New report blames gerrymandering for stalled gun-safety bills

(Josh Locatis/Flickr)

WASHINGTON — Most Pennsylvanians favor stricter gun laws, recent polling suggests, but efforts to advance gun safety legislation have languished in the state General Assembly.

That disconnect is likely due in part to partisan gerrymandering, according to a report released Tuesday by the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that advocates progressive policies.

The analysis looks at gerrymandering in five states, including Pennsylvania, where Democrats won the majority of statewide votes, but Republicans maintained control over the state legislatures.

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Conservative politicians in those states have “refused to allow a meaningful debate on any commonsense gun safety measures,” according to the report’s authors. The paper also looks at Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Virginia.

“In each of these states, it is likely that, in the absence of partisan gerrymandering, the legislature would have enacted measures to strengthen gun laws — measures that could have saved lives,” the paper says.

Eric Holder, former attorney general under the Obama administration, said in a statement that the CAP report makes clear that “partisan gerrymandering that locks in power for one party makes politicians more likely to cater to the special interests who fund their campaigns than the people they should represent,”

Holder, who is now chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, added, “Finally ending gerrymandering when new maps are drawn in 2021 can be the key that unlocks progress on legislation supported by the vast majority of the American people to reduce gun violence.”

In 2018, Democrats won a majority of the votes for Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives, with 54.1 percent of the votes, according to CAP. They also won a slight majority of the state Senate votes in the 2016 and 2018 (half of the state Senate seats are up each election year). Republicans, however, held the majority in both chambers.

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Pennsylvania was ranked No. 3 in a September report by the University of Southern California Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, which ranked the “worst U.S. state legislative partisan gerrymanders.”

“Republican control of the Pennsylvania Legislature has affected efforts to strengthen gun laws in the state,” according to the authors of the CAP report.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in 2018 signed the state’s first bill related to gun policy in more than a decade. That legislation requires people prohibited from possessing guns due to a domestic violence conviction or restraining order to surrender their weapons, but gun safety advocates want much tougher requirements.

Pennsylvania experiences some of the highest levels of gun-related crime in the United States, according to CAP. The state had the 18th-highest rate of gun murders from 2008 through 2017.

The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gave Pennsylvania a “C+” on its annual scorecard that grades state gun laws. The state ranked 12th out of 50 for the strength of its gun laws, according to the Giffords survey.

“One of the biggest gaps in Pennsylvania’s gun laws allows individuals to buy and sell long guns without a background check,” the analysis says. Such legislation has been introduced in every legislative session since 2013, but has failed to advance beyond being referred to the state House Judiciary Committee.

According to an October poll by Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., 75 percent of registered voters in Pennsylvania strongly support strengthening background checks. Another 62 percent strongly favor “red flag” laws, which would give courts the authority to temporarily remove firearms from people deemed threats to themselves or others.

Efforts to pass state red-flag laws have also stalled in the majority-Republican state Legislature.

The authors of the CAP report advanced what they called a “relatively simple solution” to end partisan gerrymandering: “Do not let politicians draw their own districts and require districts to represent the views of the public as accurately as possible.”

They suggest that states use independent commissions to draw districts, and to create voter-determined districts.

For instance, the authors wrote, “if 55 percent of voters support a particular party, that party should receive as close as possible to 55 percent of the seats. When districts are fair, more votes generally means more seats.”