Some made impassioned pleas for change. Others argued for fortifying schools rather than regulating guns. Still others talked about domestic violence, mental health, urban gun deaths, and other issues. In what they called an unprecedented series of hearings, three dozen Pennsylvania House members took turns speaking over six days about gun safety and how to prevent mass shootings.
They offered dozens of bills and ideas — amid plenty of polite disagreement — in response to February’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla., and a level of gun violence increasingly seen as a national crisis.
The lawmakers were speaking to a state whose population and political bases are divided between large rural swaths where gun ownership is a tradition, and Philadelphia and other urban areas, which see pervasive gun violence. Pennsylvania receives middle grades from both gun-control and gun-advocacy groups. Though legislators in favor of some type of gun-safety measure outnumbered those testifying against making new regulations, Pennsylvania has not passed gun-safety legislation in several years, and bills introduced in recent sessions have died without votes. With a Republican-controlled legislature, major gun-control bills likely could not pass.
Closing the sessions Wednesday, House Judiciary Committee chair Rep. Ron Marsico (R., Dauphin) said he would spend a few weeks talking to his fellow lawmakers and decide which bills will get voted on by the committee. Another, one-day hearing will be held in May, where advocacy groups will be invited to testify. Marsico said members of the public can submit written testimony to his office.
“Not everything we heard will come up for a vote, however, but we have heard a lot of good, interesting, and creative ideas,” Marsico said at the conclusion of Wednesday’s hearing.
Here are all the ideas, either current bills or just talking points, mentioned by state legislators during the six-day hearing*:
- Fortify schools. Rep. Bill Kortz (D., Allegheny) proposes nearly quadrupling the funding for a schools grant program, sending $30 million to “fortify” schools, paying for school resource and police officers, security-related equipment, and safety-oriented programs.
- And raise taxes to do it. A companion bill from Kortz would increase the state personal income tax by 0.007 percent, which would raise $30 million annually.
- Arm teachers and staff. This bill sponsored by Rep. Cris Dush (R., Jefferson) would allow school administrators, teachers, and staff to be armed if they were licensed to carry, had police training, and authorized by the local school board. It would not be mandatory statewide.
- Don’t arm teachers. “Teachers in our schools could not be more opposed to this idea. We should listen to them,” said Rep. Steve McCarter (D., Montgomery), who taught public school for 35 years and said adding weapons to schools could result in “a thousand bad scenarios.” He said the “hardening” of schools would turn them into prisons without fully stopping violence.
- Put a metal detector and at least one armed safety officer at the entrance of every school building.
- Equip schools and first responders with trauma bags. Rep. Frank Farry (R., Bucks) wants to train first responders and school personnel to control bleeding, proposing to place trauma bags throughout schools like fire extinguishers.
- Form a committee to study public school safety. The Gun Violence in Schools Advisory Committee would conduct a study, come up with best practices for security, create a grant program and issue an annual report about gun violence and prevention in schools.
- Increase school funding. “When children are educated, they don’t go in this pipeline toward violence,” said Rep. Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia). Various legislators said the best way to help students is to provide them with counselors, support staff, home visitors, and other specialized support. “Let’s be candid: as a legislature we have been very reluctant to provide the money to allow our schools” to improve infrastructure or hire personnel, McCarter said.
What They Said
- “I am not prepared to roll over again… and to tell my kids and their friends that nothing can change because of [some]one’s culture or outside special interests… My kids have had enough. They are scared to go to school.” – Rep. Tim Briggs (D., Montgomery)
- “Arming teachers is not the way. They didn’t go to college to learn how to carry guns. They went to college to learn how to educate our children,” said Rep. Ed Gainey (D., Allegheny). Laying out his background in the military and with law enforcement, Rep. Rick Saccone (R., Allegheny) replied, “Wouldn’t you like a guy like me in a classroom?”
- “The emphasis and discussion about school safety is necessary… but the world doesn’t have enough metal detectors, bulletproof vests and security guards to harden all of these so-called soft targets.” – Rep. Mike Schlossberg (D., Lehigh)
- “We ask so much of our children, we impose such fear on our children, and I think we have a duty and a responsibility to lift some of that fear.” – Rep. Madeleine Dean (D., Montgomery)
- Firearm restraining orders. Under this provision, also known as extreme risk protection orders, family members or police could ask a judge to temporarily remove someone’s guns if they believe that person poses an “extreme risk” without having to meet the stricter requirements of mental-health laws. Five states currently have variations of the law, which is often viewed as a suicide-prevention measure, said Rep. Todd Stephens (R., Montgomery). McCarter has introduced a similar bill.
- Broaden outpatient mental health assistance. This bill from Rep. Tom Murt (R., Montgomery), which has already been passed by the House and is awaiting a Senate committee vote, would create a lower threshold for the courts to order outpatient mental health treatment — making a different standard for outpatient than inpatient treatment, as 46 states have already done. Currently, people must present a “clear and present danger” to themselves or others for a judge to order they receive mental health assistance.
- Ensure mental health parity. Murt also said he would soon introduce legislation to ensure that health plans offer the same level of benefits for mental health and substance abuse as for medical and surgical.
- Allow people to put themselves on a no-gun list. Under this proposed law, one could put oneself on a voluntary purchase self-exclusion list if one didn’t want to be able to buy firearms. Anyone on the list could buy firearms freely after leaving the list, and people couldn’t list anyone other than themselves. Inspired by the gambling self-exclusion list, the bill is aimed at helping people struggling with mental health issues, said Rep. Maria Donatucci (D., Delaware).
- Improve access to health care. Rep. Dan Frankel (D., Allegheny) said Pennsylvania should bolster its mental-health system and make health care easier to access in order to address suicides and homicides.
What They Said
- “We’ve always had suicides… Now they may choose guns, but that’s not a reason to take away guns from law-abiding citizens because some people may choose to kill themselves in one way or another.” – Rep. Rick Saccone (R., Allegheny)
- “I’m appealing to my colleagues for simple, common-sense solutions. I believe as deeply as I possibly can it is our responsibility to try.” – Rep. Eddie Pashinski (D., Luzerne)
- Expand domestic-violence victim protection. This bill, passed unanimously in the Senate in March, requires those convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor to turn over their weapons to law enforcement within 48 hours — instead of giving them 60 days and an option to give them to family or friends. When the protection from abuse order against them is lifted, they can get their weapons back, said Rep. Marguerite Quinn (R., Bucks), who has introduced a companion bill. She told her colleagues that women in domestic violence situations are five times more likely to be killed when a gun is present.
- Train police officers in domestic violence assessment program. Maryland saw a 25-percent drop in domestic violence-related homicides after implementing this program, said Rep. Kate Klunk (R., York). When police are called to a residence for domestic violence, they ask the victim 11 questions to assess the “lethality” of the situation. If the person answers yes to certain questions, they are connected to domestic violence services and can quickly be screened for different types of assistance.
- Create a system to track gun purchases by abusers. This bill would set up a statewide notification system that would alert law enforcement and domestic violence victims whenever someone charged with or convicted of domestic violence attempts to purchase or transfer a gun. It would also allow courts to issue search warrants to seize a known abuser’s firearms if they do not relinquish them as already required by law.
What They Said
- “Let’s do what adults are supposed to do, what legislators are charged to do: forge a safer and healthier future for our children and for all.” – Rep. Carolyn Comitta (D., Chester)
- “I don’t think there’s such a thing as gun violence, I think there’s violence.” – Rep. Bryan Barbin (D., Cambria)
Access to Guns
- Universal background checks. Under state law, background checks are required for all gun sales except for the private sales of long guns. Many legislators threw their support behind a proposal to close that loophole. A recent Franklin & Marshall poll showed 86 percent of registered Pennsylvania voters support such a measure.
- Require background checks for ammunition sales. This bill aims to keep anyone who wouldn’t be allowed to buy firearms from buying ammunition, and would restrict ammunition sales to licensed gun dealers. Customers could apply for a “purchase authorization” every four years that would allow them to buy ammunition without getting a background check each time (revoked if they lost their legal ability to have guns).
- Ban bump stocks and other conversion devices. Montgomery County Democratic Rep. Madeleine Dean’s bill bans bump stocks and other “multiburst trigger activators.” Another bill from Rep. Warren Kampf (R., Chester) would similarly ban conversion devices, plus high-capacity magazines.
- Ban high-capacity magazines. In addition to Kampf’s bill, a bill sponsored by Rep. Kevin Boyle (D., Montgomery) would just ban high-capacity magazines.
- Ban assault weapons, defined in Gainey’s bill as a firearm capable of fully automatic, semiautomatic or burst fire or a firearm that can accept a large-capacity magazine, along with semiautomatic rifles, pistols or shotguns that have certain features.
- Ban assault weapons for people under 21, proposes a bill from Rep. Peter Schweyer (D., Lehigh).
- Ban people on the no-fly list from having firearms; they could not buy or possess guns in Pennsylvania.
- Require safe storage of firearms. To prevent children from accidentally getting hold of firearms, this legislation would require gun owners to safely secure their weapons in their homes. They could be charged if a child is found in possession of their firearm or if a crime with the weapon occurs.
- Close loophole allowing some convicts to carry. Under current law, someone convicted of a serious crime cannot possess a firearm. But someone convicted of attempting, conspiring or soliciting another to commit a serious crime is allowed to have a firearm due to a loophole in the crimes code.
- Raise the firearm purchase age to 21, excepting members of the military, suggested Rep. Dan Miller (D., Allegheny).
- Penalize straw purchasers. A few lawmakers suggested giving law enforcement increased funding to go after people who purchase and re-sell guns illegally or increasing penalties for the crime.
- Create lost-and-stolen legislation. Gainey said the state needs a mechanism to deal with lost and stolen firearms that would flag or penalize people who repeatedly misplace firearms. Because many guns used in crime are lost or stolen, Gainey said there was a need to make sure gun owners report missing firearms.
- Allow counties to make their own gun laws to address different types of gun violence and acknowledge the different problems urban, suburban, and rural areas face (subject to approval from the legislature). “One size does not fit all,” said Rep. Morgan Cephas (D., Philadelphia).
- Clarify concealed-carry laws. This proposal would bring Pennsylvania’s laws in line with federal standards for carrying firearms in a car without a concealed-carry permit, said Rep. Eric Nelson (R., Westmoreland). Such residents would be required to transport a firearm in a case with the ammunition in a separate case, in the trunk or glove compartment.
What They Said
- “We can’t just sit by and let people get killed.” – Rep. Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia)
- “In Johnstown, people don’t go to school on the first day of hunting season. And that gives you a different perspective.” – Rep. Bryan Barbin (D., Cambria)
- “I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize the Second Amendment, but I will always choose [saving the lives of] our children over everything, and I will not put nothing above that, including the Second Amendment. My first responsibility, and your first responsibility, should be about saving children’s lives.” – Rep. Ed Gainey (D., Allegheny)
- “If these limitations save a life, then they [are] worth doing.” – Rep. Warren Kampf (R., Chester)
- “It does not prevent a single person who can legally own a gun from owning a gun.” – Rep. Jamie Santora (R., Delaware) on the background-checks bill
- “We have to balance the weight here of not penalizing all the honest people.” – Rep. Barry Jozwiak (R., Berks)
- Help convicts help young people. Rep. Jason Dawkins, a Philadelphia Democrat, wants to give people serving life sentences a chance at parole. Using their stories, they can effectively mentor young people and help keep them away from gun violence, Dawkins said, citing his own experiences with gun deaths.
- Create a state tip line for reporting threats. Modeled after Colorado’s Safe2Tell hotline and app, a state tip line would allow anyone to report threats or concerns by phone, said Rep. Frank Farry (R., Bucks), who is drafting a bill.
- Address the problem holistically. Other suggestions from legislators included addressing root causes of violence; examining social ills such as poverty and drug use; address gun violence as a public-health issue; give funding to various government agencies for prevention programs; form a governmental-academic alliance; and address gun violence the way the country has addressed problems such as drunk driving or smoking.
What They Said
- “I don’t think my constituents should have to tolerate a level of gun violence that the rest of the state wouldn’t put up with. There’s no way any of you would put up with nearly 100 shootings a month in your community, and we shouldn’t have to either.” – Rep. Maria Donatucci (D., Delaware)
- “This issue is a mental-health control issue more than a gun control issue. …A lot of people that are solid citizens for many, many years, something happens in their life; their minds snap. They go out and do something crazy with a gun. It’s almost impossible to stop that.” – Rep. Barry Jozwiak (R., Berks)
- “I call on my colleagues as we listen and learn to also move these bills so we can get these bills out of committee, onto the floor of the House, into the Senate, and hopefully to the Governor’s desk.” – Rep. Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia)
- “I’m not trying to take your weapon. I’m not trying to take anyone’s weapon.” – Rep. Jake Wheatley (D., Allegheny)
*Any gun-related bills not brought up in lawmakers’ testimony during the hearings are not included in this list.