Wolf calls for ‘swift passage’ of red flag law, universal background checks in wake of El Paso, Dayton shootings

By: - August 7, 2019 7:58 pm

Gov. Tom Wolf leads an Aug. 7, 2019 rally against gun violence in the Capitol rotunda. (Photo by PA Internet News Service)

At the end of a Wednesday rally held in the wake of the latest high-profile mass shootings in America, Gov. Tom Wolf invited questions from the press about his call for additional gun control measures.

After the assembled journalists were finished, Robert Woodkey of Uniontown wanted to make a statement.

Woodkey, who said he learned about the event on a message board for Firearms Owners Against Crime, a Pennsylvania-based pro-gun group, told Wolf he represented “the other side of this.”

“I know some of you have first-hand experience with loss of life. I understand that,” he said. “But there are laws in place that have not and cannot be enforced on gun control. I don’t think it’s going to accomplish anything.”

Wolf stopped the man.

“What we’re trying to say here, sir, is we all live in the same country,” Wolf replied. “We have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. … We’re not trying to take anybody’s rights away. We’re trying to preserve our own.”

Less than a week after 31 people were killed by gunmen in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, Wolf gathered in the Capitol rotunda with U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, state lawmakers, and dozens of supporters to demand action on gun control.

“Today is a solemn day,” Wolf said. “Across America, families on this day are burying their loved ones.”

Wolf called for the “swift passage” of three gun control measures, including a red flag proposal endorsed by President Donald Trump.

The legislation would allow Pennsylvania judges to issue extreme risk protection orders, which give family members and law enforcement the right to petition a court to temporarily disarm a person deemed at-risk of harming himself or others.

Proponents of 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.

Rep. Todd Stephens and Sen. Tom Killion, both Republicans from the Philadelphia suburbs, are sponsoring such red flag bills.

“We need to bring extreme risk protection orders to Pennsylvania this fall,” Stephens said as he twice pounded one of his fists for emphasis.

“If President Trump, [Sen.] Lindsey Graham, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, [Sen.] Chuck Schumer, Sen. Bob Casey, and Sen. Pat Toomey can all agree that extreme risk protection orders are a necessary tool against gun violence then so can we in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

During the Wednesday rally, Wolf also called on the General Assembly to pass a universal background checks bill, and the U.S. Senate to follow the U.S. House and do the same.

“It’s time now for us to take back our lives,” Wolf said. “To take back our commonwealth.”

The General Assembly is due to return to Harrisburg in late September at the end of its summer recess. But some legislative Democrats want action on guns before then.

Earlier Wednesday during a Capitol press conference, five House lawmakers renewed a call for Wolf to schedule a special session on guns.

It wouldn’t be the first special session for Rep. Robert Freeman, D-Northampton, who has served in the House for decades.

The last, in 2010, was called by ex-Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, to “solve immediate and future transportation funding problems.” While no bills were passed during that session, Freeman said he believes it set the stage for action in 2013, under Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

A special session does not force the Legislature to take up or vote on any legislation. Virginia’s recent special session on guns in the wake of a mass shooting was quickly adjourned by Republican leaders.

“But by calling a special session, you throw down the gauntlet,” Freeman said. “If nothing comes out of it, that’s a terribly embarrassing thing for legislative leaders.”

A spokesperson for Wolf on Monday said “the governor is open to calling 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.”

Wolf reiterated that stance Wednesday.

“If Republicans and Democrats truly want to get together” for a special session, Wolf said, “I’m absolutely happy to do that.”

Republican leadership has signaled that guns will be on the agenda in the fall. Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, said the Judiciary Committee she chairs will hold “a series of public hearings intended as a prelude to action.”

Killion, a moderate Republican who’s served in the General Assembly since 2003, said he plans to speak to Baker about having his red flag proposal considered during the hearings.

“I was very pleased to hear [Baker’s] gonna have hearings. That’s a great step,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”

Capital-Star reporter Stephen Caruso contributed to this story. 

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Sarah Anne Hughes
Sarah Anne Hughes

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.