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Elmer Smith | Controlling votes, not guns

FOR A REAL insider's look at why your opinions about gun control don't count for much in Harrisburg, look no further than the Blue Dog caucus.

FOR A REAL insider's look at why your opinions about gun control don't count for much in Harrisburg, look no further than the Blue Dog caucus.

It's the civics lesson from hell, a peek into a hidden place where democracy gets turned on its head. It's the reason that people you outnumber still outweigh you in the salons of power.

The body count continues to climb in places as diverse as North Philadelphia and Omaha. But gun laws that people all over the state clearly favor are left to languish in committees because lawmakers with real clout have conspired to keep them there.

So, while the Legislature's black caucus was planning its walkout this week, another group of lawmakers was strong-arming legislative leaders.

The Blue Dog caucus - about three dozen Democrats, mostly from western Pennsylvania - got in House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese's face Monday night to demand that the legislative agenda be limited so that they won't be called to account for their votes on gun-control legislation and other controversial issues.

"They have basically told House leadership that they don't want to consider gun legislation and they're prepared to stifle the agenda if they don't get their way," state Rep. W. Curtis Thomas told me.

State Reps. Dwight Evans, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, and Thomas Caltigerone, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, confirmed that the meeting took place, though neither was present.

Caltigerone says he has "done everything I can think of" to move gun legislation out of committee, even though he is a member of the Blue Dog caucus.

"We had the governor in here crying real tears and banging on the table and he couldn't get them to move the bills," Caltigerone said.

The Blue Dogs "did meet with DeWeese to say that they don't want to have to vote on this ultra-liberal agenda. They want to vote on property tax and health care and issues important for their districts."

Gun control is an ultra-liberal issue?

A statewide poll of likely voters in March showed that 68 percent favored giving municipalities greater control over their gun laws, 80 percent favored requiring gun owners to report firearms lost or stolen within 24 hours. Some 71 percent favored one-gun-a-month laws and 85 percent favored trigger locks.

You can bet your Glock that very few of those people consider themselves "ultra-liberal."

"What happens in this building is totally disconnected from reality sometimes," Evans said from his office in the Capitol.

"The state Senate's poll said the same thing [as the poll of likely voters]. I'm hearing people say, 'Enough' - they don't want these bills bottled up in committee."

Yet the House Judiciary committee has been to gun legislation what the La Brea tar pits were to dinosaurs. The bills that are stuck there now were mired in the muck when Republicans ran the house.

Gun legislation is the third rail for some of these Blue Dogs, not because the majority of their constituents oppose it, but because powerful forces in their districts are dead set against it.

"These guys are getting picked off," Caltigerone said. "They've got a problem here.

"Gun safety for children was one of the four gun-control measures that make up House Bill 1744. Even the NRA favored it.

"It says that there is a place for guns in our society. But it alerts children that there is also a potential danger in handling guns. That was it. But as it got out of my committee, I started getting e-mails and letters from pro-gun groups."

OK, so it's a tough issue But we send them there to vote on tough issues. If this one is not popular with their constituents, they can vote "no."

"But people need to know where their lawmakers are on this," Thomas said. "Everyone coming out of this delegation should be for reasonable gun legislation."

And if they're not, we need to know who they are and why they aren't with us. *

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