HARRISBURG - House members began debate last night on controversial legislation that would require handgun owners to report lost or stolen weapons, marking the first time in more than a decade that the General Assembly has considered a substantive handgun-control measure.
Supporters, including mayors across the state, law enforcement officers and prosecutors, have fought for years for similar legislation in seven other states and the District of Columbia to curb "straw purchasers" who buy handguns for felons.
But the powerful constituencies that make up the National Rifle Association and sportsmen's groups have blocked the legislation from reaching a floor debate, contending that it would infringe on the rights of gun owners.
Rep. David Levdansky (D., Allegheny), the measure's sponsor and an avid hunter, argued that it would not target law-abiding citizens, only criminals seeking to avoid background checks.
"This amendment is about life and death," Levdansky said. "[This is] an effort to help stop the human carnage and to take a stand against the carnage perpetrated by those who traffic illegal handguns."
It was unclear whether proponents had the 102 votes needed to pass the amendment, but they said that even if it failed, lawmakers would be forced to make their positions on the issue known.
"Our objective today is to get the recorded vote," said Phil Goldsmith, president of Ceasefire PA, a handgun-control advocacy group.
The National Rifle Association's chief lobbyist in Pennsylvania, John Hohenwarter, said the NRA, which has 250,000 members in the state, opposed the amendment as an infringement of gun owners' rights.
"We think it's problematic," Hohenwarter said. "It's setting up a system that criminalizes victims of crime."
Last year members of the Legislative Black Caucus staged a walkout and threatened to hold up the budget process.
A House Judiciary Committee defeated a one-handgun-a-month proposal, as well as legislation that would have given municipalities the right to enact their own gun laws, but it tabled a lost-or-stolen bill, leaving it open for reintroduction.
With a crime-code bill (H.B. 1845) set for a vote this week, proponents amended the legislation to include the lost-or-stolen language, forcing a full vote of the House.
Under the amendment (A6178), handgun owners would have three days to report guns that are lost or stolen. Owners would face a penalty only if such handguns were connected to crimes and the owners knew the guns had been lost or stolen.
Handgun-control advocates say law enforcement authorities would not prosecute law-abiding citizens who did not know their guns were missing.
Hundreds of activists rallied in Harrisburg again yesterday - as they had on repeated occasions last year - but this time they knew there was a strong likelihood the House would vote on a gun issue.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey was among those who turned up to support the legislation. Others included victims of gun violence, schoolchildren and medical students.
"Definitely, it helps when you're getting ready to trace a gun [to know] whether it's lost or stolen. You know it's hot," said Ramsey, former police chief in Washington, which has a mandatory reporting ordinance.
"This law is about the illegal trafficking of handguns. It's not about law-abiding gun owners," said Lynn Honickman of Philadelphia, founder of the group Moms Against Guns.
Medical students from Philadelphia, who work in the city's emergency rooms, said they recognize that gun violence affects families and communities.
"We felt we should bring the full weight of the public-health system here to help," said Michael Russo, a student at the University of Pennsylvania.
The House adjourned late last night without voting on the amendment.
The debate will resume this morning.
For Pennsylvania House roll call votes, go to http://go.philly.com/pahousevote.