Deadly lesson on gun trafficking in the Pa. backwoods

Police gather at the scene where 31-year-old Wildlife Conservation Officer David Grove (inset) was shot and killed Thursday night in Freedom Township, Adams County. (AP Photo / Hanover Evening Sun, Clare Becker)

State wildlife conservation officer David L. Grove had a job that required him to venture out into the Pennsylvania backwoods alone and track down illegal hunters — poachers that he knew would be armed.

If that’s not the perfect definition of a dangerous job, performed by a brave individual, then it must be pretty close.

Just how dangerous became clear on Thursday, with Grove’s fatal shooting. Police have charged an Adams County man, Christopher L. Johnson, 27, whom Grove apparently suspected of poaching.

With Grove’s death, the state’s conservation efforts lost a dedicated, caring officer. His loss is all the more appalling since he was the first officer from his ranks to be slain on the job in the state in nearly a century.

Friends and family of Grove, 31, are right to consider this a senseless shooting. After all, how could any poaching infraction be worth someone’s life?

But Grove’s death had more to do with lax handgun rules and enforcement than any hunting dispute.

As a convicted felon barred from owning a firearm, Johnson would have had no business carrying the .45-caliber handgun that police say was used to kill Grove. In fact, police say the shooting may have started because Johnson knew that he faced possible jail time merely for being caught with an illegal gun.

The tide of illegal guns fuels crimes in urban areas across the state, but the easy availability of handguns also puts weapons in the hands of criminals outside the cities. Yet the National Rifle Association — and the majority of Harrisburg lawmakers who are in the NRA's thrall — refuse to take even simple steps toward better enforcement of gun trafficking.

A proposal that’s supported by most Pennsylvanians would require reporting lost and stolen weapons as part of a strategy to curtail illegal gun sales by buyers who pose as fronts or so-called straw buyers. The measure has the support of law enforcement and mayors in dozens of cities and towns, yet it has gone nowhere in Harrisburg.

Another gun-safety tactic would be to limit handgun buyers to one a month — once again, to cut down on illegal trafficking without infringing on anyone’s right to legally purchase a handgun.

Finally, the state needs to close the so-called Florida loophole, which allows people to acquire out-of-state handgun licenses even after they have been turned down for one in Pennsylvania.

The election of NRA acolyte Tom Corbett as governor doesn’t bode well for moving ahead with such sensible gun-safety regulations. But their enactment would be a fitting tribute to the dedication of law enforcement officers like David Grove.