HARRISBURG - Nine Philadelphia-area Republicans signaled last week they would break ranks with their caucus today and support handgun-control legislation when the state House of Representatives resumes debate on a controversial proposal.
The measure, which would require reporting handguns that are lost or stolen, has been vigorously pushed by Democrats in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as a "common sense" restriction that would reduce gun violence.
Through a legislative maneuver this month, gun-control proponents attached the proposal as an amendment to a separate weapons bill, setting up a possible historic full House vote on a substantive gun-control bill.
That would force lawmakers of both parties to make their positions known at a time when polls show a majority of Pennsylvanians support some form of gun control and a noticeable shift is occurring among Republican lawmakers who represent the Philadelphia suburbs.
The majority of support in the southeast far from guarantees passage of the bill in the 203-member House, which is dominated by lawmakers, both Democratic and Republican, who represent rural, prohunting areas.
"There has been an evolution in the Philadelphia suburbs in the last 15 to 20 years away from a strict no-gun-control policy," said Terry Madonna, a political science professor and pollster at Franklin and Marshall College. "It fits with what we're seeing in cultural changes, such as positions on abortion and gay rights. Voters are electing a different kind of legislator."
In an Inquirer survey last week of the 64 lawmakers who represent Philadelphia, Delaware, Chester and Montgomery Counties in the House, 42 - including all 26 Democrats who responded - said they would support legislation designed to curb the sale and transfer of handguns to criminals.
Nine local Republicans also said they would vote for the proposal. Some said they would do so in response to their constituents, who polls show overwhelmingly support the measure. Others said they were not convinced the reporting requirement would work but thought something must be done.
Despite the new Republican support, the bill faces an uphill fight, with strong anti-gun-control sentiment in rural parts of the state.
The National Rifle Association remains opposed to the bill and recommends alternative amendments, said John Hohenwarter, the group's chief lobbyist in Pennsylvania.
Many Philadelphia-area Republicans, however, said lawmakers had to do something about crimes involving guns, even if the legislation was imperfect.
"There is interest in gun-control legislation that has the reporting requirement because gun violence has affected the people that I represent," said Rep. Kate Harper (R., Montgomery).
Rep. John Perzel (R., Phila.) said he would vote for the measure but doubted its usefulness.
"I don't know if it will get any illegal guns off the streets," Perzel said. "I don't believe it will have any effect."
Rep. John Taylor (R., Phila.) said he, too, was a "yes" vote, but he said he was concerned about the potential consequences for law-abiding citizens who fail to report their weapons and who could face criminal charges.
"There is enough sentiment out there that this will really impact regular Joes and that the crackhead going to make straw purchases isn't going to be affected in the least."
But, Taylor added, "We have a big enough problem in Philly that I'll try anything."
Three Republicans said they were undecided and would wait to see the final bill.
The amendment's sponsor, Rep. David Levdansky (D., Allegheny), an avid hunter, said the Republican support indicated that the National Rifle's Association influence in the legislature may be waning.
"The vote may go against the prevailing notion that if the NRA is against it, it's not going to fly," Levdansky said.
Rep. Mike Vereb of Montgomery County, a former police officer in West Conshohocken, was one of two local Republicans who said they would oppose the bill.
Vereb said he recognized the need to crack down on straw purchases but did not believe "lost and stolen" legislation was the way to go.
"It's unenforceable," he said. "I don't disagree that we need tougher gun laws at the distribution point and transfer point, but we need something credible."
Most observers say they expect a showdown between the emerging bipartisan urban-suburban voting bloc and the entrenched coalition lawmakers from the vast swath of the state where gun owners' rights are paramount.
Rep. Mike O'Brien (D., Phila.) said that he understood the concerns of his colleagues in rural Elk County "who shoot nuisance elk" and were worried about the possibility that their law-abiding constituents could be charged for not reporting a missing handgun, but that he didn't buy the objection.
"It doesn't impact someone in Elk County who is a sensible gun owner, but [it] allows us in Philadelphia [and elsewhere] to address a serious issue."
The proposal would require handgun owners to report a missing weapon within three days of discovering that it was gone.
Gun owners could face a penalty, but supporters say that because the legislation calls for a summary charge for a first offense, law-abiding citizens would most likely walk away with a warning.
Police and prosecutors say the legislation would help law enforcement better track stolen weapons and reduce the runaway numbers of straw purchases, in which a legal purchaser sells weapons to felons who are prohibited from owning guns.
Gov. Rendell, Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, the mayors of most major cities in Pennsylvania, and law enforcement agencies including the state police and the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh Police Departments say they support the measure for that reason.
The NRA's Hohenwarter said: "Our position hasn't changed. We oppose it." He said the nine Republicans who said they would vote for the bill "may tell you one thing now, but pulling the switch is another."
Supporters in the House still must prevail over a constitutional challenge to the amendment, which was under debate when the chamber broke for Easter recess on March 19. They say they expect other amendments to be presented that would water down the bill or make it unpalatable.
Should proponents move the "lost and stolen" amendment to a floor vote, its fate is unclear.
"I think the vote will be reasonably close," Levdansky said. "One way or another, we haven't had a definitive vote on this issue or any one like it in a very long time."
The Inquirer called the 64 state House members representing Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery, Chester and Delaware Counties to ask how they would vote on requiring that lost and stolen handguns be reported. The measure is on the House voting calendar today. Forty-two responded.
Democrats: Louise Bishop (Phila.), Mark Cohen (Phila.), Angel Cruz (Phila.), Robert Donatucci (Phila.), Dwight Evans (Phila.), Michael Gerber (Montgomery), Harold James (Phila.), Babette Josephs (Phila.), Thaddeus Kirkland (Delaware), Daylin Leach (Montgomery), Bryan Lentz (Delaware), Michael McGeehan (Phila.), Anthony Melio (Bucks), John Myers (Phila.), Michael O'Brien (Phila.), Frank Oliver (Phila.), Cherelle Parker (Phila.), Tony Payton (Phila.), James Roebuck (Phila.), John Sabatina Jr. (Phila.), Joshua Shapiro (Montgomery), Rick Taylor (Montgomery), Curtis Thomas (Phila.), Ronald Waters (Phila.), Jewell Williams (Phila.), Rosita Youngblood (Phila.)
Republicans: William Adolph (Delaware), Mario Civera (Delaware), Kate Harper (Montgomery), Thomas Killion (Chester), Jay Moyer (Montgomery), John Perzel (Phila.), Carole Rubley (Chester), David Steil (Bucks), John Taylor (Phila.)
Republicans: Paul Clymer (Bucks), Michael Vereb (Montgomery)