Pa. lawmakers, activists urge passage of ‘red flag’ law following deadly Wawa shooting

Delaware County District Attorney Katayoun Copeland speaks on behalf of a new

Delaware County District Attorney Katayoun Copeland speaks on behalf of a new "red flag" bill speaks during a press conference Friday. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

Less than two weeks before he shot and killed his ex-wife, Brian Kennedy legally purchased the murder weapon — an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle.

Southeastern Pennsylvania lawmakers and gun control activists say that a proposed “red flag” law could have prevented Stephanie Miller’s death and limit future gun fatalities.

“It is literally a life-saving policy that can help protect our communities from mass-shootings, from firearm suicides and other acts of gun violence,” said Delaware County District Attorney Katayoun Copeland.

Two bills — one in the Pennsylvania House and one in the Pennsylvania Senate — call for creating Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPO), similar to those on the books in 14 other states, including Delaware and New Jersey.

These orders allow law enforcement or concerned family members to ask a judge to temporarily take away someone’s guns, or to stop them from purchasing a gun, if there is evidence they are about to hurt themselves or others. That evidence may include suicide threats or attempts, threats of violence, instances of domestic abuse or cruelty to animals, among other qualifying behavior.

Within ten days, both sides can present their cases at a full hearing, at which point a judge would rule whether to extend the order for of a term of up to one year.

Supporters of the legislation, such as state Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery) and state Sen. Tom Killion (R-Delaware), say it differs from existing protections, such as a Protection from Abuse Order, which are filed by loved ones who fear for their own safety, and is less extreme than other options currently on the books.

“People who are in crisis, their family members really only have one option — and that’s an involuntary commitment,” said Stephens. “That’s pretty severe.”

The National Rifle Association has fought ERPO legislation in the past overdue process concerns. Last fall, the NRA Institute of Legislative Action urged Pennsylvania members to oppose the bill, saying “a law-abiding gun owner could lose their right to own or possess a firearm and then have the burden placed on them to prove the false nature of the petition in order to have their firearms returned.”

That earlier bill, H.B.2227, made it through the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee but failed to gain further momentum.

In trying again, lawmakers underscored that nearly two-thirds of last year’s 1636 firearm deaths were suicides, which disproportionately plagued rural counties.

“When I was 13 years old, I lost my father to gun suicide,” said state Rep. Jennifer O’Mara (D-Delaware), a co-sponsor of the new bill. “I knew something was wrong, but there is nothing I could do about it.” That, and a later case of stalking, galvanized her to support this legislation.

A rally is planned in Harrisburg Monday in support of the H.B. 1075 and S.B. 90.

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