How the American gun-control debate plays out in one state

A turning point might be coming in Philadelphia state senators' endless face-off against Pennsylvania's gun-friendly heartland.

By Randy LoBasso
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 16 | Posted Oct. 22, 2013

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That partisan extremism doesn’t just show up in the national debate—it’s a factor here at the state level, too.

“Anything that people disagree with, they wrap themselves in the flag and patriotism and all that kind of stuff,” notes Sen. Williams. “I’m not really sure where that even comes from. They’re ‘patriots,’ they ‘fight tyranny’—they disrespect the government, they disrespect the Constitution. I think it’s all about supremacy.”

Republican state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe of Butler County, whose visibility in Pennsylvania politics has grown along with the national rise of the Tea Party, has become a standard bearer for gun rights in the state these days. Speaking at the conservative Pennsylvania Leadership Conference earlier this year, he made the case that the Second Amendment “wasn’t put there so we could be duck hunters, or deer hunters, but so the American people could protect themselves … from tyranny. Isn’t that right?”

From the socially conservative fight-the-power perspective, it’s vital that Americans not allow the government to take advantage of a situation like Sandy Hook to pass gun laws. After all, the average odds of a student in the U.S. getting killed in a school shooting are about 1 in 15 million, according to a study by the Psych Law Journal. And yet a study by the Pew Research Center found that in the days following the Connecticut shooting last December, “more [Americans] prioritized gun control than gun rights”—49 percent favoring new gun laws, 42 percent opposing.

Pew also found that after Sandy Hook, more Americans than ever before believed that such shootings “reflect broader problems in society”—something gun control legislation does not account for.

Forty-seven percent said that, in fact—compared to just 24 percent answering the same question after the Aurora, Colo. shooting six months earlier in July 2012.

Despite the shifting national public opinion, Toomey’s bill failed. Not by a majority, though; rather, the 56 votes in favor of the bill were four short of the supermajority necessary to break the threat of a certain filibuster. State Rep. Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia) articulated at the time the widespread frustration over the legislative gridlock: “Ninety percent of Americans support background checks. The majority of members of the NRA support background checks. Really, everybody supports background checks. The 10 percent that don’t—really, I don’t think you can get 90 percent of the U.S. population to agree what day of the week it is if you show them a calendar.”

That’s an unfortunate truth amid a debate where we can’t even agree to honestly define the parameters of what we’re arguing about in the first place.

A few weeks ago, the liberal Center for American Progress began teasing a forthcoming research study they’re calling the “largest gun study ever,” promising it will show that more guns inevitably leads to “more murder.” Here’s the problem: In hyping that study under the headline “More Guns, More Murder,” CAP’s website, Think Progress, is including gun suicides as murders. That might be defensible in some rarefied technical manner, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a politically motivated manipulation of language.

In fact, in places in the U.S. where suicide rates are high, homicide rates are extremely low—and vice-versa. The lowest suicide rates in the country are in Washington, D.C. and Louisiana—which also have the highest homicide rates. Meanwhile, a Pew Research Center poll conducted in the wake of the Newtown massacre found the rates of gun sales and gun crimes relating inversely to one another since the early 1990s. Nationwide, homicides have plummeted over the past 20 years, from more than 18,000 a year in 1993 to about 12,000 in 2011.

(As for unintentional fatalities? The numbers also show that they’ve gone down even as American gun ownership has gone up. In 1991, 1,441 Americans died as the result of an unintentional gunshot wound. In 2011, that number was down to 600—and down from a historical high of 3,200 in 1929.)

In other words: Different statistics offer different views on how effective gun control legislation really is. A recent (non-peer-reviewed) Harvard Law Review study touted by conservatives says such laws don’t correlate to a lower death rate. But a 2013 Journal of the American Medical Association found that yes, they probably do. Analyzing “all firearm-related deaths reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System from 2007 through 2010” and using “state-level firearm legislation across 5 categories of laws to create a ‘legislative strength score,’” the AMA found: “A higher number of firearm laws in a state are associated with a lower rate of firearm fatalities in the state, overall and for suicides and homicides individually.”

Even so, the study went on to admit, “the overall association between firearm legislation and firearm mortality is uncertain and remains controversial.”
 

For the moment, while Vince Fumo’s NRA doormat may be a memory, and voters may be more willing to reflect soberly on America’s relationship with firearms, Philadelphia’s state legislators continue to beat their heads against an uncooperative opposition in Harrisburg.

But they’re all looking to wait out the clock. The Republicans’ current national unpopularity—particularly, the mainstream reviling of the Tea Party since this month’s federal shutdown—coincides with ever-plummeting approval numbers for Gov. Corbett here at home. November 2014 is just one year away, and city liberals are mighty tired of playing the doormat.

Looking ahead to the next election cycle, Professor Randall Miller of the St. Joseph’s University American studies department suggests Pennsylvania Democrats might stand a chance of taking the three seats they’d need in the state Senate and the 10 they’d need in the state House for a legislative majority—if they nominate the right gubernatorial candidate. Maybe. “I’m not sure I’d be dancing in the streets right now if I was a Democrat,” he says. “There’s a lot of work to do. And one of the things they have to do, and they’re trying to do, is link any Republican, wherever that Republican is, in one of the counties, with Corbett.”

Meanwhile, as polls show the state growing more socially liberal, a Tea Party group called the American Future Fund has promised a move into southeast Pennsylvania to primary any moderate Republican candidates—perhaps forcing them to move to the uncomfortable right for their primary. Thus far, the group has only mentioned a liquor privatization bill and transportation as part of their southeastern agenda; whether or not they plan to stand with the NRA is yet to be seen.

“I think the NRA has its power in certain places,” says Sen. Hughes, “and I think in the next year or two we’re going to see some people get elected who have some common sense points of view when it comes to guns. We have to always advocate for these issues. I don’t care who the governor is.”

Staff writer Randy LoBasso’s last cover story explored the potential economic ramifications of marijuana legalization in Pennsylvania. Follow his ongoing “Purplevania” series about state politics via PW’s Twitter: @phillyweekly

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 16 of 16
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1. Anonymous said... on Oct 23, 2013 at 09:49AM

“Fewer guns around = fewer people shot”

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2. Anonymous said... on Oct 23, 2013 at 03:14PM

“Bad guys will ALWAYS be able to get illegal guns, you can't legislate criminals not to be able to obtain guns. AND...only thing that stops bad guy with a gun is good guy with a legal gun”

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3. Anonymous said... on Oct 23, 2013 at 03:41PM

“To Anonymous 1... Question: did prohibition stop/decrease alcohol consumption or supply? Answer: Not even close.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Oct 24, 2013 at 09:39AM

“When will the PW post a positive article about the NSA spying on all Americans? After all, isn't the 4th Amendment just another antiquated concept made up by men in powdered wigs too. How about the benefits of the White House intimidating reporters? What good does that 1st Amendment so us anyway? More guns = less crime ... fact! But that isn't the issue, we have a right to defend ourselves with weapons equal to those that would do us harm. We don't ban cars because some people drink and drive. Switzerland hands out assault rifles and ammo, yet has very low crime. Explain that.”

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5. Anonymous said... on Oct 24, 2013 at 03:48PM

“Swiss law requires men to enlist in the military or do national service by age 25. Women can choose to enlist. This compulsory military service generally means much of the population knows how to handle guns.

But gun control has steadily increased in Switzerland, moving from little restrictions, to a permitting system and gun owner registries. More recently there is debate over whether more restrictions should be put in place.

Roger Schneeberger, secretary general of the State Police and Justice Directors Conference, said it doesn’t seem that guns are a deterrent to crime, in Switzerland.

“If you see the development of the number of burglaries in Switzerland this is a very negative trend — we have more and more every year," he said. "And if burglars would think ‘there is a weapon in every house, I shouldn’t go to a Swiss house for a burglary,’ these wouldn’t be the figures we have recently." He also says from a police perspective, fewer guns equal fewer risks for officers.”

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6. Anonymous said... on Oct 24, 2013 at 04:31PM

“Every time the Liberals run out of things to make more liberal they turn to guns. It makes good "we're doing something headlines". I have been around and owned firearms my whole life and never robbed a 7-11, pointed one at anyone or tried to settle an argument with a gun. These "officials" need to look at the laws that punish criminals not law abiding citizens. Stop plea bargaining away jail time,1st gun crime gets you 5 years in jail mandatory, repeat offenders should be locked up and left to rot. If you look at the people who use guns illegally they are usually career criminals and repeat offenders that should not be free, ever. They are certainly not normal, hard working, law abiding residents of PA. Stop the bs and get real. Do something that works. The way to stop crime is not by disarming the law abiding, it's making crime so distasteful it doesn't happen. Several Philly cops have told that they risk their lives arresting these guys only to see them walk free. That's Just wrong!”

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7. Anonymous said... on Oct 24, 2013 at 10:21PM

“Anon 5 is quoting directly from a PRI article, which is fine, but you selectively skipped sections.

"Gun advocates in the US have argued that crime is low in Switzerland because there are more guns. And it's true there are few shooting deaths."

The point being made about Switzerland is that almost every household owns a military grade weapon (which just means that it's light and easily accepts modifications), yet they don't solve every argument with a bullet, as gun control advocates suggest. So, in this country we seem to have a problem, but if it was caused by high gun-ownership, then you would see it in Switzerland as well. Let's try to solve the problems we actually have, which are legion, rather than blind-fold ourselves and take scissors to our rights.”

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8. Fundementally_Flawed said... on Oct 31, 2013 at 03:01PM

“Pennsylvania already has a host of laws dealing with prohibitions on the sale, possession, transfer. All Williams, Sims, et.al. will speak of is more legislation. They sell a lie to the public that more legislation will lead to a reduction in crimes involving firearms.

Legislation is worthless when there exists a failure to prosecute and sentence. Legislation is worthless when DAs plea bargain with criminals, reducing their charges and sentences, just to get those criminals through the system with as little effort as possible. Violent criminals know how to game the system, and the DAs aid and abet in the gaming of the system.

Look up the Philadelphia conviction rates for firearms theft, illegal possession, transfer, straw purchase or sale by unlicensed dealer. Therein you will find the real problem.”

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9. Anonymous said... on Nov 14, 2013 at 11:54AM

“I was once against the NRA No longer. Guns don't kill people politicians do. These three are bogus”

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10. John Merrifield said... on Jan 6, 2014 at 06:32AM

“According to the FBI and other sources, the murder rate has gone down gradually since 1992 across the country. This has been based on a variety of factors but not necessarily gun control or lack thereof. The homicide rate goes up and down like the stock market and no one has any simple reason why.

James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University cites 4 main reasons for the decline, and they have nothing to do with gun control or lack thereof.
1. Increased incarceration, including longer sentences, that keeps more criminals off the streets.
2. Improved law enforcement strategies, including advances in computer analysis and innovative technology.
3. The waning of the crack cocaine epidemic that soared from 1984 to 1990, which made cocaine cheaply available in cities across the US.
4. The graying of America characterized by the fastest-growing segment of the US population – baby boomers – passing the age of 50.

Sources:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/mass-killings-up-homicide-rate-down/2012/12/19/3a87b058-4a11-11e2-820e-17eefac2f939_story.html
http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Justice/2012/0109/US-crime-rate-at-lowest-point-in-decades.-Why-America-is-safer-now”

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11. John Merrifield said... on Jan 6, 2014 at 06:32AM

“According to the FBI and other sources, the murder rate has gone down gradually since 1992 across the country. This has been based on a variety of factors but not necessarily gun control or lack thereof. The homicide rate goes up and down like the stock market and no one has any simple reason why.

James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University cites 4 main reasons for the decline, and they have nothing to do with gun control or lack thereof.
1. Increased incarceration, including longer sentences, that keeps more criminals off the streets.
2. Improved law enforcement strategies, including advances in computer analysis and innovative technology.
3. The waning of the crack cocaine epidemic that soared from 1984 to 1990, which made cocaine cheaply available in cities across the US.
4. The graying of America characterized by the fastest-growing segment of the US population – baby boomers – passing the age of 50.

Sources:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/mass-killings-up-homicide-rate-down/2012/12/19/3a87b058-4a11-11e2-820e-17eefac2f939_story.html
http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Justice/2012/0109/US-crime-rate-at-lowest-point-in-decades.-Why-America-is-safer-now”

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12. Anonymous said... on Jan 20, 2014 at 05:10PM

““Anything that people disagree with, they wrap themselves in the flag and patriotism and all that kind of stuff,” notes Sen. Williams. “I’m not really sure where that even comes from. They’re ‘patriots,’ they ‘fight tyranny’—they disrespect the government, they disrespect the Constitution. I think it’s all

Senator Williams, you sir are the face of tyranny. You took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and of Pennsylvania. What part of "shall not be questioned" and "shall not be infringed" do you not understand? So yes, I will wrap myself in a flag, call myself a patriot and fight tyranny because I am an oathkeeper. You sir disrespect your government, office and disrespect and ignore the Constitution. Time for you to go.”

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13. Truth Teller said... on Mar 8, 2014 at 02:46AM

“The whole debate is STUPID!
Is a stabbing less tragic that a shooting??
Violence is a journey not a destination.
Trying to remove one element of a violent cycle is like removing a smoke detector from a burning house in hopes that it will stop the fire.

The root cause of MOST violence is drug related and we LOST the "war on drugs". Because if this lost war we have Gangs, broken families, the highest incarceration rate of all countries/ in all of human history and a general decay of society. But the gun debate is a nice distraction to the 3rd world we call America.”

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14. Anonymous said... on Mar 13, 2014 at 10:21PM

“This story is not only biased, it makes Mr. LoBasso look gullible. If you think Ms. Kane would lose sleep, or even give a daily thought to the "innocent victims of guns" (and when i say innocent, i mean non drug dealing, non gang banging, victims of violent crime) you should ask her point blank for a victims' name. I was born and raised in Philly, I love my city, I have a mural to it tattooed down my arm. I love the people, and the culture. I also love my guns, and my religion, and my freedom. This city needs to just concede that they don't have a gun problem, they have a CRIME problem. The city is full of kids who DO NOT CARE about laws. And when the city understands that, they will understand that they can outlaw guns completely, and yet people will still be killed by guns. Gun crime is a product of drugs, drugs are a product of demand, demand is due to a lack of PARENTING and ACCOUNTABILITY, which is due to a lack of very basic education. FIX them, and watch gun crime plummet.”

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15. Anonymous said... on May 6, 2014 at 04:43PM

“FBI annual statistic states that the chosen weapon, use more than any other in both assaults and murders is.......wait for it........the baseball bat! I suggest we start banning baseball bats ASAP and you will need a permit to use one for any kind of organized sport. You should also have to register your baseball bat with local, state and federal government. You will need to have your bat under lock and key when it is not being used to play baseball. No bats will be allowed in schools or any other public building.”

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16. Anonymous said... on May 12, 2014 at 10:59PM

“3 of the states most liberal asses”

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