Facing pressure from Democrats, Pa. panel avoids considering gun bills in wake of mass shootings

Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — A state House panel punted on considering a slate of gun bills Monday, instead sending them to another committee and in the process throwing cold water on a Democrat-led effort to force a vote on the legislation in the wake of multiple mass shootings, including one in Philadelphia.

The state House Judiciary Committee sent four bills, including a proposed ban on assault weapons, to the chamber’s Local Government Committee, which brings them no closer to becoming law.

Tired of inaction, state House Democrats gave notice last Tuesday that they would use a procedural maneuver known as a discharge resolution to bring the bills up for a floor vote as early as Thursday.

Before they could do that, House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) on Wednesday canceled the session planned for the next day. The Monday committee meeting was announced shortly before he did so.

Cutler’s spokesperson said Thursday’s session was canceled to allow more time for negotiations on the budget, which must be finished by June 30.

Lawmakers can only file a discharge resolution after a bill has been in committee for 15 session days. Moving the bills to another committee resets the clock, effectively blocking the legislation.

Monday’s motion passed in a bipartisan vote, with Democratic supporters of the legislation saying they may still have some options to force a vote — although they did not provide specifics.

For the most part, they expressed frustration at yet another obstacle to enacting stricter gun laws.

“What happened today in the Judiciary Committee was premeditated cowardice and obstruction by members of Republican leadership,” committee member and state Rep. Liz Hanbidge (D., Montgomery) said. “I am disgusted by that.”

In a statement, Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, called the motion “shameful.”

“Instead of taking a vote to advance these bills, they are just delaying debate on this legislation,” Wolf said. “Gun violence won’t delay. Every day the Republicans stall, more people are at risk.”

Citing ongoing court actions and negotiations in Congress on gun violence reduction policies, the panel’s Republicans argued it was best to wait to take action.

A bipartisan U.S. Senate measure announced over the weekend includes federal funding for states that pass extreme risk protection laws, which allow police, with a judge’s order, to seize an individual’s guns if the person is at risk of harming themselves or others.

One of the bills moved from one committee to another Monday would institute such a system in Pennsylvania. House Judiciary Committee Chair state Rep. Rob Kauffman (R., Franklin) in 2019 said such a bill would not advance out of the panel as long as he’s in charge.

Kauffman on Monday blamed gun violence on progressive prosecutors who shy away from carceral solutions.

In a news conference Monday, House Republicans announced they would begin the process to impeach Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, which would likely be handled by Kauffman’s committee.

The other firearm-related legislation on the agenda would:

  • Ban assault weapons, including variants of the AR-15. The state House tried to bring up the bill with a procedural vote last month immediately after the Uvalde shooting. It failed in a near-party line vote.
  • Allow local governments to pass their own gun laws, which state law currently prohibits. At least three separate lawsuits are working their way to the state Supreme Court on this matter.
  • Require gun owners to store their firearms with a lock or in a safe when not in use.

State Rep. Jerry Knowles (R., Schuylkill), the chair of the Local Government Committee, said that he learned his committee would receive the bills Monday morning and was uncertain of his plans.

Before Monday’s action, all four bills had lingered in the state House Judiciary Committee for between 10 and 16 months — a common fate for such legislation in Pennsylvania.

State House rules give committee chairs like Kauffman broad discretion to decide which bills get a hearing and vote, and which will never see the light of day.

A discharge resolution, however, can force a bill out of committee. First, 25 representatives must sign on. Then, in a vote of the full House, a majority of lawmakers need to get on board.

A similar process applies in the state Senate, where Democrats earlier this month filed discharge motions on six bills, including one that would institute universal background checks.

Late Monday, one motion advanced by Democrats in the upper chamber — on a bill to create an extreme risk protection law — was defeated along party lines.

While these motions theoretically empower the minority party, in reality, they’ve become toothless and easily thwarted by the majority.

“I have legislators in both parties tell me they are not successful, and they are punished if they even try,” said Carol Kuniholm, executive director of Fair Districts PA, a group that supports changing the redistricting process and has seen firsthand how legislative rules can slow action.

In 2018, supporters of an independent commission to draw political lines wanted to use a discharge resolution to force a vote on legislation. Instead, the Republican-controlled House State Government Committee called a last-minute meeting, gutted the bill, and replaced the independent panel with a commission that gives an edge to the majority party.

A week later, the panel’s chair, state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler), bragged on social media that he blocks “all substantive Democrat legislation sent to my committee” and advances “good Republican legislation!”

And in 2020, the state House Insurance Committee referred a package of bills on health care, including one that would create state protections for preexisting conditions and allow individuals to use their parents’ health care until 26, to another committee to short-circuit the resolution. The bills never advanced.

According to a 2021 report on state legislative effectiveness, Pennsylvania lawmakers introduce the 15th most bills out of all 50 states but pass the fourth least number of laws.

That works out to only about one in twenty-five bills becoming law, and an increasing percentage of those named bridges or roads.

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