The Incline in Harrisburg

Universal background checks failed by 1 vote. Will Pennsylvania’s General Assembly try again?

Rep. Perry Warren of Bucks County plans to introduce his own background checks bill.

A man shoots a firearm.

A man shoots a firearm.

Taylor Stakes / Flickr
Sarah Anne Hughes

HARRISBURG, Pa. — A bill requiring universal background checks for gun purchases failed to move out of a Pennsylvania House committee in June by just one vote.

For advocates of reform, that 14-13 vote in the Judiciary Committee was a heartbreaker.

But for state Rep. Perry Warren of Bucks County, it was also a reason for some optimism.

“I thought, ‘Gosh that’s close,'” the Democrat said Thursday.

That’s why Warren plans to introduce his own universal background check bill, so that if an opportunity arises — maybe a member’s change of heart or a shift in committee makeup — there will be legislation to vote on. There’s already plenty of public support: 86 percent of Pennsylvanians want enhanced background checks, according to an F&M poll.

Warren’s bill removes a section of Pennsylvania code that exempts “long guns” like AR-15s from background checks during private sales.

If you want to buy a handgun from a private seller in Pennsylvania, the sale must take place at a licensed firearms dealer or county sheriff’s office. The purchaser also has to undergo a background check, a process that involves submitting info to the state police’s Instant Check System and usually takes just a few minutes. The system has been hailed as a “model for this country” by gun control advocates.

But, depending on barrel length, that’s not the case for all shotguns, rifles, and firearms, per PA code. Currently left out are weapons like the Bushmaster .223, which was used in the Newtown massacre, and the Ruger M77, one of the weapons used to kill five Amish school children in Lancaster County.

A one-vote loss, a bipartisan future?

House Bill 1400 found bipartisan support among members and in the Judiciary Committee, where it died. Four Republicans voted in favor of advancing the bill, including Philly’s Martina White and Allegheny County’s Hal English.

On the other side of the aisle, two Democrats voted against moving the bill: Bryan Barbin of Cambria and Somerset counties and Judiciary Committee minority chair Joseph Petrarca, whose district includes part of Armstrong, Indiana, and Westmoreland counties. Neither responded to requests for comment.

Warren said he planned to reintroduce a background check bill sponsored by his predecessor after taking office in 2017, but instead made way for a coalition that included a Republican (Jamie Santora), a former police chief (Dom Costa), and a PA SAFE Caucus member (Madeleine Dean).

“That seemed to be the best way to move the bill forward, which is what’s important,” Warren said of HB 1400.

Just why the bill failed despite overwhelming public support is something only members of that committee can answer. To Warren, the divide in this case seems to be more regional, not partisan. HB 1400’s Republican co-introducer, Jamie Santora, is from the Philly suburbs, while both Democrats who voted against it are from rural counties.

G. Terry Madonna of F&M and former Penn State professor Michael Young argued in a recent column that, in addition to starkly different views among liberals and conservatives, “good old-fashioned interest group politics explains some of the legislature’s paralysis” on gun control legislation.

The most prominent of those groups, the National Rifle Association, was behind an effort to water down and ultimately defeat a red flag bill supported by law enforcement. Gun lobbyists were also credited with delaying a vote on a bill to keep guns out of the hands of domestic violence perpetrators.

What happens next for universal background checks is anyone’s guess. Warren was encouraged by the Judiciary Committee’s willingness to hold multi-day hearings on several gun measures and vote out some bills including one to ban bump stocks.

“Universal background checks are widely supported in Pennsylvania,” he said, making the case for his bill. “They will improve safety … without restricting the ability of people who will use guns responsibly and for lawful purposes to purchase and possess guns.”

Want some more? Explore other The Incline in Harrisburg stories.

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