Two days after 49 people were gunned down in Orlando, Fla., three bills sponsored by state Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery County, to reduce gun violence sailed through the House.
Despite the timing, Stephens said he did not think there was any relationship between the shootings and the overwhelming support and passage of the bills.
“My legislation focuses on individuals who are not permitted to possess firearms because of felony convictions or adjudications,” Stephens said in a news release. “It also ensures those barred from possessing guns due to mental health issues are not able to purchase firearms in another state.”
“Two of the three” — House Bills 1496 and 1498 — “ran previously and received widespread support,” he said June 17, and predicted House Bill 1496 “will have the biggest impact,” if it becomes law.
House Bill 1496, passed 187-8, would make illegal possession of a firearm by a felon a first-degree felony with a maximum sentence of 10 to 20 years. Currently, conviction of the charge is a second-degree felony with a maximum five- to 10-year sentence.
“The reality is because of the current grading, a judge is restricted by the sentence he can impose,” Stephens said. “Felons on the street with guns is a recipe for disaster.”
In a similar vein, House Bill 1497, passed 193-2, would bar a juvenile adjudicated for selling drugs from possessing a firearm until age 30, or 15 years from adjudication, the same as juveniles adjudicated delinquent for serious crimes. The bill also increases grading for illegal possession of a firearm in those cases from a first-degree misdemeanor to a second-degree felony.
House Bill 1498, which passed unanimously, would require the state police to send all existing Pennsylvania mental health data to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System within 90 days. NICS is used to check the background of individuals attempting to acquire a firearm nationwide.
The bill would also require the state police to submit mental health data to the NICS within 72 hours of receiving it.
The bill specifically refers to “Notification of mental health adjudication, treatment, commitment, drug use or addiction.”
Prior to the shooting massacre in Sandy Hook, Conn., Stephens said, he found out the state police were not sending mental health information to NICS regarding eligibility to purchase a gun.
“After Sandy Hook, I’d had enough and introduced legislation that would require them to send it,” he said. Soon after, the state police “figured out a way to voluntarily do that” and have sent several hundred thousand records to NICS, he said.
“This bill ensures the state police will continue to send those records,” Stephens said.
According to a July 2012 U.S. Government Accountability Office report, 200,000 mental health records were available in the national database in 2004 compared to 1.2 million in 2011, the release from his office says.
“Not surprisingly, the number of people denied a request to purchase a firearm based upon a mental health prohibition increased almost 600 percent, from 365 to 2,124 during that period according to the same report,” Stephens said in the release.
If a person is involuntarily committed to a mental health institution, that facility is currently required to send records to the state police, Stephens said. “That was the biggest gap,” because information on convicted felons was already being sent.
“Ninety days is an awful long time to wait if a mentally ill person is intent on harming themself or somebody else,” state Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky, D-Delaware County, said.
Stephens’ bills “don’t go far enough around gun safety,” she said. “It’s great that they passed, but the bills that would really have an impact on keeping people safe in Pennsylvania have been tied up the [House] Judiciary Committee without any movement.”
All three of Stephens’ bills have been referred to the state Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Hopefully the Senate will take up those bills and get them to the governor,” Stephens said. “All sides agree on them. I’m confident they would pass, if scheduled for a vote in the committee and Senate floor.”
State Sen. John Rafferty Jr., R-Montgomery County, vice chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, indicated support for the bills, noting they would “keep guns out of the hands of those who should not possess them.”
“I look forward to the opportunity to support the legislation in the Senate,” he said.
State Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery County, supports House Bill 1498, but needs more information about the other two bills, said his spokesman Steve Hoenstine in an email.
“Ensuring that the NICS system has our commonwealth’s data will make the system more effective and make our country safer,” he said.
Referring to the other two, he said, “Whenever a proposal increases criminal penalties in a way that increases our state’s prison population, Sen. Leach wants to make sure the new penalties will prevent crime. Evidence of a deterrent effect is a crucial part of making criminal law.”
“The goal is good, but [the bills] need work,” said state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County, chairman of the judiciary committee.
House Bill 1498 refers to mentally ill individuals, but does not list what mental illnesses, he said.
Referring to Stephens’ other bills, Greenleaf said, “Does everyone get the same punishment for different felonies?
“We have to do due diligence” to vet the bills, he said. “It’s very easy to introduce legislation, [but] you have to be very specific what you’re doing; you have to spell it out.”
It’s a “more circumspect way to look at the bills, so there are not unintended consequences,” he said.
“We have to look at different ways to not allow guns to fall into people’s hands that we don’t want them to fall into,” Greenleaf said. The “no-fly list” could be used as a determination, he added.
In addition to his own bills, Stephens, when asked, said he would support House Bill 1010, which would require universal background checks for all firearm purchases.
“I voted for that when it was proposed as an amendment to a bill previously. I generally support background checks,” he said.
House Bill 1010, sponsored by state Rep. Steve Santarsiero, D-Bucks County, has languished in the House Judiciary Committee since 2013. It would require all firearm sales, including the sale or transfer of long guns in private sales, to be done before a county sheriff or federally licensed firearms dealer in order to perform a criminal and mental health background check before the purchase is made.
House Bill 1010 is one of a number of gun control bills, including House Bill 1770, which is the House version of the “no fly, no buy” bill, that are sitting in the judiciary committee and have not had a hearing, Krueger-Braneky said.
As for the constitutional rights argument, she said, “If you are prevented from purchasing a gun because you’re on the no-fly list, there’s a way to appeal that. But, I think that protecting our children, our loved ones, from someone who shouldn’t have a gun, who’s not legally able to fly in a plane for good reason is more important than whether someone should have to wait a little bit long to purchase a weapon.”
A companion bill to House Bill 1010, Senate Bill 1049, introduced by state Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee in November 2015.
Senate Bill 1049 eliminates all but the familiar transfer exception to the requirement of a background check prior to the purchase or transfer of a firearm. It would also permit issuance of a single background check approval to remain valid for 48 hours for use at gun shows across the commonwealth.
State Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-Chester County, a co-sponsor of the bill, said it “would close the ‘long gun loophole’ in Pennsylvania.”
Under current Pennsylvania law, background checks are not required for private (person-to-person) sales of rifles or shotguns, Dinniman said. Checks are only required for handgun sales.
“It just makes sense that we would require background checks for all gun purchases — especially considering the disturbing rise in the use of long guns in crime and shootings,” Dinniman said.
“We, as a society, need to end the continuous cycle of violence based on bias and hate. There are commonsense approaches we can take to help cut gun violence and help keep guns out of the hands of those who may do harm, without infringing on the rights of responsible firearm owners.”
Leach has also co-sponsored the bill “because dangerous people should not be allowed to buy firearms,” said Leach’s spokesman. “Most Americans agree; about 90 percent of Americans support background checks.”
Ben Waxman, a spokesman for Hughes, said June 17 the district office had received “a large uptick in communication from constituents in Philadelphia and Montgomery County,” since the Orlando shootings. Constituents expressed “a need for universal background checks” and “a lot want the assault weapons ban renewed at the national level,” he said.
At a telephone town hall that drew 1,200 that week, “the No. 1 issue was gun control and gun violations; everybody wanted action,” Waxman said. “More and more people are wanting [legislators] to take action.
“Sen. Hughes is committed to do anything he can to respond to that.”
Asked if the Orlando shootings might result in movement of the bill, Waxman said, “We’re in a moment where there seems to be momentum to increase firearm safety; ultimately it’s up to Sen. Greenleaf” to hold hearings and a vote.
“I do support that legislation,” Greenleaf said, regarding universal background checks. Noting he was “in the midst of evaluating” the bill, he said he had not “decided as yet” when he would put it on the agenda.
“I have to poll the committee to see if we have the votes,” he said.
“The problem is, amendments go just the opposite … to advocate more freedom in the use of firearms,” Greenleaf said. “That’s the only concern I have. That’s what happened on the last one.”
Other parts of the state are pro-gun, he said.
“I will pool the committee. If there’s support, I will bring it up.”
Greenleaf said he was “seriously looking at that bill” and “will be taking it up this session.”
The session ends in November.Staff writers Michael Rellahan, Carl Rotenberg and Rick Kauffman contributed to this article.