Despite popularity, gun controls stall

The duel: State failed to require reporting of lost firearms. By Jarrett Renshaw | Of The Morning Call October 20, 2008

The duel: State failed to require reporting of lost firearms.

By Jarrett Renshaw | Of The Morning Call
October 20, 2008

Roughly four years ago, state lawmakers from the Philadelphia region grew tired of the gun violence that plagued the city's neighborhoods and looked to Harrisburg for relief.

They analyzed and gauged the political winds on numerous pieces of gun control legislation aimed at slowing the bloodshed, such as limiting gun purchases to one a month and banning assault rifles in the city.

But a proposal to require residents across the state to report their lost or stolen guns stood out among the rest. Not because it was the most effective remedy, but because polls and political instinct told them it would face the least opposition from the state's powerful gun lobby.

''It had the support of everyone that mattered, including the public, and it does not stop anybody from buying a gun, so we thought it was a no-brainer,'' said Johnna Pro, a spokeswoman for state Rep. Dwight Evans, a Philadelphia lawmaker who has helped lead the charge for gun control legislation in Harrisburg.

They were wrong.

While the governor on Friday signed a law stiffening penalties for certain firearms crimes, a bill that would have required the reporting of lost or stolen guns never made it out of House and Senate judiciary committees during the past two years.

Some say the stalemate is the result of the gun lobby successfully wedging a gap between rural and urban lawmakers over most gun control proposals.

With no committee support, it took some parliamentary tactics earlier this year to force a vote on the House floor, where the reporting bill and its supporters were soundly defeated 128 to 75.

The lack of success in Harrisburg has provoked mayors from the state's largest cities -- including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton -- to consider or propose identical legislation.

But the state's most powerful politician -- and biggest proponent of tougher gun laws -- said last week that the cities' efforts probably would suffer the same fate as the bills in Harrisburg.

''I am sorry to say that it's probably going to fail. I empathize with [the] mayors, but current legislation clearly preempts them from doing something on their own,'' Gov. Ed Rendell said in an interview Thursday.

The deadlock illustrates the strength and influence of the gun lobby and pro-gun voters, while exposing the divide between the state's rural and urban communities as urban lawmakers search for solutions to gun violence that rural lawmakers can sell to their constituents.

''The reason we have not been successful is because lawmakers are afraid of the NRA, but it's a false fear,'' Rendell said. ''I won two statewide elections without the support of the NRA.''

In the past year, records show that the NRA has spent more than $40,000 lobbying in the state. Since 2002, the organization's political action committee also has made at least 87 contributions to campaigns on both sides of the aisle, totalling $40,825, according to state campaign finance reports.

One local state lawmaker who voted against the reporting requirement earlier this year said the notion that opponents of the legislation are influenced by the NRA is ''laughable.''

''You can check my campaign expense reports. I have not received a penny from the NRA,'' said state Rep. Craig Dally, R-Northampton. ''But that's their rallying cry, because they don't have the facts to support these legislative initiatives.''

In general, proposed legislation at the state and local level would require reporting lost or stolen guns within 78 hours. Failure to report would lead to fines up to $1,000 and, in some cases, up to 90 days in jail.

Supporters argue that it's necessary to target straw purchasers -- people who buy guns for felons who are prohibited by law from buying guns themselves. When those guns are used in crimes, the purchasers bear no responsibility if they claim the guns were lost or stolen. The proposal attempts to close that loophole. It also allows law enforcement officials to better track stolen guns.

''I just can't see how anybody can be against it,'' said Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, who pushed the reporting legislation through City Council earlier this month, despite objections from Lehigh County District Attorney James Martin, who called it unenforceable and unconstitutional because only the state can enact gun control legislation.

Opponents of the proposal say it does little to combat the problem of illegal gun sales and can unfairly victimize legal gun owners who may be unaware that their gun was lost or stolen. They also note that the state already has laws on the books against straw purchases that carry stiff penalties.

'We need to find better ways to enforce these laws, not come up with ones that may penalize legal gun owners,'' Dally said.

The law Rendell signed Friday stiffens the penalties for firing at a police officer, increases the statute of limitations for prosecuting straw purchases that are linked to gun crimes, prevents mentally ill people from buying guns and raises the penalties for falsely telling police a gun was lost or stolen.

Asked Thursday whether the lost or stolen portion went far enough, Rendell said, ''We're light years away. We still haven't done the requirement to report a lost or stolen firearm -- to the amazement of many people. We're a little abnormal around here.''

Like most of his colleagues, Rep. Douglas G. Reichley, R-Lehigh, had no trouble supporting the bill signed Friday, while voting against a House amendment earlier this year that would have required the reporting of lost or stolen guns.

There are better ways to address the problem, he said.

''We wanted to pay for 10,000 more cops statewide and stiffen penalties for gun-related crimes, but the Democrats said no,'' said Reichley, a former Lehigh County prosecutor.

Polls have shown that a majority of Pennsylvania residents favor more gun regulation. Since 2000, Franklin & Marshall College's Center for Opinion Research has conducted at least 20 separate polls where they asked residents if they favored increased gun regulation. Each time, more than 50 percent of the respondents said yes.

Michael Young, a retired Penn State political science professor and current political consultant, said it's not uncommon for the public and lawmakers to be on different pages, especially when a portion of the public is more vocal and united.

''People who support increased gun control are not typically single-issue voters, and they are more passive in the their support,'' said Young. ''Meanwhile, gun advocates and the gun lobby are more active and drive voting behavior, showing the power of interest groups.''

Young said the most viable solution is to allow bigger cities to enact their own rules, within constitutional limits, when it comes to gun control.

The idea is not without precedent.

Eight states in the country allow some measure of local gun control. That has allowed New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago to pass local reporting requirements.

Philadelphia, Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton have joined or hope to join that list, but that task may be hard. The NRA has challenged the legality of Philadelphia's legislation, and legal experts expect the case to be heard by the state Supreme Court.

''States derive their power from the constitution and are constitutional creatures. Meanwhile, cities are considered creatures of the state, and their only powers are the ones the state gives them, and they can be taken away,'' Young said.

When it comes down to a fight between state and local governments, Young said, the state typically wins.

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