Pa. black caucus: No gun laws, no budget

Angry Phila. legislators aim to hold up spending bill over crime relief.

Posted: June 28, 2007

HARRISBURG - Anger about the lack of action on gun-control bills boiled over onto the House floor yesterday, with several African American Democrats from Philadelphia vowing to hold up passage of the state budget unless their bills are considered.

With the city's death toll approaching 200 this year, six members of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus made impassioned pleas for help during an unexpected two-hour discussion about gun violence and many of its root causes: drugs, joblessness and poverty.

They were not debating a bill; none of the 14 anticrime bills introduced this session has even made it out of a House committee.

Amid a busy day filled with a slew of budget bills, Rep. Jewell Williams, chairman of the Philadelphia delegation, used a parliamentary procedure known as "unanimous consent" to voice his frustration over the stalled gun-control bills.

"I am going to make it completely clear: no gun legislation, no votes for the budget," Williams said. "Philadelphia members are constantly asked to support legislation that helps other areas of the state as our pleas for help continue to fall on deaf ears.

The Democrats hold a one-seat majority in the 203-member House. The caucus, with 17 members, could block the budget.

Rep. Thomas W. Blackwell of Philadelphia told anti-gun-control rural lawmakers, who make up the majority of the House, that he had no intention of trying to restrict the rights of law-abiding citizens.

"We're not trying to control what you do in your home," he said. "We're trying to control what's going on in the streets of Philadelphia."

Several suburban Philadelphia lawmakers stood to support their urban colleagues. Rep. Mike Gerber (D., Montgomery) said gun violence has a negative effect on the region.

"These problems don't know city borders," he said. "The guns flow into Montgomery County, certainly in levels that are unacceptable."

Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland (D., Delaware), chairman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, which has 17 House members, invoked the words of civil rights activist Malcolm X on the House floor, saying he was prepared to advance the cause of gun control "by any means necessary."

"We are prepared to stand firm and we could hold up some things," he said. When asked whether he meant the budget, Kirkland said, "yes."

It was unclear how many other members of the caucus would support Williams and Kirkland in their threat, but House leadership recognized the power of the caucus as a voting bloc.

"Their concern is legitimate; you can't blame them for using the only tool in their toolbox," said Mike Manzo, chief of staff for House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese (D., Greene). "They wield considerable influence."

Gov. Rendell has repeatedly called for stricter gun laws, even going so far last month as to suggest that the legislature was being controlled by the National Rifle Association.

His spokesman, Chuck Ardo, said Rendell sympathizes with the Philadelphia legislators' intent and that "he himself intends to make a further push for the one-handgun-a month legislation in the fall."

But, he added, "If the governor held up the budget over every critical issue facing the commonwealth, at least the essential personnel will be here when the snow falls."

Early yesterday evening, in a surprise move, Rep. Thomas Caltagirone (D., Berks), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, called a committee meeting to vote on Williams' bill to require the reporting of lost and stolen firearms (HB 29).

It failed by a vote of 11-17, but committee members agreed to reconsider the legislation later.

Other gun-control legislation still in the House Judiciary Committee includes a bill that would limit handgun purchases to one a month and another that would allow Philadelphia to craft its own gun laws.

One outcome of yesterday's impromptu gun-control debate is a new commission that will come up with bipartisan anticrime legislation.

House Speaker Dennis O'Brien (R., Phila.), responding to a request from members, said he would form a special commission to address crime and violence. His spokesman, Bill Patton, said the commission members would include outside experts and crime victims' groups, as well as lawmakers, who will draft legislation for consideration this fall.

For some, there's been enough talk about crime.

"Commissions are fine," said Kirkland. "But we have to move beyond that. We need action."

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or


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