Avery Hamill’s jacket with a message on gun violence at the Moms Demand Action rally on gun safety Monday, May 22, 2023, at the Pennsylvania Capitol. (Capital-Star photo by DaniRae Renno)
In a voting session that highlighted the precarious nature of Pennsylvania House Democrats’ narrow majority, a lone Democratic lawmaker’s break from his caucus defeated legislation to require gun owners to report lost and stolen guns to police.
Democratic leaders nonetheless counted the session on Monday as a win for gun safety. Two bills aimed at preventing gun suicides and requiring universal background checks for rifle and shotgun purchases passed in the House with bipartisan support.
Speaker Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, described the day as historic because lawmakers took meaningful action to keep children and communities safe that was long overdue.
“While this is just the first step, by passing these commonsense and responsible gun safety measures we’ve shown our neighbors and communities that we are listening and we are acting, and that we stand with them in combating senseless gun violence,” McClinton said in a statement.
Rep. Frank Burns, D-Cambria, was the only Democrat to vote against all three gun safety measures. His “no” vote on House Bill 338, which would require lawful gun owners to report lost or stolen guns within 72 hours or face fines and misdemeanor charges, lead to its on a 101-100 vote.
The votes followed a morning rally by the gun safety group Moms Demand Action, where speakers on the Capitol steps shared the stories of loved ones lost to suicide and gun violence.
Rep. Jennifer O’Mara, D-Delaware, spoke with passion about her legislation to allow family members to seek extreme risk prevention orders from a judge to temporarily disarm people who pose a threat to themselves or others.
At age 13, O’Mara lost her father to a gun suicide and said that he would still be alive if her family had that option.
“We know that in 19 states where this was passed, it has been proven to lower suicide rates,” O’Mara said. “We also know that in states where extreme risk order protections have been passed we have prevented mass shootings, including school shootings.”
O’Mara’s bill passed with a 102-99 vote after debate in which Republican lawmakers questioned its constitutionality and said the measure has the potential to be misused against law-abiding gun owners.
Although the application for an extreme risk protection order would be made in civil court, the bill provides for a criminal penalty against those who make false reports.
Minority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, argued the bill places an unfair burden on gun owners.
“The person who owns the firearms will have to prove that they are innocent, and the person who may have potentially filed a false report will have to wait for the state to prove that they’re guilty. I for one believe that we should never operate in the world of presumed guilt,” Cutler said.
Speaking at the rally, Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, said Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood in his district was left in shock after a shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, which housed three congregations, left 11 people dead in October 2018.
Frankel said the shooter was able to “weaponize his hatred because of the easy access to weapons,” and that repeated shootings should be a call to action.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the shameful era of doing nothing is coming to an end,” Frankel said.
The accused Pittsburgh synagogue shooter used a semi-automatic rifle among other weapons, which were purchased legally.
Currently, under Pennsylvania law people who buy shotguns and rifles, such as the one used in the shooting, from private sellers do not need to pass a background check, although authorities said the gunman did not fall into any category that would have prevented him from owning the weapons.
A fourth gun safety bill on the House calendar on Monday that would require safe storage of guns was not called for a vote.
Republican lawmakers who opposed the bill argued that the need for photo identification to undergo a firearms background check would violate the Second Amendment rights of anyone without a photographic government ID.
Cutler said that would be a problem for “people of the plain sects,” such as the Amish, who eschew photographs. He added that a requirement for voters to show a photo ID passed by Republicans and struck down by the Commonwealth Court in 2014 contained a religious exemption.
“What we have here is a proposal to ensure that members of the plain sects will never ever again be able to follow both the tenets of their religion, as well as purchase a firearm should they wish to do so to exercise their constitutional right to hunt and enjoy the environment here in the Commonwealth,” Cutler said.
Majority Leader Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery, said Pennsylvania’s firearms background check laws are generally strong. But he called it absurd that a purchase requiring a background check at a firearms dealer or gun show could be carried out legally between private parties in a parking lot without a check.
“This is a modest bill with a modest impact that will have real impact on some of the most lethal weapons in our commonwealth,” Bradford said.
Supporters of the failed measure requiring gun owners to report lost and stolen firearms said it is necessary to curb the practice of straw purchasing, in which a person buys a gun with the intent of transferring it to someone who cannot legally possess firearms.
Opponents of the bill argued that the measure would only affect lawful gun owners.
Cutler cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1968 decision in Haynes vs. United States in which the justices ruled that a person who unlawfully possesses a gun could not be made to incriminate themselves.
“You’ve now made the lawful gun owner a criminal when he fails to report and the criminal has no duty to report that. I think that puts the world upside down,” Cutler said.
Bradford called Cutler’s argument “Orwellian circular logic” and criticized opponents of the legislation for 12 years of inaction under Republican control and failing to offer amendments to make the legislation better.
“Everyone who’s actually watching the nightly news in any city in America knows that the cities as the gentleman [Cutler] concedes, are awash with illegal guns that are largely purchased by straws,” Bradford said.
“When you have a 102-member majority, it’s a humble majority and we’re more than willing to listen to any idea,” Bradford said.
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