Wolf creates special council to curb gun violence
Governor calls on state lawmakers to ‘fix weak gun laws’
HARRISBURG – As it fixes its “weak gun laws” and reforms government to make people safer, Pennsylvania must find middle ground between respect for the Second Amendment and respect for the right to live without fear of being shot, Gov. Tom Wolf said Friday.
His words came two days after a gunman shot six police officers in Philadelphia and less than two weeks after mass shootings in Ohio and Texas killed 31 people.
Wolf spoke at a Capitol ceremony where he called on legislators to pass gun violence-curbing laws and signed an executive order that created a new special council on gun violence. The order also created two new, similarly focused agencies, one within the state Department of Health and the other within the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.
Lawmakers left the Capitol at the end of June for summer break. The House is scheduled to reconvene on Sept. 17, and the Senate on Sept. 23.
Wolf and others who spoke at the news conference focused heavily on Philadelphia, which the governor visited on Thursday following the police shooting.
State Rep. Jordan Harris, a Philadelphia Democrat, said there had been eight mass shootings in his city this year. They often involved hand guns, Harris said.
Speaking forcefully and crying by the end of his comments, Harris said, “To all the mothers and fathers who had to bury their children, we see you.”
Wolf named Charles Ramsey, chair of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, as the governor’s special adviser on curbing gun violence.
Ramsey is to lead a new Office of Gun Violence Prevention within PCCD. Separately, a Division of Violence Prevention will be created within the Department of Health.
A special council on gun violence, within the new PCCD office, is to begin meeting within 60 days to start developing a plan
to reduce gun violence in the state.
Among other measures, the governor’s order also established a “violence data dashboard,” which Wolf compared to an existing, data-sharing website focused on the opioid crisis. The order also contained language on new, cross-agency collaborations like a directive that Pennsylvania State Police and the Municipal Police Officers Education and Training Commission develop training on community gun violence prevention.
Wolf and Democrat lawmakers called for the House and Senate to act on some of the dozens of gun violence-related bills active in the Legislature.
A spokesman for the majority-wielding House Republicans, Mike Straub, cited state police statistics to support his contention that violent firearms offenses in Pennsylvania have declined by nearly 40 percent since 2006.
“The suspect in the Philadelphia police shooting has a long history of gun and violent crimes. He is in violation of several existing laws by possessing a firearm and violated dozens more when he opened fire,” Straub said in a written statement. “It proves once again that criminals will not follow changes we make to existing firearm laws.”
Wolf and Democrat lawmakers called for passage of four types of gun violence legislation: safe storage, the reporting of lost or stolen guns, universal background checks, and so-called “red flag” situations in which judges would be allowed to temporarily revoke the rights to buy or possess guns of people deemed dangerous.
“All of the actions I am taking today strike a balance between freedom and safety,” Wolf said.
Straub said the House Judiciary Committee is weighing next steps on some of the bills relating to guns.
Jennifer Kocher, a spokeswoman for the Senate Republicans who control that chamber, said in a written statement that many of the issues should be dealt with at the national level. She pointed out that the Senate Judiciary Committee already has scheduled public hearings for September focused on gun violence.
“We understand that we cannot take action that will criminalize the millions of Pennsylvanians who responsibly and legally own firearms,” Kocher said.
Speaking at the news conference, Sen. Anthony Williams, a Democrat who represents parts of Philadelphia and Delaware counties, said he believed 75% of the public was behind violence-curbing measures like “red flag” laws.
Ramsey, who spoke immediately after Wolf, said he had been in law enforcement for 47 years.
He acknowledged the disturbing nature of police shootings in Philadelphia, but he noted he had been to scenes where children were accidentally shot.
The child takes hold of a gun, he said, “accidentally pulls a trigger and shoots a sibling or shoots themselves.”
Ramsey said Pennsylvania had to act because he did not expect federal action on gun violence any time soon.
Pennsylvania’s federal lawmakers have been calling for changes to national gun policies in the wake of the shootings in Texas and Ohio.
Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey has revived his proposal to strengthen gun background checks, which had failed to advance in the Senate in 2013 and 2015. Toomey’s office has met in recent days with White House officials to talk about that background check bill. He’s also called for consideration of a federal red flag law.
Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and Lehigh Valley U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, have urged the Senate to return from recess to approve a background check bill that already cleared the House. That bill is broader than Toomey’s version.
In Harrisburg on Friday, Wolf said his order used the authority he had as the state’s executive leader.
He said, “This is what I can do, but we still need the Legislature to act.”
Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf signs executive order to reduce gun violence during a ceremony at the state Capitol on Friday in Harrisburg. Watching, from left, Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa, Allegheny County, Sen. Tony Williams, D-Philadelphia, Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, Shira Goodman, CeaseFire Pa., Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, D-Philadelphia, Patty Kim, D-Dauphin County, Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia and Rep. Maureen Madden, D-Monroe County.