H ARD TIME for gun crime. Illegal gun = 5 years. Convicted felon + gun = 5 years.
Those are some of the slogans offered up during a three-hour hearing Thursday on a state House bill that would create a mandatory-minimum five-year prison sentence for any convicted felon caught with a gun.
State law already requires convicted felons who are armed when they commit new crimes to be imprisoned for five years. This new proposal would require the same sentence even if the convict committed no crime other than gun possession. It also would classify that offense - as well as other firearm crimes such as straw-purchasing and illegal transfers - as "crimes of violence," increasing penalties for subsequent arrests.
"This bill will go a long way toward being a disincentive to people to carrying a gun illegally on the streets of Philadelphia," Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said. "Right now, there is no real disincentive for that to happen. It's going to make a lot of people think twice."
Two other crime-fighters who testified, Kevin Steele, Montgomery County first assistant district attorney, and Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, called for a public campaign to alert mayhem-minded citizens to penalties they would face if House Bill 2331 passes.
The House in May approved the bill, 190-7. It now awaits Senate approval. Thursday's hearing, organized by the Senate Judiciary Committee, was at the municipal building in Montgomery Township, near the office of state Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, who sponsored the bill.
Numbers show how big the problem of illegal guns is in Philadelphia, Ramsey testified. The city has had 223 homicides this year, averaging nearly one per day, and 82 percent were carried out with firearms, he said. So far this year, more than 850 people have been shot in Philly, and authorities have confiscated more than 2,000 illegal guns from city streets and arrested more than 700 people for gun violations, he added.
Further, most Philly killers - and their victims - have criminal records, Ramsey said. Through the first quarter of 2012, 84 percent of homicide defendants and 79 percent of victims had at least one prior arrest; of those, two-thirds were for violent crimes, he added.
"They have been convicted of a serious offense before, and they have decided to intentionally break the law yet again by carrying a firearm," Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams testified. "Punishment ought to be swift, and it ought to be certain. Unfortunately, such defendants all too often receive extraordinarily low sentences, including probation."
Bergstrom testified that the bill could put thousands more people behind bars in state prisons. Of 550 cases of convicted felons caught with guns in 2010, 438 were carrying their guns loaded, which typically means a stiffer penalty, he said. Still, nearly a quarter of them - 124 - were sentenced only to probation, diversionary discipline or short stints in county jails, Bergstrom said. Those who were sent to state prisons served an average of 40.7 months, much shorter than what they face if the bill passes, he noted.
Max Nacheman, director of CeaseFirePA, was out of town for the hearing but has lobbied hard for the bill's passage. He disputed Bergstrom's claim that the bill would balloon the state prison population. As word of the tougher sentences gets out among the lawbreakers, fewer will arm themselves, he predicted.
"This bill will result in fewer people in the hospital shot, fewer people in the ground shot dead and fewer people behind bars as people get the message that it's not OK to carry a gun illegally," Nacheman said.