Following the shooting of six Philadelphia police officers during a standoff with a gunman armed with an assault-style rifle, Gov. Tom Wolf is poised to sign an executive order Friday that will allow him to make “sweeping changes” aimed at improving the state’s violence prevention efforts.
Wolf has urged lawmakers to pass several gun control bills, including one to expand background checks, but chose not to call a special session, saying there was not yet an agreement with Republican leaders, who control both chambers of the legislature.
The issue of gun violence is particularly acute in Pennsylvania, where more than 1,600 people died of gunshot wounds in 2017, a gun death rate above the national average for states, according to officials.
On Thursday, a news conference in response to the shooting of six Philadelphia police officers followed a now-familiar pattern: Lawmakers making an impassioned pitch for change that has yet to materialize after many mass shootings.
“I say to our state and federal lawmakers: Step up or step aside,” Mayor Jim Kenney said at City Hall. Standing with mostly Democratic elected officials, Kenney, Wolf and others exhorted political leaders to pass stricter gun control laws and attempt to prevent attacks like the one Wednesday night in the city’s Tioga section.
Police Commissioner Richard Ross said Maurice Hill, the suspect in the shooting that wounded six officers, likely used an AR-15-style assault weapon against police and had a handgun in his pocket when he surrendered to police after a nearly 8-hour standoff.
Officials have not said how Hill, who had felony convictions that barred him from legally possessing firearms, obtained the guns. They pointed to an assault weapon ban, universal background checks, and a crackdown on straw purchasing as potential legislative fixes, but there is no way to know whether any of those measures would have prevented Hill’s attack.
Ross said it was amazing that no one was killed in the incident. “I did not think," he said, "it would end nearly the way it did.”
Wolf said state lawmakers have to "step up and pass legislation that will start getting guns out of the hands of criminals like this.… I think now is actually the time when we can actually make a start to doing this.”
Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) called for the Senate to act on a background check bill that has already passed the House, and a long-proposed assault weapons ban, saying that Republicans who have stalled debate on both are telling the American people to “surrender” to gun violence.
Assault-style firearms like the one Hill allegedly wielded are commonly used in mass shootings, including the attacks at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October, the 2017 Las Vegas country music festival, and the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut. In Dayton, Ohio, last week, the gunman used an assault-style pistol to hit 26 people within 32 seconds, killing nine.
A 1994 federal ban on assault weapons expired in 2004; Democrats in Congress have unsuccessfully lobbied to renew it. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) last week in Philadelphia reiterated his opposition to such a ban, saying it wasn’t the answer to keeping firearms out of the hands of potentially dangerous people.
Toomey, who is working to drum up support for a background check bill in the Senate, said Thursday that Congress should make background checks a priority, adding, “We can do more to strengthen our gun safety laws.”
Critics of stricter gun control legislation, including the Republicans who control Pennsylvania’s legislature, have questioned whether new laws would actually make a difference in deterring violence by criminals who don’t get their guns legally.
The news of the police shooting reverberated through a country on edge: It was less than two weeks after the back-to-back weekend mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton that sparked fresh debate over the nation’s gun laws amid stalemates in Congress and many state legislatures, including Pennsylvania’s.
After the El Paso and Dayton shootings, which left 31 dead, Wolf’s staff met with Republican leadership about passing a red-flag law and expanding background checks. "I have a sense that they’re at least willing to engage in the conversation. It’s something I haven’t seen before,” Wolf said.
Democrats in Pennsylvania have asked for gun control before — most notably after the Tree of Life shooting, when Wolf said the state “must take action” to prevent future tragedies. Six months later, after a deadly attack at a California synagogue, Wolf repeated those calls. And last week, Democrats asked Wolf to convene a special session of the state legislature in hopes of passing gun control bills.
But with the exception of a domestic violence related bill, the legislature has declined to move substantial gun laws.
Since 2015, there have been four other incidents in Philadelphia when at least six people were shot, all of them at spring or summer outdoor gatherings. The Tioga attack marked the seventh time this year that four or more people were shot or killed in a single incident in the city, according to a count by the Gun Violence Archive.
Others on Thursday said not gun control but tougher criminal enforcement could prevent such violence. They pointed to Hill’s criminal history, saying stricter laws would not have affected a man who got his guns illegally.
“We have plenty of criminal laws in this city, but what we don’t have is robust enforcement by the district attorney. Instead, among other things, we have diversionary programs for gun offenses, the routine downgrading of charges for violent crime, and entire sections of the criminal code that are ignored,” U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain said in a statement.
Noting that McSwain is an appointee of the Trump administration, District Attorney Larry Krasner called his criticism “a familiar bit of opportunistic politics,” and said he would not “dignify it” with a detailed response.
Mike Straub, a spokesperson for House Republicans, said they offer their “sincerest appreciation for the selfless officers” who responded in North Philadelphia, but said that the suspect’s lengthy criminal record “proves once again that criminals will not follow any existing or new firearm laws."
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Straub added: "We must examine the root causes of violence, crime, and mental illness in our communities before we force mandates upon the millions of Pennsylvanians who legally and responsibly own firearms.”
The episode also highlighted the much-debated state law prohibiting cities and municipalities from writing their own gun laws. The shooting could prompt Philadelphia officials to again seek to pass regulations stricter than the state’s, though courts have struck down the city’s past attempts.
“If you choose not to help us," Kenney said, addressing state lawmakers, "then get out of the way, and allow cities like Philadelphia that struggle with gun violence to enact our own solutions.”