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Politics : Politics for Pros- moderated

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From: John Carragher4/9/2007 2:39:28 PM
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In Pa., it's high noon in battle over gun control
At least 15 firearms bills are back in the legislative pipeline.
By Amy Worden
Inquirer Staff Writer
HARRISBURG - Seven months after a special two-day legislative session on crime in which more than a dozen gun-control bills were defeated, anti-crime advocates are hoping a new climate in Harrisburg will mean movement on long-stalled gun-control measures.

The drumbeat for tougher firearms laws, they say, is swelling from people in many quarters, including the governor.

The effort comes at a time when the number of slayings in Philadelphia is edging painfully upward - 105 at last count(midday Friday), the majority of them at the point of a gun. At least 15 bills are back in the pipeline; Gov. Rendell has turned up the volume on his pleas for stronger gun-control measures, and Democrats now control the state House. All this comes at a time when a new poll suggests a majority of Pennsylvanians are willing to accept handgun-sale limits.

But despite the renewed hope - and calls by Rendell, Mayor Street, and mid-sized city mayors from mid-size cities across the state for legislation to /help /reduce gun violence - the bills face an uphill battle in the General Assembly, which is dominated by lawmakers who support gun rights.

From House Speaker Dennis O'Brien (R., Phila.), who blocked gun-control bills as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, to the current leaders of the committees in the House and Senate, there is reluctance to support gun bills for fear they will fail or bring lawmakers defeat in the next election.

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.

Rendell, nevertheless, has pressed on, using two high-profile settings - his budget address and a speech at the Pennsylvania Press Club - to ask lawmakers to send him a bill limiting handgun purchases to one a month. Such a bill, Rendell said last month, would still allow a law-abiding individuals to buy 12 handguns a year.

Last week Rendell, while acknowledging his budget and other controversial proposals are weighing on the legislative agenda in the months ahead, Rendell pledged not to give up the effort.

"I'm going to continue to push for one gun a month," he said following a news conference to drum up support for his proposal to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Still,There is reason for gun-control advocates to be optimistic.

Control of the House changed hands this year, putting Democrats in charge for the first time in a decade. Among the first orders of business for Rep. Tom Caltagirone (D., Berks), the new chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was to schedule the first-ever hearings on gun-control proposals.

And a new poll suggests Pennsylvanians could be softening to the idea of limiting handgun sales to reduce the number of so-called "straw purchases."

"Voters are in a different place than some lawmakers," said Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), the poll's sponsor and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Evans' poll, which asked 600 residents statewide for their views on various gun-control proposals, showed that 70 percent of the respondents supported a one-handgun-a-month law. Among those queried, 38 percent owned a firearm.

"They realize the need for laws if you really want fundamental change to make it a safer state," said Evans, nowone of/ the most powerful Philadelphia Democrats in the General Assembly. He's running for mayor on the crowded May 15 Democratic ballot.

Crime hit home last year for the one-handgun bill's lead sponsor, Rep. John Myers (D., Phila.), whose son disappeared under mysterious circumstances last August and has yet to be found.

"We have to reduce the availability of guns," said Myers, who has introduced a bill restoringgiving Philadelphia's authority to make its own gun laws.

But deep philosophical differences separate those in rural areas who treasure their Second Amendment rights, and for whom a Winchester .30-06 is for shooting deer, from those in urban areas who associate gun use with murder.

"The feeling out here is that proposals that deal with firearms in general are inched toward the precipice, and once you start eroding Second Amendment rights, it's a cascading effect," Surra, the legislator from northwestern Pennsylvania said.

"Guns are part of our culture, too. The difference is we don't shoot each other," said Surra, who recalls teaching students to build guns in shop class.

And although Evans is determined to get the one-handgun-a-month bill to the floor this year, Caltagirone, the new chairman of the Judiciary Committee, does not think he can deliver it. "I don't have the votes at this point in time," Caltagirone said, adding that he hopes to work on a compromise that could pass.

Clearly, a battle looms over one-handgun-a-month in the Capitol.

"We're opposed, of course," said Melody Zullinger, executive director of Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen, an umbrella group representing 300 hunting and outdoor organizations.

The National Rifle Association and the sportsmen's groups know that their members are sensitive about gun control, and the organizations are increasing their efforts to combat the bills pending in Harrisburg. They are planning a rally in the Capitol on April 24.

"All [the laws] do is infringe on law-abiding citizens' rights," Zullinger said. "The criminals get illegal guns on the black market. It's not going to curb the crime problem."

Although gun-rights advocates are concerned about the Democratic majority in the House, they still think they can prevail, she said.

"We still have confidence enough on both sides to stop the bill from getting to the floor, or passing," Zullinger said.

This time around, gun-control groups have a new advocate: Philip R. Goldsmith, Philadelphia's former managing director, who is now president of CeaseFire PA.

"The time is ripe," said Goldsmith, who wants to build a grassroots movement like the one that defeated the controversial pay raise that legislators voted themselves in 2005. "The paradigm is changing on this."

can cut from here on................f Virginia, Maryland and California have enacted laws limiting handgun sales to one a month, and legislatures in eight other states, including Pennsylvania, are considering such bills.

There are few studies tracking the effectiveness of handgun limits, and at least one is 10 years old.

That 1996 study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found evidence that Virginia's one-a-month limit reduced by more than half the number of guns traced to Virginia that were used in crimes in the Northeast.

Pennsylvania "is a priority state for us," said Peter Hamm, communications director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Handgun Violence, which teamed with other gun-control groups to form the coalition Pennsylvanians Against Trafficking Handguns in 2005. "We believe there is enough political ability in the legislature to enact change."

State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Bucks), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he supported one-handgun-a-month but would not bring up a bill for a vote in his committee that is doomed to failure.

"I run what I think I can get through, and this didn't come close to passing," said Greenleaf. "Still, we have to do something that will have an impact. It's a war."

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or

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