HARRISBURG — Fellow Democrats this week implored Gov. Tom Wolf to call a special session of the legislature to address gun bills, citing the deadly mass shootings in Ohio and Texas.
Wolf, though, has declined to do so — even as he touts the need for further gun-control measures, such as universal background checks and a ban on assault-style weapons.
“The governor is open to calling a special session if there are commitments to allow votes on critical reforms that will save lives,” spokesperson J.J. Abbott said in a statement. “Without such an agreement, there is no guarantee of action.”
Republicans, who frequently oppose gun-control measures, control the legislature.
While they stopped short of criticizing him directly, some progressive members of the governor’s party on Wednesday called for more action, urging Wolf to bring the legislature back before its currently scheduled return in mid-September.
“Well-tailored press statements, thoughts, prayers are no longer enough,” freshman Rep. Danielle Friel Otten, a Democrat from Chester County, said at a news conference Wednesday. “Inaction is nothing short of an endorsement of a culture of gunning people down in our streets, schools, churches, concert halls, movie theaters, and grocery stores. We need policy and change, and we need leadership.”
Others in the Capitol, including some in Republican circles, have hinted that the governor’s approach might be pragmatic, absent any current consensus on gun measures.
Special sessions are rare and often mired in politics. The last one happened in 2010, when Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell convened lawmakers to hash out plans for funding long-term transportation and infrastructure projects. The effort was a bust.
The Pennsylvania Constitution gives the governor the authority to convene a special session if “in his opinion the public interest requires” or if a majority of lawmakers send him a petition requesting one. There don’t appear to be any credible efforts to put together such a petition.
When a special session opens, the governor addresses lawmakers, committees are formed, and then the normal rules apply. That means Republicans, who have the majority in both legislative chambers, would still control which bills come up for a vote — and which ones don’t.
And some GOP leaders have hinted that a special session might be unnecessary or premature, given that lawmakers don’t yet appear to have a consensus on some of the major gun bills.
Sen. Lisa Baker (R., Luzerne), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, through which most gun bills flow, promised this week to hold a series of public meetings.
“Taking symbolic steps sends a message, but it ultimately does not save lives,” she said in a statement. “Something unworkable or unenforceable or unable to withstand a legal challenge does not provide the real protection our constituents are demanding.”
On the House side, Republicans are trying to find compromises that balance the rights of legal, responsible gun owners while also tamping down crime, according to spokesperson Mike Straub.
Conversations in that chamber are expected to revolve around a bill that would create so-called extreme risk protection orders, or which would allow people to petition the courts to temporarily confiscate someone’s guns if they present a danger to themselves or others.
The calls for action on that and other gun-control measures are not new. Many of them gained a renewed urgency last year, after a gunman killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania lawmakers have not passed any major gun bills since that shooting.
Similar calls arose in Virginia after a gunman killed 12 people in a shooting earlier this year.
The political dynamics in Virginia are similar to those in Pennsylvania. In both states, a Democrat holds the governor’s office and Republicans control the legislature.
After the Virginia Beach shooting, Gov. Ralph Northam convened a special session to address gun bills. The legislature left after less than two hours.
While Northam described lawmakers’ quick departure as “shameful and disappointing,” some Republicans accused him of trying to advance a political agenda.