By Walter M. Phillips Jr.
Recent efforts to pass gun-control legislation in Pennsylvania have fallen flat - to no one's surprise, probably. Laws that have passed either will have little effect on reducing gun violence (setting up a registry for lost or stolen handguns) or will likely be declared unconstitutional by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court (the bills passed by Philadelphia City Council).
What can a legislator from the Philadelphia suburbs, one who has come around to embrace reasonable restrictions on handgun ownership and possession, do to push a bill that would both be meaningful and get through the legislature, while recognizing the stranglehold the National Rifle Association (NRA) has on lawmakers outside the region?
My suggestion would be to introduce a bill requiring both a license and a detailed background investigation before allowing someone to possess or own a handgun.
Currently, there is no requirement in Pennsylvania to obtain a license in order to own a handgun. A member of the Pennsylvania State Police last year described a background investigation as consisting of a four-to-eight-minute computer check to determine whether the prospective purchaser is a convicted felon, whether he has ever been committed to a mental institution, and whether he has been the subject of a protection-from-abuse order. If nothing comes up positive on these three inquiries, the gun-shop owner is free to sell as many handguns to the purchaser as he or she desires.
In March, a case was argued before the United States Supreme Court as to whether a Washington law that prohibits entirely the possession or ownership of a handgun violates the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment. The court is to render a decision in late June. Regardless whether the court holds the District of Columbia law to be constitutional, it will likely, and correctly in my view, find that the Second Amendment applies to individual ownership of guns, not just state militia ownership as it previously held. It will do so with the caveat that sensible and reasonable restrictions to gun ownership are constitutional.
The current meaningless background check in Pennsylvania, along with the state's no-license requirement, allows unsavory characters to buy handguns and later sell them on the streets - not just in Philadelphia, but in Reading, York, Scranton, and neighboring states that have more restrictive laws. Ultimately, individuals use them to commit crimes and kill innocent people.
Someone who has been arrested for multiple robberies, but convicted of none (witnesses might have not shown up, changed their testimony, or been murdered), is not someone who should be allowed to buy one handgun, let alone the 10 he may seek to buy (since there is no one-gun-a-month law in Pennsylvania); neither should the individual who is under investigation by the attorney general for major drug deals (but who never has been convicted of a felony).
Currently, 14 states require a license before a handgun can be purchased; and eight other states require a more thorough background investigation than Pennsylvania. Some of these states are our neighbors - New Jersey, New York and Maryland. That explains why many guns find their way from Pennsylvania into those states to be used in violent crimes.
To my knowledge, the NRA has not had its members march on state capitols protesting the passage of license- or detailed-background requirement laws, nor has the NRA brought a court action to declare such laws as violating the Second Amendment. In other words, the NRA seems to have slowly come to the realization that these laws are reasonable.
It can hardly be argued that requiring a license to own a handgun is unreasonable or burdensome. After all, a license is required to drive an automobile. Is not a handgun a far more dangerous instrument than an automobile?
So if I were a Philadelphia suburban legislator, I would introduce a bill requiring both a detailed background check and a license before a handgun could be purchased in Pennsylvania, using model legislation from other states to draft such a bill. At about the time the bill is referred to the Judiciary Committee, we can expect to hear from the Supreme Court that such laws are reasonable restrictions designed to stem gun violence and do not violate the Second Amendment. Then, the NRA might not be so vocal in its opposition and the court's decision would help provide the impetus needed to pass such legislation, particularly now that statewide polls have shown that a majority of Pennsylvanians are strongly in favor of reasonable gun-control laws.