Galvanized by the mass shootings in El Paso, Dayton, Squirrel Hill, and Philadelphia, Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order last week reorganizing state government offices to confront the issue of gun violence.
Wolf called upon the Republican-controlled legislature to authorize the Pennsylvania State Police to conduct universal background checks of gun purchases.
Wolf also advocated passage of a “red flag” law to allow family members or law enforcement to confiscate firearms of those believed to pose a risk of harming themselves or others.
For their part, GOP leaders are promising to take a “holistic” approach to gun-related issues, pointing to forthcoming hearings in the state Senate.
Wolf commented that Republicans seem “willing to engage” in a conversation about gun control proposals. However, he was not sufficiently encouraged to call a special session of the legislature, which Democratic legislators have urged him to do.
Nevertheless, there is momentum for consideration of additional gun measures, following passage of a law last year requiring those convicted of domestic violence or subject to a protection from abuse order to give up their guns to designated authorities within 24 hours.
None of this is to deny the ability of the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups to block further reform.
Still, the Commonwealth has come a long way from the time when gun control was a third rail issue that politicians could not touch.
Among the earliest victims of gun politics was U.S. Sen. Joseph Clark, a Democrat who was defeated for re-election to a third term in 1968 by Republican Richard Schweiker. One of the biggest issues of that campaign was Clark’s support of the 1968 Gun Control Act, which banned mail-order sales of rifles and shotguns.
The Clark defeat was a cautionary tale to politicians at a time when both parties depended on rural support.
Democrats avoided Clark’s fate through the forceful personality of Robert Casey, Sr. a pro-gun, anti-abortion governor who appealed to culturally conservative voters in northeast and western PA.
By the same token, the late U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, known as a moderate Republican, maintained an A rating from the NRA during his five terms on Capitol Hill (1980-2010) until his switch to the Democratic Party in 2009.
The electoral turning point for gun politics in Pennsylvania was the 2002 election of Ed Rendell as governor. A NRA foe who signed an assault weapons ban while serving as mayor of Philadelphia, Rendell defeated pro-gun candidates Robert Casey Jr., son of the former governor, in the Democratic primary and Republican Mike Fisher in the general election.
Despite Rendell’s victory and re-election in 2006, gun policy activity in Pennsylvania has centered on whether local governments can enact stiff gun ordinances. On rare occasions, a proposal breaks through, as when Governor Tom Corbett signed the Bradley Fox law that established mandatory minimum sentences for straw purchasers of firearms.
Nationally, gun rights were bolstered by post-9/11 fears, the Obama presidency (during which gun purchases peaked), and the US Supreme Court 2008 decision in DC v Heller, making gun ownership an individual right.
On the other hand, repeated mass assaults, post-Columbine – including Virginia Tech (2007), Newtown (2012), Charleston (2015), Las Vegas (2017), and Parkland (2018) – kept gun violence in the headlines.
In the meantime, Pennsylvania politics has realigned. Many Casey Democrats became Republicans. The formerly-Republican Philly suburbs, where support for gun control is strong, are now part of the Democratic base.
Advocacy of gun control is no longer an invitation to political suicide in statewide races.
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., a NRA favorite when he was first elected in 2010, won re-election in 2016 after he co-sponsored expanded background check legislation in response to the November 2012 killing of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn.
The Newtown tragedy was also instrumental in the conversion of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr. to “evangelist for gun control laws.” Casey won re-election overwhelmingly last year, as did Wolf over GOP candidate Scott Wagner, a gun rights supporter.
What will it take to break the partisan gridlock? Surely not another tragedy.
Action in Washington could help. Unfortunately, President Donald Trump has paid lip service to gun safety proposals, backing away after hearing from the NRA.
Action in Harrisburg would require compromise of the sort that took place in 1995, when ex-GOP Gov. Tom Ridge, a tough-on-crime former prosecutor, signed a bill that created Pennsylvania’s own computerized background check system.
Action in Washington and Harrisburg could save lives. Will this time will be different?
Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page