Meadville Tribune

April 29, 2013

Dems push for background checks on all gun sales in Pa.

By John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Bureau

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane and a group of Democratic state lawmakers have called for a House vote on a bill that would expand background checks to include all gun sales in the Keystone State.

But even the author of the bill, Rep. Steve Santasiero, D-Bucks County, has little faith that the bill would pass. It is unlikely to even come up for a vote, Santasiero said.

Santasiero’s bill essentially mirrors legislation that was unable to pass in the U.S. Senate. Santasiero authored the Pennsylvania bill prior to the U.S. Senate’s rejection of the bill championed by Sen. Pat Toomey. Also, Santasiero thinks there should be a vote so that his peers must stake out public positions on the issue.

“I doubt they even have the support in their own caucus (of House Democrats),” said Rep. Dick Stevenson, R-Mercer County. “If there is not the support to pass it, it seems pointless to ask for a vote.”

Stevenson said it is unclear how effective background checks really are. Such checks do not necessarily prevent weapons from being sold to relatives of people with criminal records or mental illness. In the Newtown shootings, the killer, Adam Lanza, reportedly attempted to buy a firearm but did not get the weapon because he did not want to wait 14-days for a background check. Lanza used weapons taken from his mother.

But even among ardent supporters of gun rights, there are some who have signaled willingness to consider language that would expand background checks.

Rep. Fred Keller, R-Union County, co-sponsored legislation, authored by Rep. Daryl Metcalfe R-Butler County, that would direct state employees to defy any federal laws regarding increased gun control. Keller said he is not sure that the measure would cover background checks, particularly if the background checks become law first. Keller said he is most opposed to any proposal that would limit the kind of firearms available to the public.

Toomey’s move to lead the call for compromise prompted Metcalfe to gather the signatures of 75 other Republican House members on a letter criticizing the senator.

In Pennsylvania, expanding background checks would only impact the private sale — including sales at gun shows and at auctions — of long guns. All sales involving handguns in Pennsylvania require a background check. All sales of firearms at licensed dealers are preceded by background checks.

Kane said that it makes no sense to have background checks for one type of firearm and not all firearms.

“They all shoot bullets,” she said. “They all can kill children.”

Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Cambria County, said that universal background checks would make sense by “leveling the playing field.”

Haluska added that another worthwhile reform would involve reviewing patient privacy rules to determine if there is a way to allow medical professionals to warn police if a psychiatric patient is expressing thoughts of violence.

Finnerty reports from Harrisburg for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.’s Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Meadville Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

The National Rifle Association has given $58,042 in campaign donations to 58 of the 203 members of the state House and Senate, according to, a website that tracks political action committee spending.

Of the 50 members in the state Senate, 19 have taken contributions from the NRA, including 16 Republicans.

Of the $29,217 in donations accepted from the NRA by senators, Republican Bob Robbins, whose constituency includes Crawford County, has taken $7,000 — the highest of the Pennsylvania senators. The next closest is Joe Scarnati, who has accepted $5,275.

Of the 153 members of the House of Representatives, 39 have taken campaign contributions from the NRA, including 28 Republicans.

Of the $28,825 in donations accepted by the NRA, Republican Michele Brooks, whose constituency includes Crawford County, has taken $800. Fourteen House members have accepted more than Brooks, led by Ron Marsico’s $3,500 and Robert Godshall’s $3,460.

Every handgun sale in Pennsylvania must be preceded by a criminal background check, including private sales and sales at gun shows.

All sales of firearms conducted by licensed dealers are preceded by a criminal background check.

Private sale of long guns, including sales at gun shows and public auctions, do not require a background check.

Pennsylvania House Bill 1010 and the legislation under debate in the Senate would close the gun show loophole if it passes.

What do they check for?

The background check process involves accessing both state and federal databases to determine an individual’s eligibility to acquire a firearm or license to carry a firearm.

State databases search:

-Pennsylvania Criminal History Records

-Juvenile Records (contained within the criminal history record file)

- Mental Health File (containing involuntary commitment information and adjudication of incompetence)

-Pennsylvania Protection From Abuse (PFA) File

-Pennsylvania Wanted/Missing Persons File. As an agency organizational segment within a Point-of-Contact State, PICS conducts the check of the federal databases through NICS.

Federal databases search:

-Interstate Identification Index (III), containing criminal history records submitted by states throughout the country, federal and military records

-National Crime Information Center (NCIC), which includes civil protection orders and arrest warrants

HARRISBURG — As they witness the devastation of crime up close, mayors across the state and nation are scrambling to promote gun policy changes that make sense.

But even among mayors, there is little consensus about what that means.

Cloyd Wagner, the mayor of Beavertown in Snyder County, said he joined Mayors Against Illegal Guns because the group sent him an invitation at a time when he felt his borough, population 965, was being overrun by drug gangs.

Wagner said he supports efforts to make it easier to trace guns used in crimes.

Wagner said he has no objection to background checks. But, he feels like, due to the influence of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the mayors’ organization is veering toward positions that he does not endorse.

“I intend to withdraw from Mayors Against Illegal Guns,” Wagner said. “I am against illegal guns. But they are pushing the envelope.”

Bloomberg is the chief source of funding for the mayors’ group, which recently announced that it would begin generating scorecards of legislative records to counter rankings compiled by the National Rifle Association.

At the urging of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the mayor of Farrell Oliver McKeithan in Mercer County called together an impromptu rally in favor of gun-control legislation. That event was held primarily to gather signatures for petitions supporting the universal background legislation that was previously considered in the U.S. Senate.

Meadville Mayor Christopher Soff said he endorses universal background checks.

“I do not have a problem with universal background checks for all gun purchases, regardless of where or how the guns are purchased,” Soff said. “Let’s just make sure we severely penalize those who violate the law so we can deter the bad behavior of the few, instead of punishing the many who are doing it correctly.”

Lancaster Mayor J. Richard Gray leads the organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns in Pennsylvania and stood alongside Democratic lawmakers and the Attorney General Kathleen Kane to lobby for universal background checks.

The Lancaster mayor said that he has seen the devastation of gun violence up close.

“I’ve attended the funerals,” he said, describing the death of a 7-year-old young girl shot in the cross-fire of gang violence while visiting York.

Gun violence “is a suburban-rural problem,” said Gray, who noted that the Nickle Mines shooting in which five people and the gunman were killed at an Amish schoolhouse happened near his hometown.

Gray said that data is hard to come by to justify the need for expanded background checks. But the absence of data does not justify inaction, he said.

“There might be hundreds of people saved,” he said. “Don’t ask me to prove a negative.”

Finnerty reports from Harrisburg for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.’s Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Meadville Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.