HARRISBURG - Members of the Legislative Black Caucus called yesterday for a state police investigation into the display of what they called a racist banner in the Capitol that said a Latino lawmaker should be "hung from the tree of liberty for his acts of treason against the Constitution."
The outcry came hours after several gun-rights proponents unfurled a banner saying that State Rep. Angel Cruz (D., Phila.) should be hanged for introducing legislation that would require people to register their guns and pay a $10 fee to the state police.
"People want to hang me for doing my job," Cruz said, adding that his bill was aimed at trying to reduce gun violence in his district.
"I am appalled by the actions by a group of demonstrators," State Rep. Jewell Williams (D., Phila.) said. "We will not tolerate people making threats against members."
Williams was one of 10 Philadelphia-area lawmakers who appeared at a news conference yesterday afternoon to denounce the banner's language as a "terroristic threat" that raised the ugly specter of mob violence against African Americans.
Cruz, who is of Puerto Rican ancestry, is a member of the Black Caucus.
His bill outraged gun-owner groups that used its introduction this month to mobilize members for a rally yesterday at the Capitol.
Rally organizers had hoped to promote bills to ease restrictions on gun purchases, but anger over the sign took center stage in the Capitol and on the floor of the House.
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler), lead organizer of the rally, said he knew nothing about the banner and distanced himself from what he called "rogue extremists" responsible for it.
"I condemn that language in the strongest terms," he said.
Paul Estus of Ridgway, who was holding the banner, told the Associated Press the lynching tree was "just a figure of speech."
"You've got to make a stand," he added.
State Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland (D., Delaware), chairman of the Black Caucus, called the sign "an act of racism and bigotry" and said those responsible for it should be brought to justice.
Among the tragic lessons of the massacre at Virginia Tech was that people did not take threats literally, Kirkland said.
A spokesman for Gov. Rendell also condemned the sign.
"Vitriolic, personal attacks such as the one on Rep. Cruz are shameful and have no place in the public arena," Chuck Ardo said. "The threat implicit in the banner does not advance the debate nor the cause of the demonstrators."
State Rep. Ronald Waters of Philadelphia cited the statements that led to the firing of the radio talk show host Don Imus, saying the sign only created further divisions. "We live in sensitive times and should be in a period of healing," he said.
At a news conference yesterday morning, Metcalfe, backed by 30 lawmakers from both parties, announced what he called a "landmark package of Second Amendment rights-protection bills."
To the cheers of 150 gun-rights proponents - six of whom brought loaded handguns to the Capitol - Metcalfe said his bills and others would protect the rights of law-abiding citizens.
"Lives are saved when law-abiding citizens are provided every means necessary to defend themselves against crimes," he said.
Metcalfe said one bill was designed to help victims of domestic violence by allowing anyone who can show he or she is in "imminent danger" to be quickly issued a temporary permit to carry a concealed weapon.
That bill drew criticism from the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which coincidentally had scheduled a news conference in the Capitol yesterday, to release the latest statistics on domestic abuse. "Guns in volatile situations enhance the potential for lethality," coalition spokeswoman Judy Yupcavage said. State Rep. Dick Stevenson (R., Mercer) proposed allowing those with valid concealed-weapons permits to buy guns without having to go through the criminal-background checks required of all gun purchasers.
Another gun-rights bill would eliminate a gun-sales database maintained by the state police. Among the lawmakers joining to support the gun-rights proposals was one facing gun-related charges that could cost him his job and possibly put him in jail.
State Sen. Bob Regola (R., Westmoreland) has been charged with illegal possession of a weapon by a minor, fraud, and perjury stemming from a case last year involving a teenage neighbor who authorities say used Regola's 9mm handgun to kill himself.
"I am a strong believer in the Second Amendment," Regola said when asked whether his appearance at the rally was appropriate given the circumstances. "We have a right to bear arms."
Neither Cruz's bill nor the expanded gun-rights bills, which did not move during the last session, when Republicans controlled the House, is expected to reach a floor vote.
State Rep. Dwight Evans, the highest-ranking Democrat from Philadelphia in the state House, has led efforts for what he calls "sensible" handgun restrictions to combat rising violence in Philadelphia and elsewhere.
He said he hoped that with Rendell's support he could get a package of bills enacted, including one limiting handgun purchases to one a month.
"There's a mood change going on here and the [gun-rights supporters] are trying to deny it," said Evans, who also is running for Philadelphia mayor. "There's going to be a vote on this issue."