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John Baer: Pay slain cops' families or ban guns? Look at both

PENNSYLVANIA TODAY holds its 16th annual memorial service for slain police officers. It's at noon at the Capitol. Eight officers killed in 2008 are being honored, four of them from Philadelphia.

PENNSYLVANIA TODAY holds its 16th annual memorial service for slain police officers. It's at noon at the Capitol. Eight officers killed in 2008 are being honored, four of them from Philadelphia.

The event is laced with the politics of guns.

Gov. Rendell is scheduled to speak and could reprise his call for new gun laws and the reinstatement of the federal assault-weapons ban.

If he also reprises his view that pro-gun lawmakers shouldn't attend police memorials, things could get uncomfortable.

Three such lawmakers are scheduled to speak: Democratic House Speaker Keith McCall, Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and Pittsburgh Democratic Sen. Sean Logan.

The Legislature isn't interested in new gun laws. And Logan advocates another direction.

He's sponsor of a bill to provide 100 percent death benefits to families of fallen officers, giving full salary with cost-of-living increases to a surviving spouse for life, even if the spouse remarries.

Logan says it's not a big ticket item. The state would pay the difference between existing benefits and full benefits.

Currently similar benefits are available only to police families in townships and boroughs - where they're rarely needed. Past efforts to include police in Philly and other cities died in the Legislature - so much for commitment to those providing urban law-enforcement.

Rendell, according to a spokesman, supports the bill "in principle." but still is pushing for new gun laws before lawmakers' summer break.

"I understand his frustration," says Logan, "but it's time we stand up and do something like this bill that actually will do what it says, offer reassurance to officers and take care of their families."

Logan isn't alone in thinking that Rendell's push for new laws - to require gun owners to report lost or stolen guns and to give municipalities the right to enact local gun laws - isn't needed or likely to happen.

A House spokesman says, "Our focus is squarely on finding ways to plug the structural budget deficit" and on health care and education.

A Senate spokesman says, "We don't know of any member who has changed their mind on those [gun] bills since last session."

Rendell knows this and knows legislative attention is elsewhere.

When I recently asked if he nonetheless intends to press the issue hard he said, "It's difficult to get focus on things other than our economic problems, but I'm going to try."

I now wonder whether it's worth it.

The reality of gun laws - even if enacted - is years of litigation, costing government time and money.

Philadelphia's nine month-old lost-and-stolen law, for example, remains under legal appeal that could take another year or two.

Everett Gillison, deputy mayor for public safety, tells me that while 152 guns have been reported lost or stolen since the city law took effect in July, not one has been recovered. Not one.

The effectiveness of the assault-weapons ban, in place from 1995 to 2004, seems greater. Rendell says that federal stats show that crimes committed with assault weapons are up since the ban was lifted. And he says that more than 40 police officers were killed with assault weapons, a stat that his office attributes to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

The center says that it has no data on police killed during the ban.

President Obama, a ban advocate as a candidate, now is backing off.

This is what I get from the White House: "The President believes the Second Amendment creates an individual right and he respects the constitutional rights of Americans to bear arms. His administration is committed to protecting the rights of hunters and other law-abiding Americans to purchase, own, transport and use guns while stopping firearms traffickers, putting more police on the streets through recovery act investments and keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, terrorists and others prohibited from owning them."

So, let's see: no interest in new laws in the Legislature, backtracking for now on the federal ban in Washington and reason to question the effectiveness of a new law in Philadelphia.

Should we continue to vigorously call for more gun laws, or vigorously push for expanded benefits for the families of the fallen?

There's no harm in doing the former, but no reason to duck the latter. *

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