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In Pa., a test of gun owners' clout

State long a battleground. Many wonder if tragedy will spur change.

Michael Gottlieb , firing at a target as Ron Jones looks on, said that for politicians "to capitalize on a tragedy . . . to push their agenda is completely wrong." MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff
Michael Gottlieb , firing at a target as Ron Jones looks on, said that for politicians "to capitalize on a tragedy . . . to push their agenda is completely wrong." MICHAEL BRYANT / StaffRead more

As Ron Jones lodged his shotgun against his shoulder Friday night, took aim and fired, a heaviness hung over the Lower Providence Rod & Gun Club's weekly trapshoot in Montgomery County as thick as the smoke that belched from his firearm.

Across the state, sportsmen like Jones have watched with trepidation as talk of tighter gun laws echoes from Washington to Harrisburg, since 20 children and six adults were killed in a Connecticut school by a man with a semiautomatic rifle.

Now, amid rising calls for state and federal bans on assault weapons and high-volume ammo clips, the electoral might of Pennsylvania gun owners may be tested anew.

"What happened last week was the most unspeakable tragedy," said Jones, 54, an electronics technician from East Norriton. "But blaming the equipment won't help."

It's a debate he has seen play out again and again, and one with a complicated history in Pennsylvania. With its big cities and small towns, its mix of East Coast and Midwest attitude, Pennsylvania seems fated to forever remain a battleground over guns.

Here, most statewide politicians adopt a pro-gun stance or keep their opinions on the issue quiet, hesitant to pick a fight with a powerful pro-gun voter base outside of urban centers like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Gun-control advocates in Pennsylvania have found themselves "on the defensive" over the last decade, said Joseph Grace, former executive director of the advocacy group CeaseFirePA. And even the weight of Newtown's tragedy may not be enough to change that.

A hunting holiday

Though it's the sixth-largest state, Pennsylvania has the second-largest rural population, trailing only Texas. It has 925,000 licensed hunters; schoolchildren in many counties get a holiday on the first day of deer season.

"When I was a kid, we would bring our guns to school so we could go hunting afterwards," said John Lee, who grew up "outside the entrance to a coal mine" in Western Pennsylvania.

He now heads the Pennsylvania Rifle and Pistol Association, an NRA-affiliated lobby. He said the national organization rarely needed to bring its full force to bear in Harrisburg - thanks to an active voter base eager to guard its interests at the polls.

Even Ed Rendell struggled to enact tighter laws during his two terms as governor.

Rendell "was a political realist, and although he supported a variety of stricter gun laws, he didn't shoot for the moon," said Chuck Ardo, a former spokesman for Rendell. "But even that was too much for a lot of the Second Amendment people in the legislature."

Part of the lore

Like so much social conflict, the battle over gun laws flared in the 1960s. After the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, Congress banned mail-order gun sales.

"That was really the starting point," John Kennedy, a political sciencist at West Chester University, said Friday.

"Pennsylvania political folklore" has it that the Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs and other pro-gun groups tilted the U.S. Senate race that year, Kennedy wrote in his book Pennsylvania Politics.

Sen. Joseph P. Clark, a Philadelphia Democrat, backed several gun-control initiatives. Pro-gun groups lined up behind his opponent, suburban Republican Richard S. Schweiker, who won.

Kennedy says many factors defeated Clark, not just guns, and Schweiker agrees. "There were many other issues; that wasn't the key issue by any means," the former senator, now 86, said Thursday from his home in the Washington area.

Debate arose again in 1993, when, frustrated with lack of action in Harrisburg, Philadelphia enacted its own ban on military-style assault guns.

The legislative response was to overturn the city ordinance - and ban communities statewide from adopting any local gun curbs. The vote was decisive: 34-16 in the state Senate, 134-63 in the House.

What stunned gun-control advocates were the votes of many urban legislators who backed the bill. Pro-gun forces were led by Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, a Philadelphian and a longtime NRA favorite.

Gov. Robert P. Casey, a Democrat, vetoed the bill, citing the need "to remove from the streets of this Commonwealth weapons which are popular with violent criminals, which are instruments of death in the hands of assassins, and which serve no purpose other than to promote senseless and random violence. ..."

The legislature promptly overrode him.

In the years since, debate has ranged from requiring owners to report lost or stolen firearms, limiting the number of guns purchased at a given time, and closing loopholes that let people barred from buying guns here turn to other states.

The most significant gun bill to clear the legislature in recent years expanded gun owners' rights.

In 2011, six months after taking office, Gov. Corbett, a Republican, signed a measure Rendell had vetoed. The law expanded the "castle doctrine" - the principle that a person can use deadly force to defend himself in his home - and removed a requirement that a person try to "retreat" from an assailant before shooting. It also broadened the law to include areas beyond the home.

Often, major-party nominees for statewide office have adopted pro-gun positions. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), in his 2010 campaign, said, "My idea of gun control is a steady aim."

The NRA donated $1.43 million to help him beat Democrat Joe Sestak.

This year, the NRA put $720,000 into Pennsylvania congressional races. It and other gun-rights groups routinely spend nearly $800,000 a year to lobby in Harrisburg, state records show.

But in the days since the Newtown shootings, the political winds may be shifting. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), the late governor's son, who had earned positive NRA rankings, reversed his long-held stances last week, telling The Inquirer that he would now support bills to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammo clips.

And even as President Obama was vowing to "steadily reduce the violence" by tightening federal law, a few like-minded legislators in Harrisburg were drafting bills hoping to seize the national momentum.

All this troubles gun enthusiast Michael Gottlieb, 55, an East Norriton lawyer who learned to shoot as a 6-year-old in what was then rural Montgomery County.

"There are politicians who see this as an opportunity," Gottlieb said Friday night at the trapshoot. "For them to capitalize on a tragedy like this to push their agenda is completely wrong."

For his part, Rendell contends Pennsylvanians will support what he calls "reasonable" gun laws.

He noted that he won statewide races despite pushing tougher gun laws. "So," Rendell said Thursday, "how tough is the NRA?"

In Harrisburg, as in Washington, the answer may come soon.

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Staff writers Amy Worden