How inaction in Harrisburg stalled a Philadelphia gun-control law until 2020

The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia’s legislative delegation has stumbled once again in Harrisburg to successfully back the city’s efforts to enforce its own gun regulations.

A pair of identical bills floated in both the state House of Representatives and Senate this summer aiming to ban firearms and lethal weapons in parks and recreation centers across the Commonwealth have stalled, failing to get committee hearings.

The final session of the year for both chambers was Wednesday, ensuring the so-called “safe haven” bills won’t be picked up until 2020.

Without the passage of the bills in Harrisburg, the state’s preemption law, which prohibits local governments from regulating firearms, all but dooms similar legislation Philadelphia City Council passed in November, which Mayor Jim Kenney later signed.

State Rep. Donna Bullock, D-Philadelphia,  the main sponsor of the legislation in the state House, said the Republican-controlled chamber effectively sank her gun regulation bill this year.

Although Bullock remained optimistic her legislation would be taken up next year when the full state House was up for reelection, the GOP-led state House and Senate have shown little appetite to entertain gun control regulation proposals.

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“At this point, we are in a stalemate,” she said.

Bullock’s bill garnered the support of 20 of her fellow Democrats. But not a single House Republican signed onto the bill.

House Judiciary Committee Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, did not return a call seeking comment about Bullock’s stalled leiglsation.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia,  who introduced a companion bill in the upper chamber that also remains stuck in committee, said he was frustrated the Republican majorities in the General Assembly have been unwilling to address sensible gun legislation.

“As a result, common sense gun control measures, including my bills, are not receiving the consideration they deserve,” Hughes, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said. “The process is frustrating, yet we continue to push forward and fight to reduce gun violence in the city of Philadelphia and across the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

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House Republican spokesman Mike Straub did not return a call seeking comment.

Both Bullock and Hughes partnered with other state legislators and Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke, among others, this summer to call for the firearms ban in public places following a violent summer of shootings and homicides in the city.

Philadelphia is in the midst of a two-year upswing in homicides.

As of Thursday, the city logged 343 homicides — up 2 percent from last year at the same time. Philadelphia was on track to surpass last year’s homicide total of 353, which was a 10-year high.

The number of shooting victims totaled 1,406 as of Tuesday — up 4.1 percent compared to this time last year, according to the city’s gun data website. Black men accounted for the overwhelming majority of those shooting victims (75 percent).

Although optimism surrounded the gun regulation proposal over the summer as officials touted “buy-in” from state legislators, the continued failure of the city to win approval from Harrisburg shows the limits of Philadelphia’s ability to tackle gun violence in the city.

Philadelphia passed a similar safe haven bill in 2013, which was blocked by the state’s preemption law.

In November, City Council passed so-called “red flag” gun regulations that would establish a court process to temporarily remove firearms from individuals who pose an imminent threat to themselves or the public. That legislation is expected to face a legal challenge at the state level.

Clarke, who was the main sponsor of the safe haven bill passed this year in City Council, remained vague about how the city will move forward.

“Understanding the nature of Harrisburg, it’s not easy to get things passed as it relates to weapons,” he said. “But at some point in time, there will be a decision made as to what the next steps will be as it relates to safe haven regulation.”

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.