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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Those who’ve spent some time in state politics remember Vince Fumo’s doormat.

For many years, when you stepped into Fumo’s state Senate office in Harrisburg, the first thing you saw was a round mat inscribed with an American bald eagle and the insignia of the National Rifle Association. See, despite being a straightforward big-city liberal on virtually every other issue, Fumo—a longtime power player as the ranking Democrat on the Senate’s appropriations committee—was an ardent firearm supporter. And he enjoyed that anomaly. You can still go online and see pictures of the firing range in his Fairmount mansion basement; the senator actually went so far as to dub himself “the gun nut of the east.”

State Sen. Vincent Hughes remembers the mat, and even laughs a little when asked about it. “I’ve even been to his gun range in his house. Never shot a weapon, but I’ve seen the gun range and I’ve seen the guns,” the West Philly legislator says. He adds: “I don’t know if there’s any Philadelphia senator or legislator today who would have an NRA mat in their office.”

His faults notwithstanding, Fumo, who spent 30 years in the state Senate before going to prison for corruption in 2009, certainly knew how to get things done in Harrisburg. He made sure Philadelphia got money it needed. That’s something we haven’t seen happening so much since Gov. Corbett came into office and started throttling the budgetary flow to the state’s largest metropolis.

Ironically, gun control—Fumo’s one big concession to conservative Pennsylvania—is one of the issues that state legislators representing Philly today say could most desperately use some powerful friends in the capitol.

“I think things have gone backwards in the legislature,” says state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, who represents the Eighth District in West and Southwest Philly. “The reality is: Republicans are the majority, we’re the minority. There are a number of Southeastern legislators who apparently don’t drive the conversation because we’re in Philadelphia, Chester, Darby, Upper Darby, a few other places that have had instances of gun violence—significant instances of gun violence—and they’re not represented by Republicans.”

The downfall of Fumo’s Democratic machine may have made it easier for the rest of the legislature to use Philadelphia as a “political punching bag,” as Williams puts it. But by many indications, we may be approaching another turning point.

While Pennsylvania’s regularly described as a swing state, the fact is it votes so reliably Democratic in national elections that Republicans had to redraw the state’s district maps just to stay relevant for the next decade.

Our Republican governor, Tom Corbett, is proving daily to be a gigantic liability to his own party, and when our Republican U.S. senator, Pat Toomey, responded to the Sandy Hook massacre by co-sponsoring national background check legislation, Pennsylvanians—a hunting-rifle-happy bunch rivaling any in America—actually rewarded him with a slight bump in the polls, the bill’s eventual failure notwithstanding.

Even though Philadelphia has experienced a downtick in homicides in 2013, gun violence isn’t going away. And against all odds, a handful of legislators in Philadelphia are working toward political solutions to that problem—some of which are untested, and others of which are controversial, especially among the more conservative members of the legislature and their constituents.

Their bills, of course, like most Democratic legislation in Harrisburg, have been stuck at a standstill all year—and for years before that. That’s frustrating for legislators even during the best of times; it’s particularly maddening now, when the state has been showing tantalizing signs of warming to progress.

One year ago, the weekend before the November 2012 election, then-candidate for Pennsylvania attorney general Kathleen Kane was eating a post-church brunch with survivors of Philadelphia street violence. She’d just attended two church services in the city: one at Bright Hope Baptist Church on North 12th Street, another at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church at 57th and Race. It was a campaign trip, sure—but it was an event few politicians running for statewide office, especially attorney general, would have made in the past, for fear of looking soft on gun rights.

Sen. Hughes, who represents Mt. Carmel’s neighborhood, was in attendance at the meal. He recalls there were about seven people from his district there to speak with her. All those sitting around the table had one thing in common: They’d witnessed or had been affected by gun violence in their North and West Philadelphia neighborhoods.

Kane, of course, easily won her election the following Tuesday to become the first Democratic attorney general elected in Pennsylvania history—and the first woman. As Hughes sees it, though, Kane also represented a third important first: She was the first attorney general elected not only without the support of the National Rifle Association, but as someone who campaigned directly against the firearm lobbying group. Just days after being sworn in, she closed the so-called “Florida loophole,” which had allowed Philadelphia gun owners rejected for a concealed-carry permit to obtain one in Florida and use it here.

“The NRA was not for her,” Hughes says. “We know that. So the all powerful NRA got beat, and got beat handily.”

Kane won with 56 percent of the vote—a bigger electoral mandate than anyone else on the statewide ballot could claim, including President Obama and Senator Bob Casey. Pennsylvania liberals, most particularly the Philadelphia delegation to the Capitol, finally seemed to have someone on their side.

They’ll need all the help they can get. After all, when it comes to political efforts to fight gun violence in the city, history itself has not been on the Philadelphia delegation’s side.
 

When Kane was sworn into office in January, she didn’t just have high expectations; she also had her work cut out for her. She was one of only two high-ranking Democrats in state row offices, the other being new treasurer Rob McCord. And she was willing to tackle gun control in a state filled with folks who “cling to guns or religion,” as presidential candidate Barack Obama got slammed for pointing out just a few years ago.

In Pennsylvania, you can walk into a weapons dealer and, within minutes, walk out with several guns, including so-called assault rifles. You just need to pass a quick background check in the store; you don’t need a permit, a license, or to register the weapons, regardless of whether you’re buying a rifle, shotgun or handgun. You do, however, need a permit to carry a weapon on your person—though gun-rights activists and legislators are currently trying to put an end to that.

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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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