In Pa., fighting gun trafficking gets ensnared in political fight

Calls to respond to gun violence in Pennsylvania have only grown since then, coming to a head in mid-August when a man shot six Philadelphia police officers.

In Pennsylvania, the issue of whether to regulate guns more closely is typically seen as partisan. (Seth Perlman/AP Photo)

In Pennsylvania, the issue of whether to regulate guns more closely is typically seen as partisan. (Seth Perlman/AP Photo)

When Pennsylvania lawmakers were rushing to wrap up the session’s business in June, aides to state Attorney General Josh Shapiro came to them with a request: expand the office’s authority to pursue gun-trafficking crimes across the state.

The idea was to insert the measure into a fast-tracked bill dealing with drug crimes. But the request — to give the office statewide jurisdiction to prosecute illegal gun possession, sales and transfers — got put aside for the summer amid objections, apparently revolving around law-enforcement turf and gun politics.

“It didn’t take long to become apparent that the statewide jurisdictional change was going to cause far too many problems with legislation that had to get done,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rob Kauffman, who was in charge of shepherding the bill.

Calls to respond to gun violence in Pennsylvania have only grown since then, coming to a head in mid-August when a man with a long criminal record — which barred him from legally possessing firearms — allegedly shot and wounded six Philadelphia police officers during a standoff.

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Still, it’s unclear whether the provision has any chance of becoming law in the Republican-controlled Legislature after lawmakers return to session in September.

Under current law, the attorney general’s office cannot prosecute gun-trafficking cases without a referral from a district attorney.

Shapiro’s aides point to the success of a joint gun-violence task force that, since 2006, has stationed state gun-trafficking agents in Philadelphia and personnel in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office to prosecute those cases.

The attorney general’s office could use the authority to offer similar help to police departments and district attorneys in other counties, Shapiro’s aides said, and track gun-trafficking pipelines across the state.

It’s not necessarily novel: The attorney general’s office already has legal authority to prosecute various crimes without a district attorney’s referral, including human trafficking and narcotics.

After receiving the request, House Judiciary Committee staff checked with a shortlist of law enforcement organizations and gun-rights groups to see if they would support the idea, said Kauffman, R-Franklin.

Not all of them did.

Kauffman would not say exactly who objected to it, or describe specific objections, although he acknowledged discomfort from gun-rights proponents.

“I would say that generally our second amendment advocates do have concern with folks they perceive as anti-gun proposing or attempting to infringe on their rights through additional laws,” Kauffman said.

Shapiro, a Democrat who is widely viewed as a future candidate for governor, backs various bills that gun-rights groups have tended to oppose, such as an expansion of background checks to private sales of shotguns, sporting rifles and semi-automatic rifles.

Rep. Jared Solomon, D-Philadelphia, a lead supporter of expanding the attorney general’s authority to enforce gun-trafficking laws, said Judiciary Committee staff told him that the NRA opposed the provision.

“The NRA will tell you they want to enforce the laws on the books, so what did we do? We give them a vehicle to do just that, which is to enforce the laws on the books, which is to provide more resources to that end. And they said, ‘No,'” said Solomon.

An NRA spokeswoman countered that the organization took no position on the bill, and said it routinely calls for the enforcement of existing gun laws.

“Criminals should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and we take no position on who should do the prosecuting,” NRA spokeswoman Amy Hunter said in a statement.

Kim Stolfer, chairman of the Pennsylvania-based gun-rights group, Firearms Owners Against Crime, said he told Judiciary Committee staff that he had no problem with the idea.

“If you commit a crime with a firearm, you should pay a price and we’re not doing that,” Stolfer said.

The state Fraternal Order of Police lodge and the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association said they had not been asked for an official position.

But the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, which represents 66 of the state’s 67 county prosecutors, had objections. Its director of legislation and policy, Greg Rowe, said the association would support the measure only with certain parameters: giving a district attorney the “right of first refusal” to prosecute the case or linking the jurisdiction to a joint task force.

Rowe said he didn’t hear back from the committee after he pitched the counterproposal.

Shapiro’s aides, meanwhile, said they had had conflicting reports about who objected.

“We heard first that, ‘Yep, we’re in good shape, everyone’s good with this,'” said David Wade, Shapiro’s chief of staff. “And then we heard, ‘Change in plans, this isn’t going.'”

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