Judiciary committee deletes age restrictions for assault weapon ownership

The bill was replaced with language from previously vetoed concealed-carry legislation

By: - June 21, 2022 2:12 pm
A man shoots AR-15 rifles and other weapons at a shooting range during the “Rod of Iron Freedom Festival” on October 12, 2019 in Greeley, Pa. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images).

A man shoots AR-15 rifles and other weapons at a shooting range during the “Rod of Iron Freedom Festival” on October 12, 2019 in Greeley, Pa. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images).

(*This story was updated at 5:06 p.m. on Tuesday 6/22/22 to include new reporting on state House action on the bill)

House Republicans on Tuesday gutted a bill that would ban anyone younger than 21 years old from purchasing or possessing assault weapons and replaced it with language from a concealed-carry bill Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed last December.

The House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to amend Rep. Peter Schweyer’s, D-Lehigh, bill that would have prevented anyone under 21 from obtaining the types of weapons used in school shootings in Uvalde, Texas; Newtown, Conn.; and elsewhere.

The amendment deleted the bill’s language and replaced it with language from House Bill 659, sponsored by Rep. Aaron Bernstine, R-Lawrence, which has been tabled since April and is identical to the bill Wolf vetoed. 

The language would eliminate the requirement for gun owners to obtain a license to carry a concealed weapon to possess a gun outside of their home or business. Under current state law, Pennsylvania gun owners 21 and older can only carry a concealed weapon if they successfully obtain a permit from their county sheriff. It would also end Philadelphia’s ban on openly carrying guns.

Schweyer told the Capital-Star that he planned to call up the bill as amended in the House on Tuesday afternoon. The resolution to pull the bill out of committee failed with an 89-111 vote.

Our constituents deserve to see how their state representatives vote on this issue,” he said.

Judiciary Committee Chairperson Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, declined to speak with reporters after the Judiciary Committee vote.

The vote Tuesday followed two weeks of maneuvering as House Democrats moved to force a vote on a slate of gun reform bills stalled in the Judiciary Committee. As Democrats attempted to use a procedural move known as a discharge resolution to bring the bills to the floor June 9, House Speaker Bryan Cutler adjourned the House and canceled the following day’s session.

Last week, the Judiciary Committee voted to re-refer the bills, to the Local Government Committee, forestalling further attempts at forcing votes. 

Rep. Tim Briggs, D-Montgomery, the ranking Democrat on the committee said before the vote that lawmakers shouldn’t have to use discharge resolutions to advance legislation supported by the vast majority of Pennsylvania residents.

Think tank Third Way released a poll on Tuesday in partnership with a Republican polling firm that shows 58 percent of likely voters support stronger gun laws following the Uvalde shooting. Support for raising the age to own assault weapons and laws allowing police with a judge’s order to take weapons from people likely to harm themselves or others was around 80 percent, according to the poll. 

“We will continue to fight to advance these kinds of bills through whatever procedural mechanism we have,” Briggs said.

Democratic members of the committee on Tuesday vocally opposed the amendment stripping the age restriction and replacing it with the concealed-carry language, calling it an abdication of the Legislature’s responsibility.

“Instead of going in one direction to provide appropriate regulation of the collective right to buy arms, we are going to buy into the myth of the individual inviolate right to bear arms,” said Rep. Joseph Hohenstein, D-Philadelphia. 

“If we don’t regulate this right to bear arms and we say instead there is an unfettered individual right we will effectively have gone 150 years back into the wild west,” Hohenstein said.

The legislation would prevent young adults from obtaining weapons like those used by the 18-year-old gunman who killed 19 students and two teachers last month at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Hohenstein said. He cited broadly accepted research showing people in their late teens and 20s are more likely to act impulsively than older adults.

“We’re talking about guns that kill lots of people all at once and we don’t need those in our society writ large and we certainly don’t need them in the hands of teenagers who lack impulse control,” he said. “We are failing to do our jobs and we are actually doing harm if we don’t pass this.”

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.