‘There’s an empty chair in this chamber’: In budget speech, Wolf highlights the toll of gun violence, challenges lawmakers to act

By: - February 4, 2020 11:20 am

Governor Wolf, joined by Pennsylvania Treasurer Joe Torsella and Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, announces a $317 million deposit into PA’s Rainy Day Fund at the Harrisburg Capitol on July 9.

Gov. Tom Wolf was to use his sixth budget address Tuesday to exhort the Republican-controlled General Assembly to finally tackle gun violence. And to do it, he pointed to the example of a slain Erie youth whose life was cut short.

Telling lawmakers that there’s “an empty seat here in the chamber. Right over there,” Wolf was expected to tell the story of Elijah Jackson, who’d be “sitting in that seat. He’d be 21 years old now, perhaps training to serve our country in the Air Force like he always imagined,” Wolf said in an excerpt of remarks as-prepared for delivery that were exclusively obtained by the Capital-Star.

“His mother, Vanessa, who’s here today, told me that Elijah loved to dance,” Wolf continued. “He loved to play basketball. And he loved to make his two brothers and five sisters laugh. He wasn’t just the life of every party – he was the life of his family. Vanessa remembered one day in particular, his junior year of high school, when he sat on her lap and promised that, once he graduated and joined the military, he would take care of her. That was Elijah.”

Wolf continued:

“Unfortunately, a few weeks later, on a hot July night, Elijah went out to meet his younger cousin and some friends after an athletic event. Someone driving down the street in an SUV had a gun and started shooting. Someone else had a gun and started shooting back. Elijah and his friends were caught in the crossfire.

“Turns out, it was a turf war that Elijah had nothing to do with. Turns out, the gun that killed him didn’t belong to the person who pulled the trigger, but rather to a veteran suffering from addiction. Turns out, there were so many weapons involved and so many shell casings found that it was hard to prove exactly who had fired the shot that happened to hit Elijah Jackson, and the case against some of the defendants fell apart.

“But what it all adds up to is the same story we’ve seen repeated over and over again. An innocent Pennsylvanian is robbed of a future that should have been their birthright. A family is robbed of a loved one. And all of us are robbed of the contributions someone like Elijah Jackson would have made to our Commonwealth.”

Wolf, along with Democratic allies in the House and Senate pressed for such gun violence reduction measures as universal background checks and emergency protective orders, or ‘Red Flag’ laws that have been shown to reduce the incidence of violence. But the bills remain mired in committee, and have not been brought to a vote.

The $36.05 billion spending plan for fiscal 2020-21 that Wolf presented to lawmakers Tuesday commits an additional $6 million in funds for gun violence-reduction efforts statewide and $4 million in additional spending for the Philadelphia Gun Violence task force. The administration is also taking another run at trying to pass a State Police service fee, according to a budget summary document.

The State Police also are requesting a $1 million increase in funding to cover the cost of background checks, administration officials acknowledged Tuesday.

Pointing to the October 2018 rampage that claimed 11 lives at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, Wolf was to tell lawmakers that there’s no way to “[quantify] what we lost when Cecil and David Rosenthal were killed at the Tree of Life synagogue or when Gerard Kozic died while sheltering his wife from a hail of bullets at a municipal meeting.”

Wolf was to tell lawmakers that while he understands that “unimaginable tragedy is part of life. But when it comes to gun violence, we have gotten to a point where these kinds of tragedies are no longer unimaginable at all.”

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“We have gotten used to seeing bulletproof backpacks advertised during back-to-school sales. We have gotten used to hearing our young children talk about the traumatic lockdown drills they had to endure between science class and recess,” he was expected to tell lawmakers. “And, unfortunately, we have also gotten used to hearing politicians offer their thoughts and prayers and little else. It’s part of the ritual now, right alongside the somber press conferences where law enforcement officials detail the carnage and the tearful testimonies from friends and family grieving their loved ones.”

Wolf was expected to blast the legislative gridlock, telling majority Republicans that “when it comes to the people here in this chamber who have no intention of coming to the table on this issue, whether out of ideological conviction or political calculation, well, you have a right to your opinion, too.

“But let me ask you something: Can you look at your family and honestly say that you wouldn’t do anything, pay any price, to protect them?” he asked.  ” … Can you look at the empty chair in this chamber and say you’ve done enough to stop this epidemic?”

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.