(AP) Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf devoted a section of his annual state budget speech on on Feb. 4 to expressing dismay over a lack of action to curb gun deaths, exhorting lawmakers to make this "the year we choose to stop being cynical about the politics of gun violence."
It was unusual for a governor to devote a lengthy section of the address to a single policy issue, and his audience was a Legislature that has shown little appetite for policies the second-term Democrat supports. Those proposals, Wolf said, include universal background checks on gun sales, mandatory reporting for lost or stolen guns, red flag laws to take guns from those at risk of harming someone and better counseling services for troubled schoolchildren.
"Now I know there's no law that can eliminate every act of gun violence. But the steps I'm proposing are supported by the evidence -- and supported by the vast majority of Pennsylvanians,'' Wolf told a joint session of the Legislature. "We can pass them tomorrow, and, by doing so, we could make our commonwealth safer.''
The political divisions and strong feelings that characterize the gun issue across the country are mirrored at the state Capitol, where gun safety and regulation proponents hold regular rallies and the yearly "Right to Keep and Bear Arms Rally'' always draws attendees by the busload. Advocates seeking ways to reduce gun violence argue there is considerable public support for many of their legislative proposals, and widespread support for some of them, while gun-rights activists emphasize the Second Amendment and similar language in the state constitution.
Focus on tougher penalties
House Republican spokesman Mike Straub said his caucus plans to focus on tougher criminal penalties for criminals convicted of gun crimes. "Working on gun issues must begin with making sure those who should not have firearms in the first place are held accountable,'' Straub said.
About 1,600 people die of gunshot wounds in Pennsylvania every year. In 2018, a gunman killed 11 worshippers inside a Pittsburgh synagogue, and in 2006 a gunman barricaded himself inside an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, killing five girls and wounding three. Lawmakers and Wolf last year set aside $3.2 million for private schools through the Department of Education's safe schools grant program. The state also has a $60 million public school security grant program established after the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a program Wolf's budget proposes to cut by 75 percent.
Two days after a gunman shot six Philadelphia police officers in August, Wolf established a group within state government to address gun violence. Wolf's budget proposal seeks $6 million in new money to prevent gun violence through a grant program administered by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.
"We have gotten used to seeing bulletproof backpacks advertised during back-to-school sales,'' Wolf said in the prepared remarks, referring to school lockdown drills, and "that little worry'' when people go shopping, watch sports events and attend religious services. "And, unfortunately, we have also gotten used to hearing politicians offer their thoughts and prayers and little else. It's part of the ritual now, right alongside the somber press conferences where law enforcement officials detail the carnage and the tearful testimonies from friends and family grieving over their lost loved ones,'' Wolf said.
The gun issue does not divide cleanly along party lines. A few of the more conservative Democrats always show up at the annual Right to Bear Arms Rally. But it is the strong Republican majorities in both legislative chambers that has proven an impermeable bulwark against the type of changes Wolf wants. A rare exception to the general stalemate over gun legislation occurred a few weeks before the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre in October 2018, when Wolf signed legislation requiring those convicted of misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence or subject to protective orders to give up their guns within 24 hours.
"We have gotten used to seeing bulletproof backpacks advertised during back-to-school sales." --Gov. Tom Wolf