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Dems renew call for special session on gun control while key Republicans preach patience

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Author: The PLS Reporter/Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Democrats again appealed to Gov. Tom Wolf Wednesday to call a special session on gun control, following recent mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, as well as sustained gun violence in Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley.

At least one Republican has joined that call, with Rep. Wendi Thomas (R-Bucks) telling The PLS Reporter Tuesday that she supported lawmakers returning early from their summer break to address the matter.

“I’d be supportive of going back,” she said. “I think you have a very diverse state, and again, what I’ve told constituents, I think universal background checks could pass in PA. I really do.”

Universal background checks are just one of the proposals Democrats say they would push to pass were a special session to be called. Other proposals include legislation from Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery) and Sen. Tom Killion (R-Delaware) that would allow for emergency risk protection orders, where a judge could require a person deemed to be a threat to themselves or others to surrender their guns.

Gun control has again become a hot topic at the federal level, following two mass shootings in El Paso, Tex. and Dayton, Ohio, last weekend. President Donald Trump called ERPOs a potential solution earlier this week and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said he would support such a measure.

A staffer for Killion said in an email that they have “been in touch with other Senate offices” about the bill and that it remains a legislative priority.

But state Republicans are not sold that a special session is the answer. In a statement Tuesday, state Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lisa Baker (R-Luzerne) called for patience to find a solution that would hold up to a legal challenge, something that critics have said is a risk with ERPOs.

“Taking symbolic steps sends a message, but it ultimately does not save lives,” she said. “Something unworkable or unenforceable or unable to withstand a legal challenge does not provide the real protection our constituents are demanding.”

Baker said the Judiciary Committee would be holding a series of hearings on the matter, something she said is “intended as a prelude to action.”

“Advocates and opponents will have the chance to make their respective cases in full spotlight and answer the hard questions about their positions.” she said.

But Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Philadelphia), one of the House members most vocally calling for a special session, said Wednesday that a “prelude to action” is not sufficient, saying the state and his community will continue to be plagued by gun violence in the interim.

“We don’t need another hearing about this, we don’t need another special commission, we don’t need another long series of conversations,” Kenyatta said at a press conference. “We know what needs to happen on this issue. We know what we can do to make people safer but also what Pennsylvanians, by and large, agree with. It’s common sense.”

At the same event, Rep. Danielle Friel Otten (D-Chester) called said the judiciary committees in both chambers were “death traps” and a third lawmaker, Rep. Kevin Boyle (D-Philadelphia) said it was “time to let the chips fall where they may.”

“Let’s see how lawmakers from suburban Philadelphia, suburban Harrisburg, suburban Pittsburgh, whether they be Republican or Democrat, let’s see how they vote on issues related to gun safety,” Boyle said, emphasizing three regions that figure to be vital in the Democrats’ effort to take back at least one chamber of the General Assembly next year.

But state Democrats may also have to convince members of their own party. A least a half-dozen Democrats have received campaign donations from the PAC arm of the National Rifle Association in recent election cycles.

One of those members, Sen. John Yudichak (D-Luzerne) put out a statement earlier this week which deplored “murderous criminals [taking] the lives of hundreds of innocent Americans.”

But Yudichak did not expressly call for gun control measures, as many of his colleagues have, and instead said current gun laws and mental health policy should be reviewed.

“We need a call to action at the federal and state level to examine the shortcomings of our mental health system, review the effectiveness of current gun laws, and investigate how social media is increasingly used as a weapon to fuel an environment of hate that often leads to violence,” he said in a statement provided to the Wilkes Barre Times Leader.

Boyle said recent changes in the caucus makeup mean state Democrats are more pro-gun control than ever before.

Kenyatta said he has been in touch with staffers for House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) and House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster), although it does not appear formal talks to spark a special session have taken place.

Special sessions must focus on one specific issue, with the most recent coming in 2010 over transportation. No bills were passed during that time but Democrats pointed to a more robust special session in the 1990s under then-Gov. Tom Ridge on addressing increased crime across the state.

Rep. Robert Freeman (D-Northampton), one of the longest-tenured members of the House, said that while Republican leadership may be skeptical of some gun control proposals, he thinks the political hit to doing nothing if a special session were to be called would be damaging for their members.

“By calling a special session, you’ve thrown down the gauntlet,” Freeman said. “The governor would be saying action is needed to be taken on this matter. And if nothing comes out of that, that’s a terribly embarrassing thing for the legislative leaders to explain. Why is it that a special session was called, on a critical issue, that has captured the attention of the nation … and nothing happened? That would be a humiliation on the part of leadership if no bills came out of that process.”