Gun convictions would mean 5-year minimum if House bill passes

Posted: August 16, 2012

Hard time for gun crime.

Illegal gun = five years.

Convicted felon + gun = five years.

Those are some of the slogans offered up during a three-hour public hearing Thursday on a state House bill that would create a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence for any convicted felon caught with a gun.

State law already requires convicted felons who are armed when they commit new crimes to go to jail for five years. This new proposal would require the same sentence even if the convict committed no other crime than gun possession. It also would classify that offense - as well as other firearm crimes such as straw-purchasing and illegal transfers - as "crimes of violence," increasing the penalties for subsequent arrests.

"This bill will go a long way toward being a disincentive to people to carrying a gun illegally on the streets of Philadelphia," said Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey. "Right now, there is no real disincentive for that to happen. It's going to make a lot of people think twice."

Tough prison sentences only act as a deterrent if people know about them. So two other crime fighters who testified, Montgomery County First Assistant District Attorney Kevin R. Steele and Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing executive director Mark H. Bergstrom, called for a public-education campaign to alert mayhem-minded citizens to the penalties they would face if House Bill 2331 passes.

The House in May approved the bill by a vote of 190-7. It now awaits Senate approval. Thursday's hearing, organized by the Senate Judiciary Committee, was at the municipal building in Montgomery Township, just down the road from the office of bill sponsor state Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery.

Numbers show how big a problem illegal guns are in Philadelphia, Ramsey testified. The city has had 223 homicides this year, averaging nearly one a day, and 82 percent were carried out with firearms, he said. So far this year, more than 850 people have been shot in Philly, and authorities have recovered more than 2,000 illegal guns from city streets and arrested more than 700 people for gun violations, he added. Further, most Philly killers - and their victims - have criminal records, Ramsey said. Through the first quarter of 2012, 84 percent of murder offenders and 79 percent of victims had at least one prior arrest; of those, two-thirds were for violent crimes, he added.

Convicted felons who illegally arm themselves "intend to commit violent acts," Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams testified. "They have been convicted of a serious offense before, and they have decided to intentionally break the law yet again by carrying a firearm . . . [their] punishment ought to be swift, and it ought to be certain. Unfortunately, such defendants all too often receive extraordinarily low sentences, including probation."

Bergstrom testified that the bill could put thousands more people behind bars in state prisons.

Of 550 cases of convicted felons caught with guns in 2010, most - 438 - were carrying their guns loaded, which typically means a stiffer penalty, he said. Still, nearly a quarter of them - 124 - were sentenced only to probation, diversionary discipline or short stints in county jails, Bergstrom said. Those who were sent to state prisons served an average of 40.7 months, much shorter than what they face if House Bill 2331 passes, he noted.

Max Nacheman, CeaseFirePA director who was out of town for the hearing but has lobbied hard for the bill's passage, disputed Bergstrom's claim that the bill would balloon the state prison population. As word of the tougher sentences gets out among the lawbreakers, fewer will arm themselves, he predicted.

"This bill will result in fewer people in the hospital shot, fewer people in the ground shot dead and fewer people behind bars as people get the message that it's not OK to carry a gun illegally," Nacheman said.

Contact Dana DiFilippo at 215-854-5934 or difilid@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter @DanaDiFilippo and read her blog, phillyconfidential.com.

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