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Newtown massacre renews Phila. officials' zeal for tougher gun laws

FROM SMALL TOWNS to the White House, proposals for gun-control laws have exploded since last week's massacre in Newtown, Conn.

FROM SMALL TOWNS to the White House, proposals for gun-control laws have exploded since last week's massacre in Newtown, Conn.

But in Philadelphia - where gun violence takes a more devastating toll than in any other major U.S. city - officials have few ways to deal with the issue other than making speeches.

In 2008, Mayor Nutter signed a package of laws that included a ban on assault weapons and other measures to combat straw purchasers. But those laws, still on the books, barely have seen the light of day, because, under Pennsylvania law, the power to regulate gun ownership resides in Harrisburg.

"I'm here on the ground every day in Philadelphia, mayors all across the country are on the ground, and when someone gets shot or hurt, generally we're the ones who get the call," Nutter said Tuesday. "So some amount of additional flexibility for mayors and governments in Pennsylvania . . . would be very helpful."

District Attorney Seth Williams, like his predecessor, Lynne Abraham, has chosen not to enforce the 2008 laws.

"Unfortunately, the local ordinances in question are pre-empted by state law," Williams said. Instead, he said, he has focused on prosecuting criminals who violate undisputed gun laws and advocating for statewide reforms.

Council President Darrell Clarke, who sponsored the laws, doesn't see it that way. He's "disappointed" that the laws haven't been enforced and "welcomes enforcement of these regulations along with any legal challenges that might follow," said his spokeswoman, Jane Roh.

For gun activists, who have the wind at their backs, the time is now.

"The state hasn't done this for us. We need to take care of it ourselves," said Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFire PA.

Still, she said, Williams has a record of being tough on guns in regular possession and trafficking cases. Pursuing the disputed laws is a "tactical decision" of how to use his office's resources, Goodman said.

The National Rifle Association, which has challenged or threatened to challenge all of the Philadelphia laws, and many local gun groups and busineses declined requests for comment.

But one pro-gun Philadelphian, Jose Morales, owner of Philadelphia Firearms Training, said some of the 2008 laws may not be anathema to enthusiasts of the Second Amendment's right to bear arms.

Enforcing a measure that requires gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms within 24 hours - intended to hinder straw purchasers - would be a "positive step," Morales said.

"People need to be accountable for their firearms and be held accountable for their actions," Morales said, adding that illegal weapons, not access to legal ones, are the source of gun violence.

With the city laws tied up, Nutter has used his position as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors to call for sweeping national gun-control policies.

He's pushing for improvements to national background-check databases, additional funding for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a renewal of the assault-weapons ban that expired in 2004 and other measures.

President Obama embraced some of those ideas in a speech Tuesday, and U.S. Reps. Bob Brady, D-Phila., and Allyson Schwartz, D-Montco, are backing the White House's push.

And in Harrisburg, Democratic lawmakers are working on bills to limit access to guns, although the bills are not likely to go far in the Republican-controlled legislature.

State Rep. Steve Santarsiero (D-Newtown) is lobbying representatives to sign on to a statewide ban on assault weapons. And although his paycheck comes from the Capitol, he, too, thinks the local governments should have more control over gun issues.

"In an ideal world, it would be the state that enacts these measures," he said. "But because up until this point Harrisburg has abdicated that role, I support allowing cities like Philadelphia to go ahead and do that."

Gov. Corbett opposes additional gun laws and likely would veto the proposed measures.

"There's no amount of gun control that can stop a madman who is bent on killing innocent children and himself," Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley said.