In the waning days of Gov. Rendell's administration, Pennsylvania legislators tried to trap him in a no-win decision.

Conservative legislators attached a controversial measure expanding citizens' right to shoot in self-defense to a no-brainer bill strengthening reporting requirements for sex offenders under Megan's Law. The officials ramrodded the odd bill to passage without debate, hoping Rendell would be more afraid of risking children's lives than his own reputation on the gun issue.

Blessedly, Rendell refused, calling the messy matter both unconstitutional and unseemly in a veto message days after Thanksgiving.

Pennsylvania already has a "castle doctrine" allowing residents to fire a gun without fear of arrest if attacked at home. There's no need, the governor said, to throw open the castle doors and let folks take aim at any perceived threat, anywhere. Whatever happened to walking away?

In a conference call with reporters Monday, Rendell acknowledged the futility of his decision. Come January, Tom Corbett, conservative Republicans, and their NRA handlers will rule Harrisburg. Hold onto your holsters.

As he lamented Pennsylvania's bloodstained past and future, I thought about the time Rendell got so emotional about gun violence that he shed tears. Since he seemed to be in a reflective mode, I asked him to sum up his eight-year quest for a safer state.

"An abject failure," Rendell replied bluntly. "A lost cause."

Guns for everyone!

Despite the tears and tirades, Pennsylvania remains one of the easiest places in the nation for criminals to get guns, thanks to lax laws that practically encourage straw buying and trafficking.

Residents with clean records can buy as many handguns as they can afford in a shopping trip. Urban leaders, in particular, lobbied hard for one-gun-a-month legislation, but House Judiciary Committee members killed that dream in 2007.

Once they've filled their trunks with Tec-9s, Pennsylvanians often resell on the street for profit to those who use the guns in crime. Advocates believe a law requiring gun owners to report guns lost or stolen would deter such straw buying and trafficking, but the House snuffed out that hope in 2008.

Harrisburg shot down mayors desperate to enact their own gun laws, while giving unsavory types a pass. More than 4,000 people barred by law enforcement from carrying a weapon in Pennsylvania have acquired permits from states like Florida - a gaping loophole the legislature refused to close this fall in the name of protecting the sanctity of the Second Amendment.

On the map

Joe Grace, of CeaseFirePA, seems pained by the glum talk about guns.

Advocates want to focus on the progress, from the 47 Pennsylvania municipalities that passed their own lost-and-stolen measures to the 100 police chiefs, 200 mayors, and 450 faith leaders in towns large and small committed to the cause.

"This issue is finally on the map in Pennsylvania," Grace insists. "It's not for the faint of heart. We are not going away."

Montgomery County progressive Democrat Tim Briggs became a loyal CeaseFirePA soldier in his first term, but frets that building a broad coalition might be for naught if Corbett and Co. "try to push an extreme social agenda." Indeed, Corbett has said he would happily sign the "castle doctrine" expansion.

The peacemakers pray that those who place gun rights above public safety will be distracted by pressing issues like the budget and economy.

Briggs, for one, hopes "we can focus on problems facing us today," rather than creating new crises.

Rendell's parting message to the locked-and-loaded legislature?

"Take a deep breath," he'd tell them. "It's not the end of the world to occasionally vote 'no' on something the NRA wants."

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