Last week, the Good Ship Man Overboard! was flooded — with emails, that is, from CeaseFirePA, a group that advocates against gun violence and the illegal use of firearms. The urgency: Pennsylvania House Bill 898, which would increase the penalties for “straw purchasing” (buying a firearm for someone who’s not legally allowed to own one), was up for a vote. The emails were cautiously optimistic for a change. CeaseFirePA advocates all manner of proactive measures to curb gun violence in Pennsylvania, a state that maintains no firearms registry, doesn’t mandate the reporting of lost or stolen guns and tolerates the so-called Florida loophole, by which a gun owner who’s been denied a concealed-carry license can simply obtain one from another state.
But the group spends much of its time warding off midnight legislative maneuvers that ram measures favorable to the National Rifle Association through the General Assembly. And despite there seeming to be a consensus that straw purchasing — already illegal — is, you know, bad, there was a hitch. “It remains to be seen,” said a frantic email from CeaseFirePA executive director Max Nacheman, sent literally minutes before the bill was due for a vote in the Senate, “if the NRA and its allies will insist on using it as a legislative vehicle.”
Nacheman’s well-founded worry was that the bill’s language would be gutted and replaced at the last second with a provision long sought by the gun lobby — one that would penalize municipalities that have passed gun-control measures, such as those requiring the reporting of lost or stolen guns, if those measures should be struck down in court. Possible legislation would force cities to pay legal fees and damages for anyone affected by those laws.
This, in a nutshell, is where Pennsylvania gun laws stand: One of the state’s most active gun-policy watchdogs spends much of its energy trying to make sure an uncontroversial measure to increase penalties for illegal gun purchasing doesn’t turn into a sly legislative giveaway to the gun lobby.
In the end, HB 898, the straw-purchasing bill, finally passed the Senate (sans legislative transfiguration) with a resounding vote of 49-0 just hours before the Legislature adjourned for the session — and not, Nacheman reports, without attempts by the gun lobby to do exactly what he’d feared.
The bill still requires the signature of Gov. Tom Corbett. Should he sign, it would mark what gun-control advocates can claim as a relative victory — and relative, these days, is as good as it gets.
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