The big things we learned from the Pa. Senate’s marathon gun safety hearings

By: - September 26, 2019 6:30 am

Hundreds of gun rights supporters and opponents attended a five-hour hearing on mental health and guns in the state Capitol on Wednesday.

Over two days’ worth of hearings this week, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard more than nine hours of expert testimony on mental health and Second Amendment rights. 

The committee, chaired by Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, didn’t take up any specific legislation during its marathon hearings in the state Capitol. But close to 300 citizens from both sides of the gun control debate packed a hearing room where doctors, researchers, and attorneys addressed Baker and her Senate colleagues in their first session days after their three-month summer recess.

Here’s what we learned:

Baker hasn’t closed the door on a red flag law

A so-called red flag gun bill, which authorizes extreme risk protection orders, is a current top priority for gun control advocates. Separate bills are making their way through the House and Senate.

It would allow law enforcement to temporarily seize firearms from someone a judge deems to be a threat to himself or others. 

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia currently have such laws on the books. And a growing body of research says they show promise in reducing suicide rates.

Baker said Wednesday that she still has some concerns about the Senate version of the bill, authored by Sen. Tom Killion, R-Delaware. 

She wants to ensure it will preserve due process rights, and that there are protections in place to ensure that sheriffs aren’t walking into danger when they go to seize someone’s firearms. 

Baker said it’s premature for the committee to debate and vote on the bill before those concerns are addressed. But she added that such groups as the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association may have ideas for how to do that. 

Unlike House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, who said he would never run a red flag law as long as he chairs the panel, Baker isn’t opposed to hearing more debate on the bill.

“At this point I welcome additional information and will continue to evaluate it,” Baker said.

Sen. Mike Regan, R-York, shared Baker’s concerns in an interview Wednesday. But the former U.S. Marshal said he may be able to support the legislation if it’s amended to include a quicker time-frame for adjudication and appeal. 

“If it was amended there’s certainly a possibility I could be for it,” Regan said. 

Doctors and prosecutors agree that a red flag law would reduce suicides

Groups representing Pennsylvania health care providers and district attorneys both voiced their support for red-flag laws before the Senate committee this week, citing research that links the laws to lower suicide rates. 

“It is our belief that establishing [an ERPO bill] in the commonwealth would assist greatly in preventing suicide by firearm, increase the odds that individuals with untreated mental health issues at risk for self-harm would receive treatment, and save many families the ongoing grief that accompanies a death by suicide,” said Kenneth Certas, a professor of psychology and member of the Pennsylvania Psychiatric Society.

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association also spoke in favor of the bill Wednesday.

“I am especially drawn to this bill because it can prevent suicides,” Dauphin County District Attorney Fran Chardo said. “I cannot say that it will prevent all or most or even a significant number of mass shootings, individual shootings, or suicides… But I know this — it will save lives.”

Greg Rowe, the association’s policy director, offered to consult with district attorneys in other states that adopted red flag laws to see how they navigated due process concerns

Chardo said he’d support strengthening the proposed penalties for filing a false petition. Right now, people who file false petitions under the red flag law would face misdemeanor charges and be forced to pay restitution. 

Chardo said he’d like to increase the penalty to a felony perjury charge — a proposal that Regan said he’d support.

Republicans are looking at Pennsylvania’s involuntary commitment laws as an alternative to red flag laws

Groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Firearms Owners Against Crime (FOAC) argue that red flag laws trample on due process rights and don’t address a petitioner’s underlying mental health issues. 

Some skeptics of the red flag law say that the state’s involuntary commitment law already offers a way for people to disarm distressed loved ones who may pose a threat to themselves or others.

The law allows someone to petition to have their loved one committed for a mental health evaluation and treatment if they’re at risk of dying by suicide, threatening to hurt others, or unable to care for themselves. 

Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, pointed out that people can die by suicide using means other than firearms. Voluntary or involuntary commitments could prevent those deaths better than a red flag law, he said.

“Shouldn’t we focus on involuntary commitment or other ways to prevent people from attempting any kind of suicide?” Martin asked.

Adam Skaggs, chief counsel for Giffords Law Center, a gun violence research and advocacy organization, argued that red flag laws could fill an important gap in the involuntary commitment law. 

“This is a tool that will allow us to disarm temporarily someone without fully committing them to a situation where their freedom is totally constrained,” Skaggs said.

Other testifiers argued that the current law is flawed because anyone who is involuntarily committed  faces a lifetime prohibition on firearm possession. The threat of losing firearm access may prevent people from seeking treatment for loved ones, they said. 

Baker said Wednesday that she would consider legislation that would allow someone to regain firearm access following an involuntary commitment. 

“There’s a belief that some people don’t seek treatment for fear they could lose access to firearms,” Baker said. “All of these are issues we have to take a very close look at.”

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.