Democrats, marchers press gun violence debate at Pa. Capitol

gun violence
Temple students and North Philly residents march for campus safety on February 28, 2023.

By BROOKE SCHULTZ and MARC LEVY Associated Press

Anti-gun violence advocates plan to rally Thursday and pack into a friendly legislative hearing in Pennsylvania, where a politically divided government has fought firearms policy to a virtual standstill for decades, and rising gun violence has gripped the state’s largest city.

The March For Our Lives at the state Capitol rally marks its fifth anniversary since its inception after the 2018 shooting that killed 17 students and staff at a Parkland, Florida, high school. Hundreds are expected at the rally in Harrisburg, which coincides with similar rallies this week at state Capitols in Florida, Michigan, California and Texas.

The rally comes as Philadelphia is fighting in court to impose its own gun-control policies and police are mourning three officers shot and killed already this year: Christopher Fitzgerald of Temple University police, Chief Justin McIntire of Brackenridge police and Sean Sluganski of McKeesport police.

Gun violence is playing a big role in this spring’s campaign for mayor of Philadelphia, while Temple University’s president, Jason Wingard, told a panel of lawmakers Tuesday that Philadelphia’s record-high homicide rate has wrought a climate in which students, faculty, parents and staff are afraid.

Since 2018, Pennsylvania’s Legislature — long controlled by Republicans — has not seriously entertained any new firearm restrictions.

However, this year a one-seat Democratic majority has taken over the House and the chamber’s Judiciary Committee will kick off this session’s debate over gun violence with a hearing Thursday.

March For Our Lives organizers are pushing for legislation to ban sales of “assault weapons,” close background check loopholes, require safe storage of firearms and other measures.

They have philosophical allies in newly elected Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro and Democratic leadership in the House and Senate.

Democrats say they are more optimistic about getting legislation passed now that their majority in the House has the power to bring up bills for votes and possibly press a compromise with Republicans on more moderate gun-control measures.

Republicans, who hold a six-seat Senate majority, are historically protective of gun rights and have blocked nearly every new gun control measure while also cooperating with Democrats in putting more money into anti-violence and mental health programs.

Rep. Rob Kauffman, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said the criminals who commit crimes with guns won’t be stopped by tighter gun laws.

Rather, Philadelphia will need to solve the problem with better leadership and a stronger commitment to keeping repeat offenders in jail, Kauffman said.

In interviews, Shapiro has said the level of gun violence is “unacceptable” and must be addressed through a number of efforts. He is proposing to devote more money to anti-violence programs, mental health and helping police departments recruit more officers.

He also has backed gun-control measures, such as eliminating loopholes in background checks, passing a “red flag” law and banning the sale of “weapons of war” and large magazines.

“Listen, if you’re a law-abiding gun owner, you got nothing to worry about with me,” Shapiro said during a January interview with KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh. “But you should be part of this coalition that we’re trying to build to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.”

Legislation introduced thus far by Democrats includes a so-called “red flag” bill, but also a bill to require first-time gun owners to get certified to use a firearm and a measure to give state law enforcement agencies broader jurisdiction to pursue gun crimes.

In Philadelphia, there were 473 shooting fatalities in 2022 and 1,789 nonfatal shooting victims, according to city statistics. That was down slightly from 2021, but from from 311 shooting fatalities in 2019 and 1,162 nonfatal shooting victims.

Statewide, there were 924 shooting fatalities in Pennsylvania in 2022 — up slightly from 2021 — and 2,589 nonfatal shooting victims, according to the non-profit Gun Violence Archive.