A Pa. Republican backed gun restrictions for domestic abusers in Harrisburg. He didn’t in Washington D.C.

By: - March 26, 2021 7:17 am

U.S. Rep. Fred Keller, R-12th District, speaks at a Congressional hearing in 2019. (Congressional photo)

A little more than two years ago, then-state Rep. Fred Keller, R-Snyder, stood on the floor of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives with a message for his conservative colleagues.

At the time, the chamber was considering a bill that would become Act 79, which makes it easier to take guns away from convicted domestic abusers, and the debate was dividing Republicans.

But Keller, an owner of “semiautomatic rifles with 30-round magazines” advised his fellow lawmakers that “responsible gun owners are not going to be harmed by this bill, not at all,” according to the House Journal for Sept. 26, 2018.

“People who love the Second Amendment, who like to go out to the range, who like to hunt, as long as they are responsible with their rights, they will not lose anything,” he continued. 

The bill only “deals with the actions of the individual when they have displayed that they have not handled the right that they have in a way that is beneficial to society.”

The bill passed 131-62. The Republican majority was split down the middle, but the bill was out of the House and off to the GOP-controlled state Senate, which passed it with less debate 43-5.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf then quickly signed it into law, the first bill restricting gun ownership to pass the General Assembly in more than a decade.

Keller is now a congressman, winning a 2019 special election for north-central Pennsylvania 12th Congressional District. And last week, despite his earlier track record, he was one of 172 House Republicans to vote against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

The law was passed in 1994 then lapsed in 2018, although many of its programs to aid survivors have been funded in the meantime, according to NPR. 

Democrats who control the U.S. House added expanded protections for transgender women and prohibitions on gun ownership for convicted domestic abusers to the act’s reauthorization.

Specifically, the new firearm provisions would eliminate the so-called “boyfriend loophole” in federal firearms law. It allows a significant other who abuses their partner to still purchase and own firearms if the two were not married, did not live together, or have a child together.

While 48 states have closed this loophole at the state level, Pennsylvania is one of two states where those who commit misdemeanor domestic violence are still eligible to own guns, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

This proposal has been part of the renewal since 2019, and is opposed by the influential gun rights organization, the National Rifle Association, because the bill would expand who cannot legally purchase or own a firearm.

Democrats “chose to insert gun control provisions into this bill in 2019 to pit pro-gun lawmakers against it so that they can falsely and maliciously claim these lawmakers don’t care about women,” NRA lobbying director Jason Ouimet said in a statement.

This stance has seemingly fueled rising Republican opposition, although a spokesperson for Keller did not answer specific questions about his vote or his previous support for Act 79.

Keller opposed the act, according to the spokesperson, because of “radical provisions” inserted by House Democrats into the bill, but did not name those provisions. 

Whether it was the NRA’s opposition or Keller’s own beliefs that drove his vote, Keller has earned an A rating from the nation’s marquee gun group in the past. 

And he and nearly 90 other Republicans who backed Pennsylvania’s small gun control bill in 2018 did not need to worry about hurting that rating if they voted for the law.

The law gives people who are convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence or who are subject to a final restraining order 24 hours, down from the former 60 days, to turn their firearms over to a firearms dealer or local police.

Advocates argued the proposal would get deadly weapons out of the hands of abusers quickly, and prevent homicides, though implementing the law has occasionally proved difficult

Perhaps most critically, the NRA also was neutral on the proposal, meaning legislators’ NRA grade on gun rights would not be impacted — no matter how they voted.

An NRA official explained that the group was neutral because the law would not expand who was ineligible for guns, but only make it easier to enforce existing law.

Still, many staunch gun rights allies opposed the bill. The then-chairman of the House’s Second Amendment Caucus, Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Armstrong, advised the 88-member group of lawmakers to vote against the bill when it came up for a floor vote. He and others argued the bill was poorly written, and would be difficult to enforce.

Leading that opposition was a more conservative gun rights group, the Firearms Owners Against Crime. They would go on to strip endorsements from all lawmakers who voted for the bill.

Despite the NRA’s positions, the organization’s president Kim Stolfer told the Capital-Star that he saw Act 79, which Keller supported, as “more restrictive” than than the proposed firearm provisions in the Violence Against Women Act, which Keller voted against.

He chalked up the change of heart as Keller having “learned the complexity of this issue.”

“Everything we said was wrong with the bill has come to pass,” Stolfer added, “and now a lot of people are finger pointing behind the scenes.”

Even with the boyfriend loophole open, Julie Bancroft, Chief Public Affairs Officer at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said that Act 79 helps law enforcement keep guns out of abusers’ hands.

“We saw a slight reduction of domestic violence homicides in 2020 and hope that is the start of a downward trend resulting from Act 79,” she said in an email. She argued removing the loophole would only further strengthen state laws.

The congressional reauthorization now heads to the evenly-divided U.S. Senate, where some Republicans hope to craft a compromise.

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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.