A turning point might be coming in Philadelphia state senators' endless face-off against Pennsylvania's gun-friendly heartland.
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
PW's Summer Guide 2015