HARRISBURG — At the end of a week that saw two mass shootings in Philadelphia, Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order Friday morning intended to reduce gun violence in the state.
The new order requires state agencies to collect more data about gun violence, instructs state police to boost their monitoring of hate groups and white supremacists, and increases efforts to help local police departments respond to threats of mass shootings.
It also increases efforts to promote a program that allows people to send text messages to alert law enforcement to “suspicions of mass shootings,” and creates a council of criminal justice experts and lawmakers to study gun violence and provide policy recommendations.
“Too many Pennsylvanians have died from gun violence. Too many have lost loved ones to gun violence. Too many live every day in fear of being shot on the sidewalk, in their neighborhood, at a grocery store, at school, or at a concert,” the governor said during an emotional signing ceremony inside the Capitol.
As Wolf signed his name to the order with a fine-point black marker, a slew of cabinet officials and Democratic state lawmakers flanked him. Many of the legislators came from urban areas, such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where residents have experienced both mass shootings and daily violence.
State Sen. Anthony H. Williams, a Philadelphia Democrat, said the signing was emotional for him. Six Philadelphia police officers were shot on Wednesday, and five other people were wounded in a separate shooting in Philadelphia on Thursday.
Williams praised the governor for taking “the politics out of whether you have the right to have a gun or not” and recognizing “the dignity of human beings is first and most important.”
State Rep. Dan Frankel, an Allegheny County Democrat whose district includes the Tree of Life synagogue, where 11 people were killed last year, echoed those words.
But Frankel, like others present, also called on lawmakers to address gun control bills when they return from summer recess. When he meets with constituents, for many of whom the shooting is still fresh, he said, “the one thing I hear consistently is, ‘What are you doing to do about it?’”
Wolf’s executive order makes several changes that do not require approval from the Republican-controlled legislature, according to his office. It comes at a time when public pressure is mounting across the nation, and particularly in Democratic circles, for politicians to address gun control measures in the wake of a series of deadly shootings.
Wolf’s order creates new divisions within existing state agencies, such as the Department of Health and the Commission on Crime and Delinquency, to focus specifically on finding ways to reduce gun violence. It tasks the special council forming policy recommendations. It also designates former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey as the governor’s senior adviser on such issues.
Almost all of the costs associated with these new efforts are covered in the current budget, according to Wolf’s office.
The new efforts will roll out as Wolf and other Democrats negotiate with Republican leaders on several gun control bills. Democrats who joined the signing ceremony on Friday called for universal background checks, requiring safe storage devices, and mandating the reporting of lost and stolen guns, among other measures.
Republican leaders, in recent weeks, have signaled that they are open to discussing some measures, although likely not all of the ones that Democrats want. Many expect the conversation this fall to focus around a “red flag” bill, which would give judges wider latitude to temporarily confiscate someone’s guns if they pose a threat.
Some Republicans have noted that high-profile shootings, such as the one that wounded the Philadelphia police officers this week, involve suspects whose lengthy criminal records should have prevented them from obtaining guns under current laws. And they have expressed a desire to preserve the constitutional rights of gun owners who abide by the law.
“We understand that we cannot take action that will criminalize the millions of Pennsylvanians who responsibly and legally own firearms,” said Jennifer Kocher, a spokesperson for Senate Republicans.
Still, Democrats are urging action. As tears ran down his face Friday morning and his voice raised, State Rep. Jordan Harris, a Philadelphia Democrat, said, “We have to do something, something to address the pain and the carnage that far too many of our citizens are dealing with.”