The December elementary school shooting in Connecticut has spurred a debate on guns and school safety across the country. As that debate flares in Pennsylvania, lawmakers seem largely content to sit back while advocates on both sides make an urgent case for action.
The state Capitol in Harrisburg has been a popular gathering place for supporters of gun rights and advocates for gun control. Both groups staged recent rallies there on the same day to get their points across.
On that frigid day last month, state Rep. Jeff Pyle addressed some 150 people outside on the Capitol steps, where they could carry their firearms. Anyone who went inside the building had to check guns at the door.
“I feel for us to avoid future heinous situation like what happened in Newtown, we need not to cut into our rights, we need to celebrate our rights.,” said Pyle, R-Armstrong.
Inside, a crowd of about 200 listened as the children and parents of shooting victims spoke in favor of passing a new assault weapons ban. Among the speakers was state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, who insisted that gun safety and gun rights groups don’t have to be diametrically opposed.
“Not every bill with the word gun in it is a bill that impacts the Second Amendment,” he said. “And not every bill that has a reasonable, common-sense gun restriction is an affront to the right of people to keep and bear arms in Pennsylvania and we have to be very clear about that.”
The dueling rallies illustrate how both sides of such a contentious issue have further retrenched — putting up defenses and fortifying their arguments by pointing to current events – such as the shooting in Connecticut, or the dozens of random shootings that have happened since.
The annual Eastern Sports and Outdoor show in Harrisburg was cancelled as a result of the organizer’s decision to ban the sale and display of military-style semi-automatic rifles.
But the effect on the Republican-controlled Legislature and governor’s office appears to have been far from seismic.
A flurry of proposals
Proposals are floating about to limit handgun purchases; keep someone who’s undergone involuntary mental-health treatment from owning a firearm; allow trained school employees to carry firearms; and ban assault weapons in the state.
That last one has been stopped in its tracks, since the governor says he doesn’t support a federal assault weapons ban, let alone one that only applies to the state.
“The assault weapons are already out there,” Corbett says. “A new ban isn’t going to make them safer.”
Perhaps the most concrete thing in the way of a response from lawmakers is approval of a task force to study mass shootings and how to prevent them in schools.
It will have the rest of the year to hear from experts and report its suggestions back to the General Assembly, meaning that it will take until at least next January to see any legislative proposals come out of the entire process.
Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati calls the gun debate a distraction.
“I’m pro-gun, NRA, and I support the Second Amendment, and I think if we want to stall this issue of protecting kids in school, then let’s showcase gun control,” said Scarnati, R-Jefferson. “This is about protecting kids and I’m not going to enter into that (gun) debate.”
A recent Quinnipiac University poll shows Pennsylvanians don’t necessarily agree. It reveals strong support for banning assault weapons and high-capacity gun magazines. Some 95 percent respondents –- including those who identified themselves as gun owners –- said they support universal background checks on gun sales.
Gun-safety advocates have no illusions
“Pennsylvania’s a hard state for this, I won’t pretend that it’s not,” says Shira Goodman with the gun-control group CeaseFire PA.
“I mean, look I don’t think that Pennsylvania is going to come out with a package like New York just passed, you know, in the first weeks of the session, before the president even made his proposal,” she said. “I am not so optimistic to think that’s going to happen in Pennsylvania.”
Goodman, who was in Washington to sit in on the recent U.S. Senate hearing on gun violence, does anticipate a broader discussion in the commonwealth about gun violence beyond arming school personnel and funding greater school security precautions.
The Capitol is historically good at discussion, but traditionally slow-moving when it comes to action. Lawmakers are already deferring to the not-yet-created task force on mass shootings as a prudent way to ensure safety.
It’ll be a year or more before the results of all this shake out in Pennsylvania.