Despite statewide calls for action following several mass shootings, most of Lancaster’s lawmakers won’t take a stance on bills that proponents say will address America’s mass shooting epidemic.
There are more than two dozen gun control-related bills in committee in the General Assembly that the state’s Democratic gun violence prevention SAFE Caucus supports. LNP sent a list of nine of the bills to Lancaster’s two senators and 11 representatives that serve parts of Lancaster County. Only one lawmaker — state Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster — offered specific responses on each bill.
The rest of the lawmakers provided statements to LNP that avoided taking a stance. Most said they think safety is a main priority and are willing to have a “conversation” about the proposed policies. Others said it’s too early in the legislative process because the bills haven’t been debated yet. State Reps. John Lawrence, R-Christiana, and Jim Cox, R-Adamstown, did not respond to requests for comment.
These bills range from adding universal background checks for all gun sales, to concealed carry permit training, to a statewide gun buyback program. SAFE Caucus members and gun violence prevention groups say swift action on these bills is the only way to ensure public safety.
While what constitutes a “mass shooting” is widely disputed, Mass Shooting Tracker, an online crowd-sourced database that tracks incidents in which four or more people are shot, reports 330 mass shootings as of Aug. 25 in the U.S. this year.
Public officials are grappling with questions about culpability. Who is to blame — the person, the gun or both?
Some, like Majority Leader Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Peach Bottom, said the shooting of six police officers in Philadelphia and its alleged shooter, Maurice Hill, are proof that “criminals will not follow existing, or any proposed firearm law,” his spokesperson Mike Straub wrote in an email. Hill had an extensive gun violation history and should not have had access to the firearms he had acquired, according to criminal charges.
For Sturla, the Philadelphia shooting proves the state Legislature is compelled to act now.
“It’s a Facebook meme, but it took 50 armed police officers the better part of a day to take down one guy with an assault weapon,” Sturla said.
“It took generations to get where we are, and it’s going to take generations to get out of this hole,” Sturla said, who is a member of the SAFE Caucus. “Generations from now, they’ll be looking back and asking ‘Why didn’t they act?’”
Some officials want to look at the problem more holistically, including what is causing people to act so violently.
“Focusing exclusively on the method by which these attacks are carried out (firearms) without exploring the motives behind them is a reactive approach to reform instead of a proactive one,” state Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Mount Joy, wrote in a statement.
Sturla agreed that underlying mental health issues should be addressed.
“For all the people who say this isn’t about guns, let’s deal with all the things,” Sturla said. “I’m willing to put more money into mental health services. Are they?”
“Let’s do that, and then let’s also have a little conversation about guns,” Sturla added.
State earns ‘C’ grade
The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit gun control policy organization, grades Pennsylvania with a “C+” rating. The state earns the rating for its expanded background checks for handgun purchases, the statewide Pennsylvania Instant Check System, and other gun purchase requirements. Its grade would go up if the state passed legislation to expand background checks to rifles or shotguns, add extreme risk protection orders also known as “red flag” laws and other requirements.
State Sen. Scott Martin, R-Martic Township, fell in line with other lawmakers, saying it’s too early to take a stance on bills so early in the legislative process, according to his spokesperson. Last year, though, Martin was a co-sponsor on red flag legislation that would allow law enforcement to remove a firearm from someone at high risk of hurting themselves or someone else.
State Rep. David Zimmerman, R-East Earl, said he opposes all attempts to infringe on a citizen’s “God-given right” to bear arms but did not specify if he believes the SAFE bills would do that.
States surrounding Pennsylvania vary greatly — from New Jersey with its “A” grade for tough gun laws to West Virginia, which has an “F” rating.
The Giffords Center claims states that have tougher gun laws have less gun deaths.