‘Red flag’ gun plans up for debate

Political Notebook

A string of mass shootings spurred Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration to launch a new anti-gun violence project last week — but not before its announcement was delayed by an hours-long gun battle that left several Philadelphia police officers wounded.

Another round of public killings — one in El Paso, Texas, and another in Dayton, Ohio — has drawn fresh interest in so-called “red flag” laws meant to keep purportedly risky people from buying or keeping guns. Even President Donald Trump expressed interest in similar legislation, but such a law remains a tough sell in Pennsylvania.

“Too many Pennsylvanians are dying from gun violence,” Wolf said in a public statement Friday. “We need to fix our weak gun laws and pass reforms focused on increasing safety and reducing danger to our citizens.”

With a divided state government and a GOP-controlled Legislature, however, gun control reforms are a monumental task.

Many advocates have united around red flag laws, under which judges can order residents to turn their guns over to police if they’re determined to pose a danger to themselves or others. The laws, already passed in many states, have followed cases in which friends and spouses of future shooters reported erratic or threatening behavior to no avail.

Advocates achieved a rare victory in the past year, after lawmakers passed a bill to seize guns from those issued protection-from-abuse orders. Passed in October and in effect since April, Act 79 requires authorities to take guns from those under the orders — potentially thousands of people each year.

But more restrictive red flag laws often face more rigid opposition. While groups like the National Rifle Association voice conditional support for certain red flag laws, many gun advocates and pro-gun groups reject what they see as unreasonable leverage for the authorities to seize guns.

An effort by Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery to pass a red flag law fizzled last year, despite clearing a House committee. Stephens’ plan would create extreme risk protective orders, under which courts could command police to temporarily withhold guns from those deemed dangerous.

That bill made it through the House Judiciary Committee 18-9, with both parties split. Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford — the only local lawmaker on the committee — voted against the bill.

Stephens’ proposals have drawn support in both parties, and traditionally pro-gun Republicans are not uniformly opposed to red flag laws (local lawmakers who have served full terms have uniformly negative ratings from CeaseFire PA, a pro-gun control group).

Trump himself has spoken favorably of red flag laws, saying after the last wave of mass killings: “We must make sure that those judged to pose a grave risk to public safety do not have access to firearms and that if they do, those firearms can be taken through rapid due process. That is why I have called for red flag laws, also known as extreme risk protection orders.”

Trump hasn’t provided more detail, including who might be targeted under red flag laws. Since his televised remarks, he has blamed shootings on “deranged” people and said “we have to start building (mental) institutions again.”

After a man with a long criminal record allegedly engaged in a lengthy shootout with Philadelphia police Wednesday, wounding six, Trump recommended a general crackdown: “Must get much tougher on street crime!”

Despite legislative trouble and mixed signals from Washington, state officials have taken an active role.

Wolf’s executive order last week established new advisory council to propose gun reforms, and issued orders that the state police ramp up monitoring of “hate groups, white nationalists and other fringe organizations and individuals.” Wolf also ordered authorities to expand gun buyback programs, in which police pay gun owners to turn over weapons they no longer want or need.

Some in the General Assembly are set to push forward on the gun debate.

Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, is set to hold hearings next month on mental health and gun issues, according to CeaseFire PA. Activists have urged lawmakers to sign on to active bills that would establish red flag orders.

“It is clear Pennsylvania has a serious gun violence problem, including a suicide crisis that is only intensifying,” the group said in a written statement. “We are hopeful these hearings will provide insight into various solutions for making Pennsylvania safer, and as Senator Baker stated earlier, will be a prelude to action.”