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Staring into face of Pa. gun violence

Mothers held up pictures of their slain children at a rally attended by Rendell and police officers.

HARRISBURG - Richard Decoatsworth, the 21-year-old Philadelphia police officer shot during a traffic stop in September, wore his scar on a bandaged jaw.

With him were several mothers holding up pictures of children lost to gun violence, the scars of emotional anguish on their faces.

They were among the 100 people who joined Gov. Rendell, dozens of police officers, Democratic lawmakers, and mayors from six Pennsylvania cities at a rally yesterday in the latest push to win legislative support for what organizers called "sensible" gun-control measures.

It came amid increasing pressure by gun-control proponents on legislators - primarily leaders in the Democratic-controlled House - to move long-stalled gun legislation. So far, there has been little action.

Rendell took aim at lawmakers who he contends are ignoring their constituents and bowing to pressure by the National Rifle Association, "perhaps the strongest lobbying group in the nation."

"No more ceremonies, no more resolutions," Rendell said. "It's time to put your rear end on the line and be counted."

NRA lobbyist John Hohenwarter, who was working the Capitol halls yesterday, called the rally a "fraud" perpetrated by people who fail to recognize that violent crime is a Philadelphia problem.

"Take Philadelphia out of the picture, and the state has one of the lowest crime rates in the country," he said.

Phil Goldsmith, president of the gun-control group CeaseFire PA, says statistics show that other cities, including Chester and Coatesville, have higher homicide rates than Philadelphia's, which he said the latest state police data showed was 29.8 per 100,000 residents in 2006. Earlier reports had placed it at 27.8.

"On a per capita basis homicides in other cities are equal to or higher than Philadelphia," said Goldsmith, whose group organized the rally.

Mayor Street and Mayor-elect Michael Nutter both said they did not want to curb the rights of law-abiding citizens, but have an obligation to protect citizens from gun violence throughout Pennsylvania.

"I respect the Second Amendment right under the Constitution to have arms, but it is a civil right not to be shot in the streets of the cities all over the commonwealth," said Nutter.

Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray said a scheduling conflict - the funeral of a beloved Lancaster shopkeeper shot during a robbery - prevented him from attending.

"As mayors we see the fabric of our community torn apart by handgun violence," Gray wrote. "The issues you address today are not abstractions to us as mayors." Lancaster's rate was 12.8 last year. The overall Pennsylvania rate is 6.2, according to Goldsmith's data.

Last month, Rendell made a rare appearance before the House Judiciary Committee imploring members to pass three gun-control measures, and last week members of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus staged a walkout on the House floor to protest the chambers' inaction.

Neither event propelled gun-control legislation any closer to passage. Bills limiting handgun purchases to one a month, and another allowing municipalities to pass their own gun laws, were voted down.

The Judiciary Committee did table a bill requiring gun owners to report lost and stolen weapons, which means it may still be considered next year.

At the rally, Philadelphia Police Lt. Francis Healy said such a bill would help track weapons used in crimes and potentially stop crimes by finding missing weapons before they are illegally used.

The NRA's Hohenwarter said such a law would only hurt law-abiding citizens.

"It sets up a system to criminalize victims of crime," said Hohenwarter.

Sen. Christine Tartaglione (D., Phila.) introduced a version of the lost and stolen bill yesterday in the Republican-controlled Senate. A companion bill would require registration of all guns sold or transferred in Philadelphia. Sen. Leanna Washington (D., Phila.) has re-introduced a bill limiting handgun purchases to one a month.

Members of the black caucus said there was no chance of a vote on the lost and stolen bill before Christmas, but hoped for a vote next year.