HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania's House Judiciary Committee yesterday handily defeated two key gun-control bills despite a dramatic appearance by Gov. Rendell, who implored the committee to pass tougher gun laws to curb violence, especially in crime-marred cities such as Philadelphia.
Rendell's 40-minute appearance, in which he sought to refute gun-lobby arguments about weak enforcement of current laws and drive home polls indicating that most Pennsylvanians favor some forms of gun control, appeared to change few minds.
Six Democrats, mostly from gun-rights strongholds in the southwest, crossed party lines to defeat the two bills. Two Republicans from the Philadelphia suburbs - Rep. Bernard O'Neill from Bucks County, and Rep. Kate Harper from Montgomery County - broke from their party to support the bill that would have limited handgun purchases to one a month.
National Rifle Association lobbyist John Hohenwater said the votes clearly showed committee members had no appetite to restrict gun rights in an attempt to solve Philadelphia's crime problem.
"I think that members of the committee and the legislature as a whole do not want to move in the direction of placing restriction on firearms to address crime in Philadelphia," he said. "Pennsylvania has the tools available to go after criminals."
But Rendell, with a dozen uniformed police officers from Philadelphia and other Pennsylvania cities seated behind him, told the committee that increases in crimes committed with handguns were a statewide problem.
"Those who argue that violence is a Philadelphia problem caused by judges, police and prosecutors who do not enforce the laws on the books are dead wrong," he said.
"It's time for us to stand up and say, 'Enough,' " the governor added, pounding his fist on the table.
But the line against gun control held firm.
With no debate, the Democrat-controlled committee defeated a bill to limit most handgun purchases to one per month, 17-12, and a bill to empower local governments to enact gun-control laws, 19-10.
The committee tabled a bill that would have required owners to report lost or stolen guns promptly.
Members approved, 27-2, a bill sponsored by Speaker Dennis O'Brien (R., Phila.) to create a 20-year mandatory minimum for anyone who fires a weapon at a police officer. Rep. Greg Vitali, a Delaware County Democrat who opposes mandatory minimums, cast one of the nay votes. Rep. Harold James, a Philadelphia Democrat, cast the other.
Rendell, who supports the mandatory minimum but said additional crime-fighting weapons were needed, emotionally recalled when, as Philadelphia's mayor, he had met with what he called "newly minted" widows of slain police officers.
"If we don't act now, today, we will have more illegal handguns, more shootings, and more police widows," he said.
Addressing a standing-room-only crowd in the House majority caucus room, Rendell stressed he was not trying to attack law-abiding gun owners.
"I don't come here to demonize anybody. I believe we have a strong and proud gun heritage in Pennsylvania. I believe hunting is a way of life for so many of our citizens," Rendell said.
But he lashed out at lawmakers he accused of casting votes according to the NRA's position, saying they should support the bills based on their constituents' desires, not the gun lobby's.
Some opponents in the legislature said they believed the governor and supporters were pushing the bills to respond to Philadelphia's crime problem.
Rep. Ron Marsico (R., Dauphin), the committee's ranking Republican, said that he sympathized with Philadelphia's high crime rate, but that he did not believe "feel-good" gun-control bills were the answer.
"We need a comprehensive approach to fighting crime," including more funding for police officers and intervention programs, he said.
Rep. Craig Dally (R., Northampton) called the one-handgun-a-month limit "illogical."
"The governor was long on rhetoric and light on statistics," he said. "There was no nexus provided that indicated what he was asking for would have any impact on reducing crime."
Harper, the Montgomery County Republican, said that while she felt the restriction would not help Philadelphia's crime problem, she was voting the will of a majority of constituents.
"I felt it was the least restrictive on gun-owner rights," Harper said.
In a late-afternoon news conference, Rendell said he was disappointed but not surprised by the vote.
He said he was committed to getting the lost-and-stolen bill, sponsored by Rep. Jewell Williams (D., Phila.), to the House floor.
Shortly before the end of the event, an aide interrupted Williams, who was standing with Rendell, to tell him that a police officer had just been shot at in Philadelphia.
An exasperated Rendell threw up his hands: "How many police officers have to be target practice before it stops?"
But it hadn't happened that way. It turned out a police officer had shot at a suspect carrying a fake gun.
Shooting at officers