limited amount of time.

These arguments ring hollow when you remember that Pennsylvania has a “full-time legislature” whose sessions run for two years (the current year is Jan. 2019-Dec. 2020).

Moreover, each of these legislators chose to be there, campaigned for the job, asked for your vote. Their task is to solve challenging problems and to find innovative ways to reach consensus that will serve Pennsylvania. That may be at times be a hard lift, but it’s what they signed up for. If that’s not the job they signed up for, they should step aside.

I spent last Tuesday in Harrisburg, talking to state senators about the school security issue.

Members of the Philadelphia delegation were clearly shaken by and furious about the weekends’ shootings of two babies and the ongoing gun violence crisis. And members of the Pittsburgh delegation were solemn as this coming weekend’s memorial was approaching. But for the rest of the chamber, it was business as usual.

Three years ago, following the deadly mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., another hate-fueled crime, the U.S. House of Representatives led by U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., staged a sit-in to protest the lack of action on gun policy and to demand a vote.

The U.S. Senate held a filibuster until several votes were called. No new laws were passed, but the nation took notice. And each election since, more voters are making gun violence prevention a priority.

Maybe that’s what we need in Harrisburg. Something to shake the elected officials out of complacency and force a shift in priorities. The Legislature is back this week for three more days, and the voting public is watching.

Shira Goodman is the executive director of CeaseFirePA, a statewide organization working to end the epidemic of gun violence in the Commonwealth. She writes from Philadelphia. 

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