Authorities could temporarily seize firearms and background checks would be expanded for gun buyers, under two bills passed Monday in the Pennsylvania House, where Democrats are using their razor-thin majority to push gun-control measures after a yearslong standstill in the politically divided government.
The party describes the proposals as relatively moderate measures to cut down on gun trafficking, suicide deaths, accidental shootings and day-to-day violence. Republicans oppose the bills, saying they punish law-abiding gun owners.
“While this is just the first step, by passing these commonsense and responsible gun safety measures we’ve shown our neighbors and communities that we are listening and we are acting, and that we stand with them in combating senseless gun violence,” said House Speaker Joanna McClinton, a Philadelphia Democrat.
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The “red flag” bill, which would allow a judge to order the seizure of firearms if asked by family members or police, passed on a 102-99 vote, with two Republicans voting alongside Democrats, and one Democrat flipping to vote with Republicans. Nineteen states have similar laws, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a leading gun control advocacy group.
Rep. Mike Schlossberg, a Democrat from Lehigh County, recalled his own struggles with mental health as he spoke in favor of the bill.
“I find myself wondering frequently what would have happened that morning, Feb. 3, 2002, if I had had a gun,” he said. “Some of you have been in that deep, dark place. But for those of you who haven’t, you have to understand that getting someone through a moment of suicidal crisis — and it is often just a moment — is the most critical thing you can do to save someone’s life.”
But Republicans said the bill unfairly targets legal gun owners.
“The plan and the strategy has always been and will be to disarm law-abiding citizens,” said Rep. Stephanie Borowicz, a Republican from Clinton County. “And any Republican that thinks they can vote for this today: Know that you are aiding and abetting the socialism and communism that the Democrats are pushing in this nation.”
Another bill, which passed by a 109-92 vote, seeks to expand background checks on firearms buyers in Pennsylvania and end an exception for private sales of shotguns, sporting rifles and semi-automatic rifles, known as the “gun show” loophole.
“This is not major legislation. This is not a heavy lift,” said Rep. Matthew Bradford, a Montgomery Democrat. “This is a modest bill, with a modest impact, that will have real impact on some of the most lethal weapons in our Commonwealth.”
A third bill, which failed by a 100-101 vote, would have required gun owners to report a lost or stolen firearm to police within three days. Repeat offenders would have faced a misdemeanor charge.
A fourth measure in the package, which would require long-barreled firearms to be sold with trigger locks, did not come up for a vote.
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The bills that make it through the House must still go through the Republican-controlled Senate, which has historically been protective of gun rights, while working with Democrats to boost funding for anti-violence and mental health programs.
The measures come as the U.S. is setting a record pace for mass killings in 2023. In Philadelphia, gun violence played a big role in the campaign for mayor, and the city is asking the state’s highest court to allow it to impose its own gun-control policies.
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The Pennsylvania Legislature, long controlled by Republicans, has not seriously considered broadening gun-control measures since 2018. With the newfound Democratic majority in the House, the chamber kicked off this session’s debate over gun violence with a hearing in March.