Everything you need to know about Pennsylvania’s gun laws and the debate to expand them

By: - September 17, 2019 7:00 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)

The General Assembly’s fall session officially kicks off today, and gun violence is expected to be at the top of the agenda.

A week from now, the Senate Judiciary Committee will convene for two days to discuss “behavioral health, Second Amendment rights, and other gun related issues.” The panel’s chairperson, Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, called the hearings following mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas.

Gun violence will also be the first issue the Capital-Star tackles with our new solutions-journalism series #PaForward. Over the next few months, we plan to examine the problem, explore how people and groups are working to fix it, and hold an event to bring stakeholders together.

But we need your help.

First, check out our primer on the issue below to get up to date. Then, if you have a question about gun violence, or know of a person or group doing important work on this issue, use this form to let us know.

What are Pennsylvania’s gun laws like?

In 2017, 1,636 people died from an injury caused by a firearm in Pennsylvania, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, 993 were suicides.

That puts the commonwealth near the middle of the 50 U.S. states for gun deaths per 100,000 people.

In its annual scorecard of states’ gun deaths and laws, the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which favors additional regulations, gave Pennsylvania a C+ in 2018.

Laws on the books include:

  • Mandatory background checks through a state system to purchase any firearm through a licensed dealer or a handgun from a private seller.
    • Background checks are not required for private sales of long guns, which include rifles with a barrel 16 inches or longer, and shotguns with a barrel 18 inches or longer. AR-15-style rifles fall into this category.
  • Licensing in order to transport firearms in a vehicle or concealed carry. Applications are submitted to a county sheriff’s office, except in Philadelphia, where forms go to the police department. Because of resources and questions of legality, some counties check references on the applications while others do not.
    • Open carry is permitted without a license, except in Philadelphia.
  • The inability to possess firearms after an involuntary admission into a mental health facility. “A physician, police officer, someone authorized by the county administrator to make such a determination, or the person themselves” can petition for such an admission, according to the Allegheny County Bar Association.

Who can make gun laws?

Under state law, municipalities and counties are prevented from legislating firearms.

Instead, the right is given to the General Assembly, which hasn’t done much with it in the past 20 years.

The exception came last session, when lawmakers approved a bill that requires convicted domestic abusers to turn over their firearms within 24 hours, rather than 60 days. The law, which took effect in April, also applies to people under a final protection from abuse order, and no longer allows subjects to hand guns over to friends and family for safekeeping.

Some municipalities have taken lawmaking into their own hands in response to local tragedies. Pittsburgh City Council earlier this year defied Harrisburg and established its own extreme risk protection orders, which allow judges to temporarily confiscate firearms from people deemed at risk of harming themselves or others.

The law, passed in the wake of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in 2018, is set to go into effect this October.

What’s stopping municipal gun control laws across Pennsylvania? Costly lawsuits, for starters

Who are the major players?

As with any debate, Republican leadership in the House and Senate, as well as Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, have the most influence.

After the shooting of six police officers in Philadelphia, spokespeople for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, and his House counterpart, Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, told the Capital-Star the GOP caucuses would continue to look at the issue while not considering legislation that unduly burdens law-abiding gun owners.

“We need to focus any changes on keeping firearms out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill,” Cutler said in an August Facebook post. “This starts with enforcing existing laws and strongly prosecuting straw purchasers who give guns to criminals. This is not currently being done.”

Enforcement of existing gun laws is key, research has shown.

The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research examined a Pennsylvania law that punishes people who buy a firearm for a person who can’t legally own one. The 2018 report found that prosecutions “increased by nearly 16 times following the 2012 passage of a law requiring a mandatory minimum five-year sentence for individuals convicted of multiple straw purchase violations.”

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale is also conducting a review of the Pennsylvania Instant Check System, which the State Police use to conduct background checks.

But Cutler’s focus on keeping guns away from “the mentally ill” is misplaced, experts say. “It is important to note that the overwhelming majority of people with mental illness are not violent and far more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators of violence,” the American Psychiatric Association said in an August statement.

This summer, Wolf called on the General Assembly to pass legislation to create extreme risk protection orders statewide and to require background checks for the private sale of long-guns.

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

What are some of the bills being pushed in the General Assembly?

Groups including CeaseFirePA, the state’s most prominent anti-gun violence organization, favor the passage of such laws as:

  • House Bill 1075, Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, and Senate Bill 90, Sen. Tom Killion, R-Delaware: Would create extreme risk protection orders, which allow family and police to petition judges to temporarily confiscate firearms from a person at risk of harming himself or others.
  • House Bill 673, Rep. Perry Warren, D-Bucks, and Senate Bill 88, Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia: Would close the so-called long-gun loophole, which allows people to purchase firearms including assault-style weapons from a private seller or family member without undergoing a background check.
  • House Bill 307, Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Allegheny, and Senate Bill 292, Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Allegheny: Would ban the purchase and ownership of dozens of types of “assault weapons,” including the Colt AR-15.
  • House Bill 532, Rep. Perry Warren, D-Bucks, and Senate Bill 137, Sen. Steven J. Santarsiero, D-Bucks: Would require a firearm to be locked with a device, in a box, in a container, or stored in a “location that a reasonable person would believe to be secure,” in households with people who cannot legally own a gun.

The pro-gun group Firearms Owners Against Crime supports the following bills:

  • Senate Bill 531, Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Clearfield: Would clarify state law to preempt municipalities from passing any firearms-related ordinance.
  • Senate Bill 98, Sen. Scott E. Hutchinson, R-Venango: Would prevent the governor and elected officials in municipalities from preventing the purchase and possession of firearms and ammunition during states of emergency.
  • Senate Bill 103, Sen. Scott E. Hutchinson, R-Venango: Would exempt gun safes and vaults from sales tax.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.