Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Gun Control and Democracy in Pennsylvania

Over on the other side of the Commonwealth, Pennsylvania's largest city is in the midst of a bloody wave of violent crime. So far this year, more than 100 people have been murdered within the city limits of Philadelphia, and more than 400 have been shot. To put that into perspective, Philadelphia has had more murders thus far in 2007 than all five boroughs of New York City, despite the fact that New York has a population more than five times the size of Philadelphia. As the body count continues ever upward, violence is beginning to emerge as a major issue within Philadelphia's 2007 mayoral election.

No matter where one might stand on the gun control debate, we should at least be able to agree that Philadelphia's current problems are almost exclusively gun-related. To be more specific, handguns are the weapon of choice in more than 80 percent of Philadelphia's homicides. Since Philadelphia, just like our own beloved Pittsburgh, is an all-but-exclusively Democratic city, you can easily predict exactly what the state lawmakers from that part of the Commonwealth want to enact in response to all of this handgun-related violence. Once again, legislators from the southeastern corner of the state are screaming for gun control. And once again, lawmakers from just about every other part of Pennsylvania are lining up to make sure that it will never happen. This pattern is seen just about every year in Harrisburg. The only difference this year is that Philadelphia's soaring homicide rate is lending a certain urgency to the debate.

Perhaps the other big difference is that Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell is just beginning his final term in office. As a Democrat and a former Mayor of Philadelphia, Mr. Rendell obviously sides with pro-control side in this debate. And as someone who will never again have to face Pennsylvania's voters, he no longer has to worry about disguising this fact. At the end of last month, Mr. Rendell outlined a number of reforms that he would like to see made to state government, including the introduction of term limits for legislators. That part of the story made it into local Pittsburgh newspapers. What didn't receive a great deal of attention in the local press is what Mr. Rendell, who was making a speech to the Pennslvania Press Club, said next:

He tied his term-limit proposal to what he considered the urgent need for gun-control legislation.

His voice rising, his fist pounding the dais, Rendell said that if lawmakers were true "citizen soldiers," Pennsylvania might finally be able to enact a law halting straw purchases of handguns.

Speaking on a day when Philadelphia recorded its third gun killing in 24 hours, Rendell said that if lawmakers' terms were limited, they might be less fearful of the gun lobby and more likely to support a long-stalled proposal to limit handgun purchases to one a month.

"That law should be passed," Rendell said. "No one who is sane and rational would vote against one handgun a month."
The bill that Mr. Rendell is referring to, one of 15 different gun-control bills to be placed before the state legislature, is being pushed by State Representative and Philadelphia mayoral candidate Dwight Evans. It would, in essence, limit any one person to a single gun purchase per month. To most urban dwellers, and especially those living in or near a city with a skyrocketing murder rate, this idea probably seems like basic common sense. In the more rural areas of the Commonwealth, however, it borders on blasphemy.

Ironically, if you think the "one gun a month" idea is a bad one, you haven't seen anything yet. Unmentioned by Mr. Rendell and largely absent from most press discussions of these gun control efforts is an even more stringent measure that seems certain raise the ire of a wide majority of the state's population. House Bill 760 would require that every last firearm in the state be registered with the State Police on an annual basis. Gun owners would have to pay a $10 registration per gun every single year, provide a substantial amount of personal information, submit to fingerprinting and background checks, provide the photographs which would appear on the registration cards, and subject themselves to the confiscation of their guns if their registration were denied.

House Bill 760, of course, has zero chance of being passed by the Pennsylvania legislature. And even if it were passed, it could never survive the inevitable court challenge. The state constitution, which holds that, "[t]he right of the citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and the State shall not be questioned", makes the federal second amendment seem almost timid by comparison. It's very hard to see any way in which this part of the state constitution could ever co-exists with a law of this kind.

One can only wonder, therefore, why House Bill 760 was ever even introduced in the General Assembly. It will never pass. It could never survive a court challenge it it did pass. But its mere presence is enough to galvanize its detractors and mobilize a vehement opposition to all gun control proposals, including those that are far more sensible. The "one-gun-a-month" bill may end up falling victim to collateral damage as a result.

Having lived in both the rural and urban portions of Pennsylvania, I can truly understand where the rural legislators are coming from here. As a state representative from Elks counted noted to the Philadelphia Enquirer:
Rep. Dan Surra (D., Elk) said that while he sympathized with residents living in high-crime areas, he could not support any gun-restriction bill because in certain quarters of his district, a hunting stronghold in the north-central part of the state, guns are a single-issue item at the polls.

"They will vote you out on this," Surra said.

Rendell's mention of gun control in his February budget in the Capitol drew a chorus of hisses from Republicans - and likely some Democrats in the Capitol - underscoring the largely geographical, rather than political, divide on the issue.
This understandable reluctance by rural legislatures is the key reason why statewide gun control measures are defeated nearly every year in Harrisburg. But it begs the question why these kinds of reforms must be enacted on a statewide basis at all. Pennsylvania is a remarkably diverse state. Our counties range in size from some of the least-populated areas of the eastern seaboard to the nation's fifth-largest urban center. Obviously, people living in different areas will have different needs. Urban areas will always have concentration of violent crime, but our current laws don't do anything to reflect this reality.

As things stand right now, Philadelphians and Pittsburghers are subject to (and protected by) the exact same gun control rules as those in Elk and Forest counties. And nothing can be done at the local level to change that. Title 18 of the state's Consolidated Statues holds that:
No county, municipality or township may in any manner regulate the lawful ownership, possession, transfer or transportation of firearms, ammunition or ammunition components when carried or transported for purposes not prohibited by the laws of this Commonwealth
While state law does allow a municipality to ban the discharge of a firearm within its boundaries, that's all that they can legally do. As a result, the nation's fifth-largest city -- filled with poverty, drugs, and street gangs -- must have the same gun laws as the hunting utopia that is the northern tier of Pennsylvania.

Gun control is not a panacea. Criminals obviously don't pay any attention to laws which limit their gun ownership rights. But gun control can have a secondary effect which pushes up the street price for black-market firearms. As a result, illegal guns can become rather valuable possessions, and those who own them can become less prone to take the risk of losing them. Provided that police activity makes the seizure of illegal guns more likely, simply carrying a gun can present a very real risk of losing a costly possession. And if the illegal carrying of firearms can be curtailed, mere disagreements -- which occur constantly in a city such as Philadelphia -- are less likely to unravel into murderous confrontations.

The key thing for our state to recognize is that, at least on this issue, democracy must be allowed to work at a lower level. Communities should be permitted to make their own rules about gun sales and ownership. Pennsylvania House Bill 18 would permit them -- subject to some rather stringent restrictions -- to do just that. It would allow our cities to enact the laws that make sense for their situation, while doing no harm to the rest of the Commonwealth. It makes sense. And for Philadelphia's sake, it needs to happen soon.


EdHeath said...

Very good post, Admiral, but I have to raise an objection, on purist grounds. You are (I believe) obviously taking a realist approach throughout the post, describing what is (more or less) possible. Where I take exception is when you say that gun control is not a panacea. Yeah, as a practical matter limited gun control will have a limited effect on gun crimes, but let’s be clear here, a strictly enforced ban of handguns would save hundreds of lives in Pennsylvania. I mention this because that is the price our rural neighbors demand of the state as a whole to make their “slippery slope” defence against gun control. Whatever American history and culture are, there is a cost in lives because we allow people to own handguns, let alone regulate them. And I don’t believe anyone can seriously make a hunting argument with regard to handguns, anything over a 22 is a weapon made for one purpose, to kill people (I gotta admit, I don’t understand the purpose of 22 caliber pistols, though TV suggests they are the favored weapon for the “mob” hit).

The points I am making are the purist argument, and though I don’t think they can be effectively disputed on logical grounds, they are irritatingly impractical in Pennsylvania and the US. A brief search of the web for information on other country’s experience with gun control reveal few studies or reports that can be trusted because invariably they are presented by partisans of one side or the other. It does appear that it would be undisputed that we have the largest percentage of households with guns, and probably the highest number of suicide by gun and homicide by gun in absolute terms, and one of the highest in deaths per thousand (some developing countries and Ireland might have higher per thousand).

Of course, the other point is that the people killed by gun crimes in Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in particular, are likely poor and therefore largely disenfranchised. The people in the rural areas do not want to give up their access to guns just so some inner city youths might live.

I really hope that House Bill 18, to amend Title 18, passes both houses. The only disappointing thing is that only Philly (a “first class” city) will be able to take advantage of the toughest parts of the bill. Some day we might want access to some gun control too, if the Mayor is successful at attracting or retaining young people (first step, fund Progress Pittsburgh…).

Anonymous said...

Community choice for strict gun control laws was enacted in our nation's capital, Washington DC. Despite this legislation, DC continues to have one of the highest murder rates in the country.

Not until we teach yout a respect for human life will murder rates decrease. A criminal will find a way to acquire a gun.

Anonymous said...

Another thing that is not being mentioned is that without state preemption of laws, gun laws could be differenct from city to city and from township to township. This could effectively make a person a criminal just for not knowing EVERY law for everywhere they are traveling with a firearm.

Richmond K. Turner said...

... without state preemption of laws, gun laws could be differenct from city to city and from township to township...

Not to be rude, but so what? There are already dozens, if not hundreds of different laws from city to city and township to township. And there are thousands of legal differences when one moves from one state to another. When you go from one place to another, you must comply with different rules. That's part of citizenship, and it's really not all that hard.

And it should be especially easy for anyone who volunteers to join that "well regulated militia" of ours by choosing to keep and bear arms. If you want to join a "well regulated militia", then it is incumbent upon you to keep up-to-date with the regulations that govern your militia's actions. That's the "well" part of "well regulated". You have to know what the regulations are.

Donald Frederick said...

In response to Rich Turner: You say so what, but have you considered the implications of every borough, township, city, and county having different gun laws. Simply driving to work could put an otherwise lawful owner in violation as he passes through multiple municipalities. Imagine driving across the state, you would have to spend months researching which areas have which laws, not to mention what route you could take where it is even legal to have your firearm with you. And lets face it, the penalties for violating a gun law are typically very harsh, not so with the typical ordinance.

Anonymous said...

House Bill 18 must not forbid the possession of military pattern firearms. Creates a precident to ban any type of firearm by declaring it an "assault weapon".

In the 1990s the late Governor Casey tried to ban Derringers by having them proclaimed "Assault Weapons".

I say don't give those localities an freaking inch or they'll take a

Another thing.... how many of those murders in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are drug related? If so how is it that banning firearms is supposed to work when banning drugs is failing so miserably?


Anonymous said...

And it should be especially easy for anyone who volunteers to join that "well regulated militia" of ours by choosing to keep and bear arms. If you want to join a "well regulated militia", then it is incumbent upon you to keep up-to-date with the regulations that govern your militia's actions. That's the "well" part of "well regulated". You have to know what the regulations are.

Obviously, Admiral, you're reframing the original intent of "well regulated".

Originally the term meant that the militia were competent with firearms, not that they had encyclopedia like knowledge of whatever laws come and go into being in different locales.

I put it this way - if a locale has the right to pass whatever laws it likes, why can't it have an Apartheid like system that forbids people of a certain color from living within its confines?

Say, for example, a place with heavy Klan activity deciding to forbid people of certain races from living in a certain area?

Before you object, ask yourself why some Constitutional Rights have greater potency than others?

Article 21, PA State Constitution, "The Right of the People to bear arms in defense of themselves and the State shall not be questioned".


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