Gun tax-funded public safety bill in legislative limbo

By Anthony Hennen | The Center Square

(The Center Square) — Republican lawmakers tend to emphasize public safety more, but House Democrats say it’s them who are dragging their feet on legislation that addresses the issue.

“We’ve sent over 230 substantive pieces of public policy in the form of legislation to the Senate and they have chosen to sit on over 90% of it,” said Rep. Ryan Bizarro, D-Erie, during a House Democratic Policy Committee hearing about public safety on Tuesday.

The committee was focused on House Bill 1130, which would establish a Safe Communities Grant program to fund the installation of lighting and security cameras around school, playgrounds, community centers and high-crime areas. 

The House narrowly passed the bill in July on a 102-101 vote, but no action has been taken on it in the Republican-controlled Senate.

“Bills like this are important to communities across the commonwealth and they have chosen to sit there idly and play politics,” Bizarro said.

The program as proposed would require more taxes added to gun purchases and gun license sales to fund it.

Philadelphia Resident Marva Linda Montgomery testified at the hearing about the benefits the program would bring.

“The cameras put eyes on illegal activities,” Montgomery said. “They provide evidence that the community does not bring forth or that police are finding themselves. In many cases, the cameras aid the police.”

The program would give municipalities leeway to award up to $25,000 in grants and would require a report every three years on gun violence in municipalities that were awarded the money.

Philadelphia Councilman Curtis Jones argued that proactive measures can stop areas that feel unsafe from becoming a problem.

“If we don’t take these places as seriously as we should, they become crime scenes,” Jones said.

Philadelphia’s murder rate has started to come down; the city has recorded 45 homicides so far this year, a 34% decline compared to the same point in 2023, which puts the city on pace to have fewer than its 2019 total of 353 murders before its pandemic-era spike.

“Public safety has taken on a higher priority in Philly,” Jones said. “Before it was maybe top 15 things we were concerned about — now it is in the top 5 … we’re investing and putting our money where our mouth is.”

The councilman also spoke about evaluating current anti-violence programs to see what works, but acknowledged that it’s difficult to “pinpoint the why” of what’s driving reductions. City leaders also want to help at-risk youth early before small problems become bigger. Jones mentioned getting a year-round jobs program started.

“We need to find out the cause of this disruptive behavior now so that we don’t have to incarcerate grown folk later on,” he said.

He also advised other localities to keep putting on events despite the threat of violence in high-crime areas.

“You cannot concede these public events for the betterment of the community to bad actors,” Jones said.

The focus wasn’t only on Philadelphia, either.

“This is a serious issue,” said Rep. Roni Green, D-Philadelphia and the sponsor of HB1130. “It does not only affect Philadelphia — it affects the 67 counties that make up Pennsylvania. There is no big crime or little crime – it’s crime. It’s not some people feeling unsafe – it’s all of us feeling unsafe.”

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