Mandatory 2-year prison term proposed for illegal firearm users in Phila.

Republican State Rep. John Taylor holds a copy of the proposal, which he cosponsored with Democratic State Sen. Larry Farnese. Taylor described the bill as "a crime-fighting tool" and hopes to get it to Gov. Corbett's desk soon.
Republican State Rep. John Taylor holds a copy of the proposal, which he cosponsored with Democratic State Sen. Larry Farnese. Taylor described the bill as "a crime-fighting tool" and hopes to get it to Gov. Corbett's desk soon. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 06, 2013

On a day when Connecticut and Maryland legislators ushered in historic new gun laws, a bipartisan lineup of Pennsylvania legislators and law enforcement officials put forth a bill that would slap an added mandatory two-year prison term on anyone caught with an illegal firearm - but only in Philadelphia.

"This is not about gun control," Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said Thursday, flanked by politicians and officials from the city and suburbs. "People who carry guns illegally are the people who are shooting people, murdering people, pistol-whipping people, threatening witnesses. . . . We need a game-changer here in Philadelphia."

Democratic State Sen. Larry Farnese, who cosponsored the bill with Republican Rep. John Taylor, said the city that both men represent is in the throes of "an epidemic of gun violence" and that law enforcement agencies have long requested stricter gun laws.

"No more BS," Farnese said. "No more screwing around. . . . This has to happen."

Taylor described the bill as "a crime-fighting tool" and said he and Farnese would work to get it to Gov. Corbett's desk as soon as possible.

Two suburban Republican district attorneys, Montgomery County's Risa Vetri Ferman and Delaware County's John Whelan, both supported the bill, saying that criminals arrested in their counties often committed earlier gun crimes in Philadelphia.

"I have no doubt that a safer Philadelphia is a safer Delaware County," Whelan said.

State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, Republican chairman of the judiciary committee, said Thursday that he supports the idea of increasing the grading of the crime from a misdemeanor to a third-degree felony, but has concerns about the application of mandatory minimums.

"We need to do something about the issue of violent crime in Philadelphia," said Greenleaf, whose committee will review the bill. "But generally, I don't support mandatory minimum sentences, because they are difficult to apply. You can have an egregious straw purchaser with 20 guns sales on the one hand, or someone whose license to carry has expired and is otherwise an upstanding citizen getting the mandatory minimum."

Williams said Thursday that the bill targets only those who buy or possess guns illegally.

The backdrop for the announcement was the headquarters of the Philadelphia Police Department, which last year arrested about 1,000 people for illegal gun possession. Eighty-five percent of Philadelphia's 331 homicides last year were committed with guns, Williams said, and not one of those firearms was obtained legally.

In light of those facts, the Democratic district attorney said, the bill should not be considered controversial.

Indeed - the proposal outlined Thursday is markedly less far-reaching than the gun law Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed Thursday, which tightens restrictions on assault weapons and requires universal background checks for every gun purchase. The bill was that state's response to the December elementary-school shooting in Newtown, a massacre that prompted a national discussion about gun laws.

Legislators in Maryland, meanwhile, passed a bill that would ban the sale of assault-type weapons, set a limit on ammunition magazines, and require fingerprints and a license to buy a handgun.

And in Colorado, the site of two of the worst mass shootings in the nation's history, lawmakers recently passed a bill requiring background checks for all purchases, as well as one that limits the size of magazines. This week President Obama visited the state to highlight its laws, describing Colorado's efforts as proof that "there doesn't have to be a conflict between protecting our citizens and protecting our Second Amendment rights."

Pennsylvania, with its thousands of licensed hunters, has long been one of the most pro-gun states in the east, with strong National Rifle Association membership and GOP majorities in both chambers of the legislature that take seriously their NRA ratings. In the vast western territory outside the urban and suburban parts of the state, politicians in both parties have historically opposed gun control.

But in the post-Newtown world there have been signs of a gradual shift, including a recent Franklin and Marshall College poll that found 43 percent of registered Pennsylvania voters favor enacting more laws to regulate gun ownership.

Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFirePA, which lobbies for tougher gun limits, said she was optimistic about the chances that the Philadelphia bill will be passed.

"It would be hard for people to be against this," she said.

Even so, state House Majority leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) said Thursday through a spokesman that he feels Pennsylvania's existing gun laws are working.

"Looking at statistics from Pennsylvania State Police data, while there has been a steady increase in gun ownership, there has been a steady decrease in violent crime," said his spokesman, Steve Miskin.

The NRA's Pennsylvania lobbyist, John Hohenwarter, said he has not yet reviewed the bill, but said he thought gun laws should be consistent throughout the state. He also voiced concerns about innocent gun owners being targeted.

"The NRA has consistently supported measures that target criminals," he said. "However, we don't want to unintentionally throw the same net over law-abiding citizens."

Goodman said she hopes the proposed Philadelphia bill will open the door for similar laws to be sought in other cities, as well as for broader changes in state law.

"Harrisburg has to take some action on behalf of the communities they represent," she said, "and we can use this as a starting point. It cannot remain OK to do nothing."

Contact Allison Steele

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