HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania State Police commissioner turned down legislators’ questions seeking his position on certain gun reform measures, saying lawmakers make the law and police serve to enforce it.
Col. Christopher Paris declined to share his views on safe storage proposals, extreme risk protection orders and the availability of body armor for civilians during a budget hearing in the Pennsylvania House on Monday.
State police would want a “seat at the table” when gun legislation is under consideration, Paris said, but short of having the opportunity to read and examine specific bill language he opted against making any comments.
“We’re a law enforcement agency, we’re not a legislative agency,” Paris told state Rep. Tim Brennan, D-Bucks, who sought his position on the “operational difficulties” of body armor.
“It’s a tactical situation we would have to mitigate,” Paris said.
Paris led a panel of state police administrators for hearings in both the House and Senate. The department is tabbed in Gov. Josh Shapiro’s budget proposal for about $1.6 billion in spending in 2023-24, a 6.2 percent rise above the current budget.
The proposal includes funds for a new police academy complex, the hiring of 384 new troopers through four cadet classes, and the purchase of 270 new fleet vehicles and radio systems.
The state police budget is shifted out of the general fund, the main operational account, under Shapiro’s plan. It’s moved to a dedicated funding stream, the Public Safety and Protection Fund. That stream includes revenue from taxes on motor vehicle sales, tobacco and liquor. Funding from the state Motor License Fund, intended for road and highway infrastructure investments, is proposed to be decreased to zero over the coming five years.
House Democrats are emboldened on gun reform by the party’s fresh majority position, as tenuous as it is — one seat. Discussions on bill proposals were fleeting in prior sessions when Republicans held the majority. However, whatever reform measures that may pass through the House face the prospect of having to pass through the Republican-controlled Senate.
Reform advocates crowded the state Capitol last week to press for measures they call “common sense”: safe storage requirements, mandated reporting of lost or stolen firearms, eliminating straw purchases, enacting universal background checks, and permitting extreme risk protection orders, known as “red flag laws” — the court-ordered emergency surrender of weapons for persons considered an immediate threat to themselves or others.
State Rep. Joshua Siegel, D-Lehigh, said the budget talks were absent discussions on firearms legislation. He sought Paris’ position on several issues including regulating the availability of body armor. Siegel recounted how the convicted killer in last year’s mass shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, was wearing such protective gear and was able to continue his murderous act after being shot in the chest by a security guard.
Siegel said police are at a disadvantage.
“We say all the time that we want your troopers to go home to their families,” Siegel said. “Frankly, I don’t think our actions come close to making sure that’s a matter of fact or certainty.”
State Rep. Manuel Guzman Jr., D-Berks, wasn’t alone among lawmakers who pushed against any perception that gun violence is limited mainly to Philadelphia, which is experiencing historic levels. He asked whether it was true that violence occurs in all 67 of Pennsylvania’s counties, and sought recommendations for potential legislative change.
“It is absolutely true,” Paris said. “Gun violence is urban, suburban and rural in nature that we’re trying to address.”
Paris, however, refrained from suggesting any potential legal changes.
“We can pass extreme risk protection orders,” Guzman said, referring to the potential for gun violence in domestic disputes.
“What about safe storage laws?” he asked. “These are common-sense reforms.”
They’re not common sense for Republicans concerned about legislative overreach for a constitutionally protected right to bear arms, state Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Westmoreland, expressed.
Nelson said he was concerned about firearms being removed from someone’s possession by judicial order without a full formal hearing — a scenario akin to emergency protection from abuse orders that are already in place in the legal system.
Nelson asked Paris whether a hypothetical red flag law might endanger troopers who may be required to enforce it and confiscate firearms from someone deemed an immediate risk. Paris said he couldn’t venture a guess on a hypothetical.
“My concern is officer safety,” Nelson said.
“It’s almost impossible to speculate on what that would take depending on what the legislation would be,” state police Major George Bivens said.
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