Gun control debate resumes in Harrisburg, with focus on what’s realistic

"We're starting to see this as a public health issue, which it really is."

  • Katie Meyer

(Harrisburg) — As a new state legislative session dawns, gun control advocates are renewing their call for change.

This is the first time lawmakers have been in regular session since a shooting claimed 11 lives at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue.

That tragedy was front and center at a CeaseFirePA rally at the Capitol Tuesday.

Governor Tom Wolf made an appearance, telling the crowd he believes common-sense gun restrictions have growing bipartisan support.

“If we continue to allow so many citizens to live in fear of mass shootings when we can act right now to reduce their risk, we’re robbing them of their right–their fundamental American right–to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” he said.

Marc Levy / The Associated Press

Dr. Raquel Forsythe, a trauma surgeon from Pittsburgh who helped treat victims of the Oct. 27 mass shooting that killed 11 people in the Tree of Life synagogue, speaks at a rally in the Pennsylvania Capitol’s rotunda calling for lawmakers to take action on anti-gun violence legislation on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019 in Harrisburg.

But gun control remains fraught in Pennsylvania, where a Republican controlled House and Senate–and some Democrats–are generally sensitive to any measure they see as infringing on Second Amendment rights.

Last session the legislature passed its first gun law in years, billing it as a way to keep domestic abuse victims safer–not as a gun restriction.

This session, Montgomery County Republican Representative Todd Stephens plans to sponsor a bill that would let courts order people at high risk for violence to temporarily give up firearms.

It failed last session.

Stephens is now trying to convince fellow House Republicans it would largely be used to stop suicides, not to seize guns without due process.

“We’re starting to see this as a public health issue, which it really is,” he said.

He added, “the medical community and veterans’ groups are going to be critical to moving this bill forward through the legislature and being a part of that education process for my colleagues to understand the public health impact suicides are having on our communities.”

CeaseFirePA Director Shira Goodman agreed that Stephens’ bill is probably the best bet to pass in the short term.

While it had some promising traction last year, she noted that Stephens will have to find some new supporters; many moderate Republicans lost in the last election.

“We have to find them,” she said. “We have to do that work.”

Goodman said other bills on the agenda include ones that would outlaw accessories like bump stocks and high-capacity magazines, create universal background checks, and heighten storage requirements for guns.

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