A turning point might be coming in Philadelphia state senators' endless face-off against Pennsylvania's gun-friendly heartland.
State Rep. Cherelle Parker, a Democrat from Northwest Philadelphia, argues that responsible gun ownership shouldn’t be a partisan issue. “Sometimes it’s not a very popular thing to say out loud,” she muses while en route to a CeaseFire PA event in Harrisburg, noting there’s one main obstacle from the Democratic perspective: “We need to convince Republicans [that gun control in any form is] not bad. It’s much like any of the progressive policies that have been enacted in our nation—and here in our commonwealth.”
Philadelphia state legislators’ wish list includes things like a ban on assault weapons, more restrictive conceal-carry laws and a gun registry—that last point in particular being the bogeyman that killed Toomey’s national gun legislation last spring. Parker’s main concern is the need to control the flow of illegal guns into Philadelphia. On the face of it, that sounds uncontroversial; in fact, doesn’t it sound like something law-abiding Pennsylvania gun owners should support? And yet it’s not that simple—because it means allowing Philadelphia not just to pass but to enforce local gun laws specific to the city. It also leads to gun owners’ anxiety that one seemingly reasonable law will lead to another, and another, until, eventually, guns are banned outright.
The conflict between those two perspectives permeates the nation, and was perhaps most simply articulated a few years ago by a pair of law professors, Donald Braman of George Washington University and Dan Kahan of Yale. “For one segment of American society, guns symbolize honor, human mastery over nature, and individual self-sufficiency,” they write. “By opposing gun control, individuals affirm the value of these meanings and the vision of the good society that they construct. For another segment of American society, however, guns connote something else: the perpetuation of illicit social hierarchies, the elevation of force over reason, and the expression of collective indifference to the well-being of strangers.”
Nowhere is that clash more deeply divided than in Pennsylvania. And the “alternative vision of the good society that features equality, social solidarity, and civilized nonaggression”—which Braman and Kahan note is the goal of the latter—is largely being led at the state level by three Philadelphians: Sens. Williams, Hughes and Farnese.
This year at the Capitol, Hughes and Farnese have co-sponsored a bill to crack down on straw purchases; Farnese has written an assault weapons ban; Hughes has written a “uniform firearms bill” to bar people with certain convictions from obtaining a gun; Farnese has proposed a mandatory minimum sentence for illegally carrying a firearm; and Williams has introduced a gun registry bill. It’s all but inconceivable that any of those bills will become law while Democrats are the minority party in the House and Senate and don’t hold the governor’s office. Still, they keep trying.
A gun registry, says Williams, would work “for the same reason a car registry works: so you know where the guns are. It’s not about us trying to come get your gun or come get your car—or your refrigerator; when you send out a warranty, there’s a registry. People track stuff in America so they know where it is, and certainly things that have lethal consequences should be tracked. The military tracks its weaponry, so why wouldn’t we track citizens’ weaponry?”
As it happens, only one state and one territory in the U.S. have gun registries for all privately-held firearms, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence: Hawaii and Washington, D.C. Hawaii has one of the lowest gun-violence death rates in the country (after Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Massachusetts); the District of Columbia, on the other hand, has one of the highest.
Pennsylvania is ranked 25th—and not only do we not have a gun registry, we have a state law expressly forbidding one (for long guns, anyway).
It makes sense that Hughes, Williams and Farnese have been leading the fight on guns in Pennsylvania: The vast majority of homicides take place in their territories. Take a look at any map of Philadelphia’s gun crimes—deaths or otherwise—and you see lots of data points over sections of West, North and, to a somewhat lesser extent, South Philly.
There were 331 homicides in Philadelphia last year. The vast majority of those killed were African Americans; in fact, according to a study conducted by the Philadelphia Police, between 2007 and 2010, almost four out of every five people killed in Philadelphia were black. In 2010 alone, African Americans accounted for 242 of the 306 Philadelphians murdered.
But slow, ongoing, one-death-at-a-time urban violence has rarely led to any real legislative accomplishment; it’s too easy for rural and suburban legislators to say “not our problem.” It’s not until a mass shooting takes place somewhere around the country, like Sandy Hook, that Americans’ collective horror focuses on the gun issue. That’s why it’s not uncommon to hear Philadelphia legislators using “mass shooting” rhetoric to make their arguments, even though spree killers aren’t statistically the bulk of the gun violence—because the simple statistics have never moved constituents in, say, Westmoreland County to accept stricter gun laws.
What’s long been frustrating is that Pennsylvania’s governing system includes a mechanism by which the legislature could pass laws that only apply to Philadelphia without impacting the rest of the state.
Certain municipalities in Pennsylvania are specially designated in state legislation as either cities of the first class (of which there is one: Philadelphia), second class (Pittsburgh), second class “A” (Scranton) or third class (53 cities around the state, including Bethlehem, Allentown, Chester and others).
So Philly legislators have long been attempting to pass gun legislation targeted specifically to cities of the first class—that is, just us.
It’s a tactic that, at its best, can allow everyone to have things their own way: The cities can get urban-specific legislation without compelling our rural neighbors to change before they’re ready to—but if what begins in Philadelphia actually works, it can serve as a precedent, catching on city by city, county by county, until it eventually it becomes statewide law.
That’s basically what happened with Pennsylvania’s restaurant smoking ban: First the legislature allowed cities of the first class to ban smoking. Then, when it worked, they decided to do it the commonwealth over—only when they did, they exempted cities of the first class since we already had our own law.
That approach, of course, bears the hallmark of waiting to observe actual results in the real world before making any sweeping statewide policy decisions based on pure ideology.
City class designations can be used by non-urban legislators, too. This spring, Republican south-central Pennsylvania state Sen. Richard Alloway floated a bill that would have reopened the infamous Florida loophole on a county-by-county basis within the state—allowing a Philly resident, for instance, who’d been turned down for a concealed-carry permit by the city police’s Gun Permits and Tracking Unit to go to another county, obtain such a permit from the county sheriff’s department and use it here. “If a citizen feels Philadelphia is violating his or her rights,” Alloway said at the time, “then I want to afford them the opportunity to go to an adjacent county.”
One wonders: Why would a legislator from Adams County care about Philadelphia residents’ concealed carry permits, anyway? Farnese chalks this and similar bills up to the NRA’s influence over the state. “There is the potential for Philadelphia to have laws pushed upon it by legislators outside Philadelphia,” he says, “and, quite frankly, they do not understand the unique situation we have here in the city with this epidemic of gun violence.”
When Pat Toomey co-sponsored his national background-check bill in the U.S. Senate earlier this year, it came in the wake of Connecticut’s Sandy Hook school massacre in December 2012—and it was a bipartisan effort with a conservative Democrat. Promptly, the more rancorous factions of the social-conservative media accused the senator of having become at least a shill for the Obama administration and quite possibly an agent of the New World Order, that hypothetical conspiracy allegedly out to control Earth’s gun supply so we’ll all be helpless to resist a new, global fascist government.
PW's Summer Guide 2015