INQUIRER HARRISBURG BUREAU
HARRISBURG - For the first time in recent memory, a Pennsylvania governor is expected to appear before a legislative committee when Gov. Rendell goes to the House on Tuesday to urge the legislature to enact tough gun legislation.
Rendell's appearance could be a dramatic moment in what is looming as a historic showdown in the Capitol next week. Rendell persuaded the House Judiciary Committee chairman to schedule a vote the day of his appearance on a package of bills, including one that would limit handgun purchases to one a month. The bills have languished in committee for almost a year.
Rendell's aggressive effort to force a vote is an unusual move for a governor. He believes the three bills are essential to curbing rising levels of gun violence in Philadelphia and in smaller cities across the state. In addition to the one-handgun-a-month bill, Rendell wants to see the passage of a bill allowing municipalities to craft their own gun laws and another that would make it mandatory to report lost and stolen weapons.
The stolen-weapons proposal failed a committee vote in July.
The committee also will consider a new bill, sponsored by House Speaker Dennis O'Brien (R., Phila.), that would establish a 20-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for shooting at a police officer.
Stephen MacNett, general counsel to the Senate Republican caucus and a 40-year Harrisburg veteran, said he could not recall a governor appearing before a legislative committee in at least 20 years.
"Most governors prefer not to get into the well with the General Assembly on their own turf," said MacNett. He added that, although he might not recommend such action were he the governor's counsel, he did not think it inappropriate.
State Rep. Dwight Evans, the architect of last year's special session on crime and sponsor of a bill that would allow municipalities to pass their own gun laws, said: "It's extraordinary for him to come make the case himself, to go out there and put it on the line."
Evans, a Philadelphia Democrat, said he could not in his 27 years in the legislature recall a governor making such an appearance.
With violent-crime rates up in a number of cities, Rendell and House Democrats from Southeastern Pennsylvania have ratcheted up the pressure on lawmakers to move handgun legislation.
The latest action by Rendell was prompted in part by recent attacks on Philadelphia police officers that have left one dead and five wounded.
"It's fairly said that the spate of police shootings highlighted the governor's concern," said his spokesman, Chuck Ardo.
In the past, any bills perceived to place restrictions on gun owners were swiftly sunk by the National Rifle Association, which boasts a quarter-million Pennsylvania members.
The NRA has mobilized its members on this latest issue, urging them in e-mail bulletins to contact their representatives and ask them to oppose the three bills.
"This is nothing more than made-for-TV legislation," said John Hohenwarter, a lobbyist for the NRA. "This will do nothing to address problems in Philadelphia or elsewhere."
Rendell has been increasingly critical of the NRA's efforts to block what he calls "reasonable" handgun legislation and of lawmakers whose votes, he says, are controlled by the organization.
"Members are pretty clear where we are on these bills. There is nothing new," said Hohenwarter. "Where else do we have laws that ration people's rights? I don't think we want to go down that road."
There are 16 Democrats and 13 Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee. Many of them represent areas with a high percentage of hunters.
It is unclear how Committee Chairman Thomas Caltagirone (D., Berks) - who represents the city of Reading, where gun violence is on the rise - will vote.
John Ryan, the committee's executive director, said Caltagirone is working on compromise legislation with the gun lobby.
Ryan said among the proposals is one that would tighten restrictions on the sale of firearms to cut down on so-called "straw purchases."
"I think you will see amendments," he said. "I couldn't commit on which way he [Caltagirone] will go."