Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Face-off is today on Pa. gun bills

Face-off is today on Pa. gun bills

Both sides sought votes. Rendell will appear before a House panel.

By Amy Worden and Thomas Fitzgerald

Inquirer Harrisburg Bureau

HARRISBURG - Interest groups on both sides of the gun-control debate launched a cross-state blitz to pressure lawmakers in advance of a legislative committee vote scheduled today on three firearms bills.
In a stream of e-mails and recorded phone calls that went out across the state during the weekend, pro- and anti-gun-control organizations urged voters to contact members of the House Judiciary Committee to try to sway them on the issue.

Also seeking to sway fence-sitters, Gov. Rendell, in a risky move, today is expected to become the first sitting governor to appear before a legislative committee in at least 20 years.

In the Capitol yesterday, the gun-control battle had lobbyists from the National Rifle Association working the halls, and sparked a flurry of activity in front of and behind the cameras.

A majority of Republicans on the 29-member committee gathered for an impromptu news conference announcing their intention to try to defeat the bills, while CeaseFirePA fired back with the results of a new poll showing a majority of voters in targeted members' districts favored stricter handgun control.

"The only way you win this fight is to do it like a political campaign," said Philip Goldsmith, president of CeaseFirePA. ". . . My perspective is that the NRA is no longer the only game in town."

NRA lobbyist John Hohenwarter said he was confident that the will of the gun group's quarter-million Pennsylvania members would prevail in the committee vote.

"We are confident that you will see rational minds prevail," said Hohenwarter, who postponed a bear-hunting trip to make the rounds yesterday to secure votes. "I think you will see the proposals voted down."

Democratic support for the gun-control bills is not a given. Five Democratic committee members - most from rural districts - voted against one of the measures last summer.

With violent crime on the rise in Philadelphia and elsewhere, Rendell took the unusual step last week of persuading the judiciary panel's chairman, Rep. Thomas Caltagirone (D., Berks), to hold a first-ever committee vote on a one-handgun-a-month bill and permission for him to make the case for tighter handgun restrictions directly to members.

Driven in part by the spate of police shootings in Philadelphia, Rendell last week implored lawmakers to pass handgun controls to take guns out of the hands of criminals.

Among the three most controversial bills - all sponsored by Philadelphia lawmakers - is one that would limit handgun purchases to one a month. Gun-control advocates say that would help curb "straw" purchases. Pro-gun forces say such a restriction has proven ineffective in states where it has been tried.

Another measure would allow municipalities to enact their own gun-control laws, and the third would require gun owners to report lost and stolen weapons.

The committee also will consider a bill sponsored by House Speaker Dennis O'Brien (R., Phila.) that would set a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence for shooting a police officer.

Signaling a more hard-nosed approach for gun-control advocates, CeaseFirePA reached 35,000 frequent voters in six swing districts with robo-calls on Sunday, urging them to phone their lawmakers in support of the measures. "We have to stop handgun violence aimed at our police in Pennsylvania," the recorded voice of a police officer says.

The calls went to the districts of the five committee members who voted against the lost-or-stolen reporting bill, as well as Caltagirone, who voted in favor of the bill on June 27. The NRA also reached out to its members with recorded phone calls.

At their news conference yesterday, 11 of 13 House Republican committee members said they would vote against the three gun-control bills before the committee and lambasted Rendell for proposing cuts to violence-prevention programs. Not there were Reps. Kate Harper (R., Montgomery) and Tina Pickett (R., Bradford).

Rep. Ron Marsico (R., Dauphin), the ranking Republican on the committee, called Rendell's scheduled appearance before the committee a "dog and pony show."

"This charade only exposes a bigger problem that the governor is ignoring," he said, asserting that existing laws were not being enforced.

Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo said in an e-mail that House Republicans would rather "attack the governor than attack the problem."

"They appear to be perfectly happy with allowing the gun industry to profit handsomely by arming both law-abiding citizens and the criminals among us," Ardo said.

According to the CeaseFirePA poll released yesterday - which surveyed voters in the districts of five House members who have opposed gun-control measures in the past, plus that of Caltagirone - voters favored tougher regulation of handguns.

Support was highest, at 96 percent, for the bill that would require people to immediately report to police lost or stolen handguns, and create a state database to track such guns. Seventy percent across the six districts said they supported the proposal to limit handgun purchases to one per month.

Support for the reporting measure ranged from 100 percent in Harper's 127th District to 93 percent in the Erie County Fifth District of Republican Rep. John Evans.

The 100 percent reading startled pollster Ben Tulchin of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. "I've never seen this in a poll before," he said.

"These are not urban, strongly Democratic districts," Tulchin said. "They are swing districts."

"Once again the people are way ahead of the politicians," said York Mayor John S. Brenner, a Democrat.

Hohenwarter dismissed the poll and its findings as partisan.

"You can take any topic and put together questions and come up with the desired outcome," he said, asserting that the NRA rarely conducted polls. "We base our positions on our membership. We don't do public-opinion polling."


Gun-Control Bills
One gun a month

would make it unlawful to buy or sell more than one handgun in any 30-day period. It would exempt dealers, collectors, police, and security companies.

Local gun control would

allow all municipalities to regulate firearms sales. Voters would first have to pass a ballot question accepting local regulation.

Lost or stolen firearms

would require state police to keep track. A victim of theft would have to report it to police within 24 hours. Information would be forwarded to the state.

Murder of police officer

law would require life in prison for those convicted of first- or second-degree murder.

Follow the battle over gun control with the latest news from Harrisburg today at philly.com.

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.


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