HARRISBURG - At least a dozen members of the Legislative Black Caucus abruptly walked off the House floor yesterday, saying they were angered and frustrated over the lack of movement on any meaningful gun-control legislation.
"This wasn't a walkout - this was a stand-up. It was a stand-up for a cause," said Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland (D., Delaware), chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. ". . . What we did today was start a movement. What we did today was raise the bar and raised the issue about lives being lost in our various communities."
The 12 members, almost all from Philadelphia and its suburbs, asked to be placed on leave just as debate had begun on a bill to make government records more accessible, one of the few major items left on the legislative agenda this year. Soon after, the House went into recess, and several hours later, broke for the day without explanation.
While on the floor, caucus members did not explain in detail why they were requesting the leaves. But they made it clear soon after: They want to refocus attention on legislation they believe would help stem the relentless spate of violence in Philadelphia and other cities.
Kirkland acknowledged that the caucus timed the event to coincide with the start of debate on widening the state's open-records law.
"We got their attention," he said. "It was an opportunity, and when an opportunity arises you have to take that opportunity."
It was unclear yesterday when the group planned to return from leave - although adding to the confusion and dissonance of the day, several caucus members were spotted milling around on the House floor in the late afternoon.
It's not the first time the black caucus has employed such a tactic.
In late June, the group warned it would withhold its votes and potentially thwart passage of the state budget until gun measures were considered. However, Kirkland lifted that threat days later after meeting with legislative leaders and NRA officials. He said at the time that he was satisfied with the progress being made on the issue.
Right after yesterday's walkout, caucus members met privately with House leaders. Both sides emerged saying they had jump-started "a conversation" on guns.
But what transpired during that meeting was a source of confusion.
Rep. Tony Payton Jr. (D., Phila.) said the group wanted to revive a trio of bills, two of which were recently struck down in the House Judiciary Committee, and have them voted on by the House's full membership. One of the measures would limit Pennsylvania residents to one handgun purchase a month.
After the meeting, though, Kirkland said a mere floor vote on those three bills was not enough. He said the caucus would not be satisfied unless those and other gun-control bills were passed and signed into law. He would not be more specific.
Kirkland, as well as Rep. Jewell Williams (D., Phila.), said the caucus has often supported other lawmakers on bills important to their constituents.
"What we are just saying is that we've been helping you . . . all we want is some help to resolve the crime and violence," Williams said.
Kirkland said the caucus supported open-records legislation, but cast yesterday's walkout as a matter of priority.
"When we have to walk by an open casket, day in and day out, our priority is to make sure that guns are taken off the street," he said.
Just last month, the House Judiciary Committee voted down bills that would would have limited handgun purchases to one a month, as well as allow municipalities to enact their own gun legislation. The committee tabled a measure that would require owners to report lost or stolen guns immediately to police.
The committee's action came despite an appeal by Gov. Rendell, who, in a rare move, requested to testify on the gun-control measures. Several polls show a majority of Pennsylvanians support laws limiting gun purchases to one a month.
On Monday, Rendell, Mayor Street, Mayor-elect Michael Nutter, and a number of other mayors from across the state are scheduled to appear at a news conference in the Capitol, organized by CeasefirePA, to revive discussion on gun-control measures.
"The simple fact is, we're not going away," said Phil Goldsmith, president of CeasefirePA. "This issue is not going away."
Besides Kirkland, Payton and Williams, those who walked out were Reps. John Myers (D., Phila.); Angel Cruz (D., Phila.), Rosita Youngblood (D., Phila.); Curtis Thomas (D., Phila.); Thomas W. Blackwell (D., Phila.); James Roebuck (D., Phila.); Jake Wheatley (D., Allegheny); Cherelle Parker (D. Phila.); and Harold James (D., Phila.)