State House passes bill expanding gun-owners' rights

Posted: October 06, 2010

HARRISBURG - The state House passed a measure expanding gun-owners' rights while scuttling for the second time in as many days an effort by gun-control advocates to close the so-called Florida loophole.

In a bipartisan 159-38 vote, the House approved expansion of the so-called castle doctrine, which allows individuals to defend themselves beyond their home - or castle - or vehicle.

At the same time, House Republicans, backed by dozens of Democratic supporters, shut down attempts to consider any amendments proposed by gun-control advocates. One that had the wide support of law enforcement and mayors across Pennsylvania would have closed a loophole that allows individuals denied gun permits in Pennsylvania to get them elsewhere.

Castle-doctrine critics, some of whom called it the "shoot first, ask questions later" bill, fumed over a procedural vote that stifled any debate on the issue or the amendments.

"Even though a majority might have their way, a minority would have their say," said Rep. Phyllis Mundy (D., Luzerne). "They have not had a minute to express their point of view and tell people why they oppose it."

With the support of police chiefs, prosecutors, sheriffs, and nearly 200 mayors from across Pennsylvania, the sponsor of the loophole measure, Rep. Bryan Lentz (D., Delaware), said he was hopeful he would at least force a debate on the issue.

"It's pretty outrageous they would not even stand up and engage in argument. They have no defense as to why the Florida loophole should not be closed," said Lentz, accusing members of doing "the bidding of the NRA" over the interests of law enforcement. "There is no self-defense epidemic, there is a gun-violence epidemic."

Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Minority Leader Sam Smith (R., Jefferson) said Smith "did the bidding of the majority of the House, who overwhelmingly voted in support of this one issue."

The "one issue" was the castle doctrine, a bill removing the duty to retreat before using deadly force except under certain circumstances.

A top Senate staff member indicated that the bill was likely to get a vote next week. Gov. Rendell said Tuesday he would have to review the bill before making a decision on whether to sign it.

Castle-doctrine bill sponsor Rep. Scott Perry (R., York) said individuals should not have to second-guess whether to use force to defend themselves and later be subject to a civil suit filed by a criminal.

"The scale is tipped slightly in favor of the criminal," he said. "We want to tip it toward the law-abiding citizen."

Among the other gun-control measures that failed included reporting lost and stolen handguns, limiting purchases to one gun a month, banning assault weapons, and allowing Philadelphia the authority to enact stricter gun laws.

All issues have been handily defeated in the past in a state where the NRA lobby and - particularly in an election year - its candidate endorsements have powerful sway.

This year, gun-control advocates turned their attention to fighting to close the "Florida loophole," under which a Pennsylvania resident can obtain a permit in three states, including Florida (the others are New Hampshire and Utah), even if that person's permit was denied or revoked in Pennsylvania.

In Florida, the application can be filled out online, and the permit granted through the mail. Officials estimate that between 3,000 and 4,000 people in Pennsylvania have obtained firearms permits from Florida.

Supporters hoped a recent tragedy in Philadelphia would help bolster their cause.

Marqus Hill, 28, obtained a Florida gun permit in 2009 after his Pennsylvania permit was revoked because of his involvement in a shooting. On Sept. 12, police say, he shot and killed an unarmed teenager in Philadelphia.

Ed Marsico, the Dauphin County district attorney and president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said his group supported the Lentz measure and opposed the castle doctrine.

"We have some concerns about the abilities of an individual who can't get a gun in Pennsylvania getting a gun in Florida or elsewhere," said Marsico.

He called the castle-doctrine expansion a "defense attorney's dream."

"This will change what happens in the street. Someone can claim self-defense if they shoot someone who looks at them the wrong way," he said. "By eliminating a duty to retreat, you are encouraging someone to potentially take a life."

But Smith said the bill recognizes that law-abiding citizens currently can be victimized once when they are attacked and then again in a civil suit.

"This legislation protects their rights," he said.


Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.

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