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: 14 | Posted Oct. 22, 2013

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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.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 14 of 14
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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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