Pa. House committee approves four gun bills on party-line votes

By Zack Hoopes | zhoopes@pennlive.com

Four pieces of legislation on gun reform were passed out of the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, with Democrats taking advantage of their newly minted majority to move bills that had previously been quashed by Republicans.

The bills and their related amendments were all passed on party-line votes, with Republicans united in objection.

“Today is a first step, but I assure you it will not be the last” when it comes to “moving responsible firearms legislation,” said Judiciary Chair Tim Briggs, D-Montgomery.

The measures approved by Briggs’ committee Monday are the same as those identified as priorities by advocates last month during a canvassing event at the Capitol as well as at a subsequent hearing before the committee that provided testimony in support of the bills.

The four bills passed out of committee Wednesday are:

House Bill 338, which creates a “duty to report” clause in the state’s firearms act requiring gun owners to report the loss or theft of a gun to law enforcement within 72 hours of discovering the gun is missing. The bill was amended in committee to require information about lost or stolen guns to be entered into state and national databases, which police generally already do.

The measure “is as common sense as it gets,” said Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, the bill’s sponsor, and is aimed particularly at combatting what are typically called straw purchases – in which someone buys a gun with the intent of re-selling it to a person who would not be able to pass a background check.

When the gun is traced back to them, many of those illicit sellers claim the gun was stolen; a reporting requirement would create some recourse for this, with the first offense a summary fine and subsequent offenses misdemeanors.

Kenyatta pointed specifically to the recent bust of a straw-purchasing ring – which is believed to have trafficked over 300 guns from Georgia to Philadelphia – as an example of the issue.

House Bill 731, a safe storage law requiring firearms to be kept locked when not in use. The bill was amended Wednesday to add additional definitions of locking methods, and also to add penalties for owners whose unsecured firearm is later used in a crime.

House Bill 714, requiring that a background check be performed for all firearms transfers. Background checks are currently required for all handguns as well as for any sales by a licensed firearms dealer; the bill would extend the requirement to the private sale of long guns. The bill does make an exception for transfers of firearms between immediate family members.

House Bill 1018, which creates Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPO), and is often referred to as a “red flag” law. This allows judges to order the temporary confiscation of a person’s firearms if they are found to be a danger to themselves or others, based on a set of criteria defined in the bill.

A third party – either a family member or law enforcement – must petition the court for an ERPO, which may last from three months to a year, although the subject of the order may petition at any time to have it lifted, and their firearms returned to them.

“This legislation isn’t about taking away anyone’s Second Amendment [rights],” said Rep. Jennifer O’Mara, D-Delaware, the bill’s prime sponsor, who spoke about her own father’s gun suicide. “It is about making sure there are protections in place to prevent someone who is in crisis from hurting themselves or others.”

Republican committee members critiqued a number of points on the bills, such as the precise definition of a locking device in HB731, or if unsecured firearms alone could give law enforcement reason to enter someone’s home.

Most of the substantive criticism, however, was reserved for HB1018, with multiple GOP members saying that ERPOs were either unnecessary or could be misused. Rep. David Rowe, R-Snyder, objected that some of the factors for issuing an ERPO included things that were not crimes, such as a recent attempt to purchase a firearm.

“Would it be abused? Probably not. But could it be? Yes,” Rowe said following the meeting; the broad language of the bill, he said, creates the appearance that due process may not be given, even if judges are being forthright in their evaluations.

Democrats stressed that HB1018 has punishments, including restitution, for filing false or frivolous ERPOs, safeguards that are “over and above existing disincentives that are already in the crime code,” said Tim Clawges, the committee’s executive director.

Republican Chair Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, as well as Rep. Tim Bonner, R-Mercer, both suggested that ERPO legislation is not needed given that a person could already be adjudicated under Section 302, the portion of the commonwealth’s mental health code that permits a person to be involuntarily confined for a psychiatric examination.

A 302 filing would be “a much more desired solution if you’re truly dealing with someone who is a danger to himself or others,” Bonner said.

“I was shocked to hear Republicans make that argument,” O’Mara said after Wednesday’s meeting, given that the 302 process involves a person being held, possibly for several days, to undergo a medical evaluation; one of the driving concepts of ERPO legislation is to have an option that falls between having a person unwillingly committed and doing nothing, O’Mara said.

“There are so many reasons to do it, we can’t just sit on our butts anymore,” O’Mara said.

Both House Speaker Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, and Gov. Josh Shapiro have signaled support for the bills, which could move before the full House as early as next week; their fate in the GOP-controlled Senate is less certain.

In 2018, the state passed a law requiring the surrender of guns for certain domestic violence cases. Kauffman, as chair of the Judiciary under a Republican majority, consistently gutted subsequent bills that would tighten gun laws.