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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Faith group asks legislators to take up gun reform measures

A group of religious leaders headed by the state’s Episcopal Diocese is asking lawmakers to move forward with a list of gun safety measures, hoping to frame the issue as a religious and moral imperative rather than a partisan one.

The group rallied at the state Capitol on Monday – less than two weeks into Lent, “the season of self-examination and repentance, and we have much to repent for,” said Rt. Rev. Audrey C. Scanlan, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania.

“It is our view that the missing component to the gun violence prevention movement is the faith community,” said Bryan Miller, director of the advocacy group Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence. “The faith community can take charge and lead this effort.”

The group is concentrating on four specific policy measures – all of which have been proposed as legislation in prior sessions but never crossed the finish line.

  • Allowing judges to issue “extreme risk protection orders” temporarily confiscating a person’s firearms in cases where they has been deemed a danger to themselves or others. Such measures are often call “red flag” laws, and data from states where they are in place, such as Indiana, indicate they are effective, particularly at reducing suicides.
  • Limiting handgun purchases to one firearm per person per month, a policy aimed at cracking down on “straw purchases” in which an individual buys numerous guns with the intent of illicitly re-selling them to person who would not be able to pass the background check. Such a law was in place in Virginia for several years, with research showing that it cut down on the number of Virginia-purchased guns showing up in crimes in other states.
  • Prohibiting the sale of semi-automatic rifles modeled after military assault weapons, as well as the high-capacity magazines those rifles are able to utilize. Published studies have shown that mass shootings became deadlier after the federal assault weapons ban expired in 2004, with magazine capacities likely the primary driver, although other crime trends at the time and the loopholes in the federal law limit the conclusions that can be drawn, according to a recent Rand data survey.
  • Cracking down on “ghost guns,” a term that refers to firearms built by purchasing an unfinished frame or receiver – the gun’s core component – and finishing it at home, typically with simple tools. Because the receiver was not legally a gun when it was sold, such firearms could be built without markings. The Biden administration has partially cracked down on them, issuing a rule requiring the builders of such guns to go through a background check and have their guns serialized, although disputes over regulatory language have held this up.

Although their success is nowhere near guaranteed, such policies are likely to move further this legislative session than they have in the past, largely due to Democrats taking the majority in the state’s House of Representatives and thus control of committee gavels.

Gun policy bills typically move through judiciary committees, where former House Judiciary Committee chair Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, pledged to never give red flag proposals a hearing and used party-line gut-and-replace votes to kill other gun reform measures.

With Democrats in the House majority, the control of the committee has passed to its top Democrat, Rep. Tim Briggs, D-Montgomery, who had clashed with Kauffman over the lack of substantive gun policy discussion.

Although the faith-based group – which is entitled the Saving Lives: Ending Gun Violence Committee – has met with a few legislators already, it’s too early to gauge the likelihood of success, said Rev. Martha L. Harris, the group’s advocacy chair and a priest at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Columbia.

But, Harris said, “what has happened historically is we can’t get past the ‘R-versus-D’” element, which makes it all the more important to start the legislative session by framing the matter as one of faith and humanity instead of partisan politics.

While the committee is hosted by the Episcopal church, it includes representatives from other denominations and faiths, including Jewish leadership.

Rabbi Carl Choper of Temple Beth Shalom in Mechanicsburg invoked the verse of Leviticus that is commonly translated as “do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” This, along with other rabbinical writings, serves as a “warning against the complicity of silence,” Choper said.

In 2020, 1,752 Pennsylvanians died in gun incidents, according to the CDC, putting the commonwealth in the middle of the 50 states in terms of firearm deaths per capita. Over 6,000 children were killed in shootings in 2022, a significant increase over prior years, according to the Gun Violence Archive tracker.

“We come here to implore you to begin – just to begin – to fulfill your duty to protect the people of this commonwealth,” Choper said, addressing lawmakers.


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