HARRISBURG - With Philadelphia approaching its 300th homicide of the year, District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham was back before a House committee yesterday pleading for tougher state gun laws. It was her second appearance before the House Judiciary Committee in five months.
Abraham asked the committee to support a bill making it more difficult for people to make "straw" purchases of handguns.
"It's another mechanism for law enforcement to intervene in illegal trafficking of firearms by people who murder people," Abraham said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Harold James (D., Phila.) has called a meeting of state and local elected officials Monday in Mayor Street's office to find ways to expand the role of the Pennsylvania National Guard in curbing violence in Philadelphia.
James, a former police officer, said he was not proposing that the Guard patrol the streets, but envisioned them providing technical support for criminal investigations.
"We have to address the shootings that are out of control," James said.
The Judiciary Committee hearing addressed three bills aimed at curbing gun violence that contained proposals made almost a year ago during the House's one-day session on crime.
Among the provisions of one bill (HB 1744), sponsored by Committee Chairman Rep. Thomas Caltagirone (D., Berks), is a requirement that gun sellers provide written notice to buyers that they must comply with laws regarding the transfer of guns.
"People say that they didn't know you can't just sell a gun," said Abraham, referring to so-called straw purchasers. "This is a terrific way to put people on notice." In a straw purchase, a person who cannot legally buy a gun recruits someone who can pass the required background check to buy the firearm.
When challenged by Democratic Rep. John Pallone of Westmoreland County, a gun-rights district in Southwestern Pennsylvania, Abraham said her testimony was not meant to be an "assault" on gun dealers or law-abiding gun owners.
"My constituents are different," she said. "All I see is dead bodies and people who are quadriplegic."
The bill also would address the potential effect of a one-handgun-a-month law by commissioning a study to determine whether multiple firearms purchases contribute to more gun crimes.
John Hohenwarter, a lobbyist for the NRA who attended the hearing, said that the bill "has some merit" and that the group would consider supporting some elements of it, including the written-notice provision.
But Abraham and others, including the NRA, took issue with two other gun-violence bills under consideration, one that would set bail at $50,000 for anyone displaying a firearm while committing an offense and another that would create a firearms bureau in the Attorney General's Office, giving the attorney general the authority to investigate local firearms-trafficking cases.
Abraham said the General Assembly's setting bail, rather than the courts, would be unconstitutional.
She said the bill granting local prosecutorial authority to the attorney general would effectively "usurp" the power of local prosecutors.
Attorney General Tom Corbett submitted testimony opposing the bills that would add responsibilities to his office, saying he had dedicated as many people as he could to fighting gun violence in Philadelphia.
Kim Stolfer, a representative of the Allegheny County Sportsmen's League, testified that his group opposed the three bills.
He said that existing gun laws were ineffective and that more laws would only restrict the freedom of law-abiding citizens.
Two modest gun-control bills were signed into law by Gov. Rendell before the legislature's summer recess. Rendell and Philadelphia-area Democrats have campaigned for the passage of several of the more controversial gun-control bills. Among the proposals also favored by Abraham and the Pennsylvania State Police are bills limiting handgun purchases to one a month and requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms.