In Pa. Legislature, outlier gun bills attract outsized attention

By: - April 12, 2019 7:06 am
Sen. Tom Killion, R-Montgomery, rallies in the Capitol for Senate Bill 90, which would create a Red Flag gun control law.

(Capital-Star file)

Kim Stolfer and Shira Goodman don’t agree on much.

Stolfer is head of Firearms Owners Against Crime, a statewide group that vehemently opposes gun regulations. Goodman leads CeaseFirePA, a statewide group that desperately wants more of them.

They spend much of their time trading proverbial blows over the U.S. Constitution’s most controversial amendment.

But they can agree on one thing — State lawmakers introduce a lot of gun bills that will draw outrage, but don’t have a chance of passing. 

“We’re really focused on bills, especially given the makeup of the Legislature, that are impactful and, pragmatically, that we can pass,” Goodman said.

The latest no-chance example created controversy last month, when Democratic Rep. Angel Cruz, of Philadelphia, introduced a bill that sets up a statewide gun registry for individuals.

After paying a $10 fee, the State Police would collect a firearm’s serial number, personally identifying information such as the owner’s Social Security number, and photographs of the gun. The registration would need to be renewed every year, and owning an unregistered gun would be unlawful.

Cruz said the legislation was inspired by his city’s struggles with illegal guns. He sees the bill as a way to keep track of lost or stolen guns.

It would also help police crack down on legal gun owners who may be transferring their firearms to individuals who cannot legally purchase them.

Tracking lost and stolen guns has been a key fight for advocates like Goodman. Municipal laws levying fines for not reporting a misplaced firearm have also been a top target for state gun allies who seek to preempt local gun laws.

Regardless of intent, Cruz’s bill set off alarm bells for many state gun owners, and they bombarded their state lawmakers — and Stolfer — with inquiries on the chances of it passing the Legislature.

“I was explaining to them we have more important concerns out of Harrisburg,” Stolfer said.

A more pressing concern for Stolfer is a bill that allows judges to issue extreme risk protection orders, which, at the prompting of a family member or law enforcement, temporarily prevent an individual from purchasing or possessing guns.

The bill is a top priority for Goodman and other gun violence prevention groups, has netted bipartisan support among lawmakers as a way to reduce firearms-related suicides. Gov. Tom Wolf threw his weight behind the proposal at a Capitol rally on Monday.

But even if a gun registry isn’t a priority for most advocates, multiple Republican lawmakers took to social media to try and assuage constituent concerns that the state would soon be asking gun owners to file a report on each and every firearm they own.

First-year Rep. John Hershey, R-Juniata, said his office received dozens of calls and emails over the bill from concerned constituents. Outside of form letters, he estimated the bill generated more calls than any other topic.

“What I told them is it’s a very small minority of members of the House, and I don’t see it going anywhere, but I remain opposed,” Hershey said.

Capitol observers agreed that the registry bill wouldn’t pass in Pennsylvania, a state that last fall passed its first new gun control bill, Act 79, in years.

The law, which had bipartisan support in both chambers, tightened regulations around the revocation of guns from convicted domestic abusers and people under a final protection from abuse order. It went into effect April 10.

Just six states require gun registration of some kind, according to the Giffords Law Center. Three require registration of all firearms, like Cruz’s bill proposes to do. Others only require registration of handguns or assault weapons.

In fact, Pennsylvania is one of eight states that bans the creation of a gun registry. While the commonwealth is one of 20 states with its own background check system, State Police cannot by law collect information on gun ownership in a database.

Stolfer estimated that the brouhaha led to a 10 percent bump in membership for his group. With Pittsburgh recently advancing its own gun laws, Cruz’s registry bill was “like a one-two punch” to worried gun owners.

Goodman said her priorities are elsewhere — on passing extreme risk protection language, keeping guns out of schools, and expanding background checks. Cruz’s language just “reflects the frustration people from Philadelphia have with what’s going on in Harrisburg.”

Cruz added that nearly all of the negative feedback he’s received is from outside his district. And if the residents of Juniata, Tioga, or Somerset counties don’t want to worry about new gun laws, he had a simple suggestion: Let Philadelphia pass its own.

“Then it won’t affect you in any way, shape, or form,” Cruz said.

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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.