Trump wants states to pass red flag gun laws. Will the Pennsylvania Legislature comply?

A woman holds a sign in favor of extreme risk protection orders at a gun control rally in the Capitol rotunda. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

In the wake of two mass shootings that left 31 people dead and scores injured, President Donald Trump again called on states to pass a gun control measure that allows for the temporary confiscation of firearms.

“… We must make sure that those judged to pose a grave risk to public safety do not have access to firearms, and that, if they do, those firearms can be taken through rapid due process,” Trump said in a televised address Monday. “That is why I have called for red flag laws, also known as extreme risk protection orders.”

Seventeen states have passed a version of a red flag law, which allows family members and law enforcement to petition a judge to temporarily confiscate firearms from an individual deemed at risk of harming himself or others. Most of those states are controlled by Democrats, with exceptions including Indiana.

In Pennsylvania, a purple state with a Democratic governor and Republican-controlled Legislature, a red flag bill advanced through a House committee in 2018 with bipartisan support — and opposition.

The legislation, introduced by Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, didn’t make it to the House floor for a vote before the end of last session. But it actually got more consideration than most gun control measures do in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly.

Advocates for red flag measures point to states like Connecticut, where these orders prevented between 38 to 76 suicides over a 14-year span, according to one study. Indiana saw similar results.

How one Republican lawmaker is trying to balance gun rights and due process in Pennsylvania

Stephens is once again sponsoring a red flag bill, as are two Senate lawmakers: Sen. Tom Killion, R-Chester, and Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Allegheny.

None of the three proposals gained traction during the first six months of the current legislative session. Thus far, they’ve also failed to attract much Republican support. Just one of the co-sponsors of Killion’s bill is also a Republican; the tally for Stephens’ is six. 

But just seeing party standard-bearers like Trump break ranks could improve a red flag bill’s chances in the commonwealth, Stephens told the Capital-Star. 

“I think as more high-profile national Republicans come out in support, I think that’ll help with some of my colleagues here in Pennsylvania,” he said. 

Monday wasn’t the first time Trump backed state-level red flag laws. In March 2018, a month after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 students and staff, the White House called “on every state to adopt extreme risk protection orders.”

In Washington, some top Republicans have embraced Trump’s call.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he plans to introduce a bill enabling a federal grant program for states to implement their own red flag laws, The Hill reported.

“These grants will be given to law enforcement so they can hire and consult with mental health professionals to better determine which cases need to be acted upon,” Graham, who chairs the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, said in the statement. “This grant program also requires robust due process and judicial review. It does allow for quick action.”

Republican leadership in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly has signaled guns will be on the agenda in the fall.

Stephens sent a letter Monday to state House Speaker Mike Turzai, House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, and House Judiciary Chairman Rob Kauffman — all fellow Republicans — asking them to consider bills that reduce gun violence, including his red flag legislation, in the fall.

“While this subject often provokes substantial policy debates, I know we all agree that the loss of one innocent life to gun violence is a tragedy that we must work to prevent,” Stephens wrote in his letter. “Surely, with all the data and the policy experts available to us we can have a meaningful dialogue and discussion on policies that would serve to help reduce the bloodshed.”

Kauffman, R-Franklin, did not respond to request for comment. A spokesperson for Cutler, R-Lancaster, said the majority leader does not have a specific response to Stephens’ bill or letter at this time.

“We will continue to carefully examine what is causing these tragedies within our society, and how we are addressing the most dangerous and mentally ill members of our communities,” Straub said in a statement Monday. “… Our members are working to find an answer to ending horrific acts of violence while recognizing there are millions upon millions of Pennsylvanians who responsibly and legally own firearms.”

In the Senate, Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said in a statement Pennsylvania “will continue to take a holistic approach to tackling the cause of these tragedies and continue to take action.”

“That includes building on actions we took last year to pass anti-violence legislation that dealt directly with firearms, address red flag issues and school safety concerns,” Corman said.

The statement referenced a bill lawmakers passed last session that further limits convicted and accused domestic abusers’ access to firearms. Rep. Dan Frankel, a Pittsburgh Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature’s anti-gun violence caucus, called it the first meaningful piece of gun control to pass in his 20 years in Harrisburg.

Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, said in a Tuesday statement that the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, which she chairs, will hold “a series of public hearings intended as a prelude to action.” Any red flag measure would have to pass through her committee in order to get a full vote.

“While every citizen feels urgency about action, the choices we make must be applicable across the state. A patchwork of local ordinances will prove more troublesome for law-abiding citizens than it will any impediment to individuals determined to act out on their rage,” Baker said in a statement.

“In looking at new requirements or restrictions, we also must evaluate how recent steps have been implemented and whether they are making a measurable difference. Taking symbolic steps sends a message, but it ultimately does not save lives.”

Legislative Democrats, meanwhile, are asking Gov. Tom Wolf to call a special session on gun violence.

“We respectfully ask, on behalf of those we represent and are obliged to protect and serve, that you convene a special joint session,” members of the PA Safe gun-control caucus wrote in a Tuesday letter. “Pennsylvanians have demanded meaningful steps to curb gun violence and violent extremism, and we must heed their call.”

On Monday, Wolf’s spokesperson said the governor is willing to call a special session if “there are commitments to allow votes on critical reforms that will save lives. Without such an agreement, there is no guarantee of action.”

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.
Stephen Caruso is the Capital-Star's House reporter. He previously covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.

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