Philly keeps trying to stem the flow of guns that account for the majority of homicides in this city. But if the attorney general -- a candidate for governor -- has his way, the U.S. Supreme Court will ensure it never happens.
Attorney General Tom Corbett is the top law enforcement officer in the state, and he wants to be your next governor. But he doesn’t necessarily care about life and death in Philadelphia.
That’s the only conclusion to draw from the Republican’s decision to add his name to a list of 33 state attorneys general who are urging the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down municipal handgun restrictions across the country—depriving Philly and other big cities of a potential tool to clamp down on the gun violence that plagues them. It’s good news for Corbett’s supporters in the National Rifle Association, but bad news for the rest of us who live in a city that suffers a gun-related death every few days.
Corbett’s signature is on a “friend of the court” brief (PDF) spearheaded by Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott in support of the NRA lawsuit to strike down municipal gun restrictions in Chicago. Unless those restrictions are lifted by the court, Abbott wrote, “millions of Americans may be deprived of their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms as a result of actions by local governments.” No mention, of course, of the 30,000 Americans who die each year from gun violence.
“That would have a chilling effect on municipalities,” Tricia Enright, Mayor Nutter’s communications director, said of the potential Supreme Court ruling. Philly is one of a number of Pennsylvania cities, she noted, that “have taken it upon themselves to pass gun safety laws because the state won’t.”
Indeed, the struggle between Harrisburg and Philadelphia is nothing new. The General Assembly has long banned any restrictions on private handgun ownership, even though the city has at times been under siege: In 2006, when “Killadelphia” violence was spiking, 344 of the city’s 406 homicides were the result of gun violence. While the numbers have improved somewhat, they’re still significant: Last year, 280 of the city’s 333 homicide victims were shot to death. Clamp down on guns, and maybe those numbers plummet further.
Even so, in June, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down Philadelphia’s bans on assault weapons and the “straw purchase” of handguns, asserting that only the legislature—and not the cities—has the authority to pass gun laws. The court left several other provisions in place, however, allowing Philly to require that lost handguns be reported to police and prohibit gun ownership by people subject to “protections from abuse” orders.
Last year, Corbett—whose office didn’t respond to requests for comment—received an “A+” rating from the NRA. Nonetheless, he has sometimes seemed to be on the side of angels when it comes to Philadelphia gun violence. Last year he joined Dist. Atty. Lynne Abraham in launching a program warning against “straw purchases” of guns by people with clean criminal records for convicts who aren’t legally allowed to possess guns.
“It is not enough to investigate and prosecute criminals. We need to educate the public, especially our children, about the dangers associated with gun violence,” Corbett said at the time.
Education only goes so far, though, without laws and the ability to enforce them. Restricting unfettered access to firearms would do even more to reduce violence, and it’s on this score that Corbett and the other attorneys general fall short. Though the case focuses on Chicago’s laws, the ruling will affect every city dealing with gun violence—and potentially put an end to Philly’s hopes that the General Assembly might one day allow us to properly deal with the situation here. The brief bearing Corbett’s signature is full of references to the Revolutionary War, the Founding Fathers and the underpinnings of Anglo-American political philosophy—but it completely ignores the problems faced by 21st century Americans.
“Unlike other enumerated rights—like free speech and religious exercise—the right to keep and bear arms carries an inherent risk of danger to the liberty and interests of others,” wrote the attorneys who are defending Chicago’s gun ordinances. “Thus, in urban environments, where handgun abuse is so rampant, the protection of a right to handguns simply because they are in common use undermines, rather than guarantees, ordered liberty. Enforcing handgun control laws can make an enormous difference in curbing firearms violence.”
That sounds right, but Tom Corbett disagrees. Philadelphians shouldn’t be surprised by his stance. We should, however, be disappointed and offended that he so easily disregards the violence that affects our city. And we should remember it next year when we vote for a new governor.
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