Recent mass shootings in Philadelphia, coupled with the similarly heart-breaking but more news-getting massacres in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, have focused our collective attention once again on the issue of gun violence.
It’s clear that to stem this problem, more than stringent gun control measures are needed — deeper issues like white supremacist ideology, urban and rural poverty, and lack of hope lay beneath these killings. That being said, before we get caught up again in the decades-old debate of “people kill people” vs. “guns kill people,” Philadelphians should recognize that the debate highlights a structural failure of American governance today: barriers that stop the communities most wracked by gun violence from tackling the issue.
That is, before once more debating the merits of gun rights vs. gun control, Philadelphians and their representatives in Congress, in Harrisburg, and City Council, should focus all — and I mean all — of their energies on overturning firearms “preemption," the Pennsylvania law that prohibits municipalities like Philadelphia from having gun control regulations any stricter than existing state regulations.
Pennsylvania legislators largely represent communities facing entirely different gun violence prerogatives than Philadelphians. Understandably, many rural Pennsylvanians are more concerned with preserving their hunting capabilities than stemming a nonexistent gun violence epidemic in their communities. If Philadelphians lived in an environment where hunting was a staple of the community and culture, and gun homicides were not an issue, they would perhaps feel similarly. Seeing where the other side is coming from is important. However, allowing that conflicting position to impose its preferences on Philadelphia — a community that shares little with rural Pennsylvanians in terms of the reality and existence of gun violence — is a different matter.
In the realm of criminal justice, the city has already begun to assert itself and push back against deleterious Harrisburg-passed policies via the landslide election of District Attorney Larry Krasner, who has refused to enforce overly harsh Pennsylvania state drug laws and sentencing guidelines.
As part of the DA’s Government Affairs Unit this past academic year, I witnessed firsthand the office’s efforts to make Harrisburg’s criminal laws actually work for Philadelphians. But Krasner’s prosecutorial toolbox includes seeking less punitive sentences and expanding opportunities to divert people who have committed low-level crimes to rehab and other programs rather than jail. Those tools are not well suited for keeping guns off of the streets (and out of the wrong hands) in the first place. The DA can refuse to fully enforce a state drug possession law, for example, but he can’t enforce a gun control law that isn’t on the books.
As such, overturning Harrisburg’s gun control preemption will require more than a single local election. A truly broad-based mobilization effort will have to take place. It’s time that Philadelphians call upon their political representatives to lead this charge.
If Philadelphians’ despair in the face of so many unnecessary killings is not a sufficient motivation to mount a full-scale, energized opposition to firearms preemption, perhaps this will: Overturning preemption can contribute to a political movement that transcends gun control policy.
Since the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, American government has rested upon a system of dual sovereignty, in which states share power with a central (the national or federal) government. In this federal system of divided authority, the main power-brokers beneath the national level have been, and still are, the states. As such, Pennsylvania has preemption statues preventing local governments from taking their own approach on issues from the minimum wage to dog breeding. Certain cases of preemption (like on dog breeding) seem relatively trivial, if confusing. Firearms preemption is a different story. If our state-centric form of dual sovereignty is to continue to work, then legislators must recognize that especially with regards to gun violence, Philadelphia is different than, say, Forest County. On issues that are matters of life and death, localities like Philadelphia should have the policy authority to cope with their unique problems.
Overturning preemption will not be a cure-all for gun violence. What it can do, though, is begin to call attention to the fact that municipalities like Philadelphia should at least have the authority to take action on gun violence and other issues plaguing their communities.