Guns took center stage in Harrisburg on Tuesday with gun rights activists gathering for their annual rally in the Capitol Rotunda and gun control activists applauding a vote on a bill they say will help crack down on so-called "straw" purchasing of handguns.
The House Judiciary Committee overwhelmingly approved a bill (HB 2331) to set mandatory minimum sentences for felons possessing guns and at the same time curb straw purchases that put guns in the hands of those who are barred from having them.
Sponsored by Rep. Todd Stephens, (R., Montgomery), the bill would target chronic offenders who exploit the justice system's "revolving door" by ensuring they get jailed for at least five years.
The legislation, which passed 21-3, is expected to be brought up for a full House vote before the end of the month.
Stephens, a former Montgomery County prosecutor, said the idea stemmed from his three-year stint with the U.S. Attorney's office - while still serving as a MontCo prosecutor - where he handled gun crimes under federal law because of Pennsylvania's weak gun laws.
"It's an effort to rachet up the penalty for violent offenders and give greater incentive [for people] to begin cooperation from straw purchasers." said Stephens.
Straw purchasers are individuals without felony convictions who buy guns for those who are not allowed to possess them. But too often there is no incentive for them to cooperate with police and provide information about where they got the weapons, said Stephens.
CeaseFirePA director Max Nacheman called the bill's committee passage a rare victory for gun control advocates.
"These are effective penalties on those who use guns to commit crimes and those who supply guns to commit crimes," he said. "It will send a message to straw purchasers: Is it worth the risk to pick up the gun?"
In an unusual twist of politics, both gun control and the gun rights advocates agree on the Stephens bill. (Although three Democrats, including Rep. Ron Waters of Philadelphia voted against it. Rep. Jesse White (D., Washington) said he was concerned about mandatory minimum sentencing and the cost to prisons.)
Only minutes earlier at the main Capitol building, a smaller than usual crowd turned out for the "Right to Keep and Bear Arms" rally sponsored by the legislature's most ardent gun rights supporter, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler).
(In 2007, the rally sparked a national outcry when some attendees held up a banner calling for Rep. Angel Cruzof Philadelphia - who is of Puerto Rican descent - to be "hung from the tree of liberty" for his "treasonous actions" in support of gun control measures.)
But there are some hot button bills that CeaseFire and the NRA most definitely do not agree on.
At this year's rally Metcalfe was trying to drum up support for a bill (HB 1523) that would bar municipalities, like Philadelphia, from enacting their own gun control laws. (Philadelphia's lost and stolen weapons reporting law has so far withstood court challenge.)
A related bill (SB 1438) would allow a person - or a group, such as the NRA -that claims they are affected by the law to sue a municipality and receive triple damages and lawyers fees - a measure that Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said would bankrupt cities.