Some of the region's top law enforcement figures appeared Thursday at a hearing to support a Pennsylvania bill that would increase penalties for illegal possession of a firearm.
The hearing in Montgomeryville before the state Senate Judiciary Committee showcased what officials said was an urgent need "to keep firearms out of the hands of violent criminals."
"It's a huge issue," Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey testified. "I can't tell you how much I appreciate this. This is not just a Philadelphia problem, it's a national problem."
Under current law, criminals convicted in Pennsylvania of a serious violent crime are barred from ever again owning a gun. But many get a gun anyway, and when found guilty of violating the firearms ban, they end up serving probationary sentences or relatively light prison terms, said Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.
House Bill 2231, introduced by State Rep. Todd Stephens (R., Montgomery) and passed May 23, would change that by requiring a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence if previously convicted felons are found in possession of a gun.
This would make felons "think twice" about using a gun in future crimes, said Ramsey, and give prosecutors "a hammer" to pressure criminals into testifying against their peers, said Stephens. The felon would be forced to serve the entire prison term without eligibility for parole, or work release or any other conditional release.
Ramsey said there had been 223 homicides in Philadelphia this year, 82 percent committed with firearms. Officers have recovered 2,000 illegal firearms and arrested 700 suspects accused of firearms violations.
Williams said that homicides in Philadelphia this year were up 13 percent over 2011 and that those who killed in 2011 tended to have been arrested previously, many for violent crimes.
He framed the issue in personal terms: "If you're carrying a gun illegally, you are willing to shoot Aunt Shirley, my favorite aunt, or one of my three daughters."
First Assistant District Attorney Kevin R. Steele said that in Montgomery County, the gun problem is smaller in scale but no less serious.
In most cases, when police execute a search warrant, a firearm is found, he testified.
"That's because it's part of the drug business. They arm themselves to protect their business," he said.
Since Steele became a prosecutor in 1995, there have 239 homicides in the county, 48 percent of them carried out with guns, he testified.
"Any tool you can give us would be helpful" in preventing violent crime and death, Steele said.
Last week, "thugs from Philadelphia armed to the teeth" shot up a block on East Moore Street in Norristown, including a house where children were sleeping.
"These were people who should not have had a firearm to begin with," Steele testified.
The draft legislation cleared the House and is in the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose longtime chairman is Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery).
It is not known when the Senate will vote. Williams said he expected the bill to draw bipartisan support.