Pa. lawmakers consider new gun law

March 17, 2008 8:50:18 PM PDT
The state House of Representatives on Monday took up a proposal that would impose criminal penalties on gun owners who do not quickly inform police when a handgun is lost or stolen. The legislation, designed to combat straw purchasers of illegal handguns, would require reporting within 72 hours of when a weapon is found to be missing.

"This is an amendment about life and death, life and death," said the sponsor, Rep. David Levdansky, D-Allegheny. "It's about making an effort in the Legislature to help stop the human carnage and taking a stand against the violence that's perpetrated by those who traffic in lost and stolen handguns."

Debate ended for the night after about two hours when the chamber adjourned upon hitting its 11 p.m. curfew. The session was due to resume at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

Under the amendment, when police come across a handgun in a criminal investigation, any first-time nonreporting owner could be charged with a summary offense. A second offense would be a misdemeanor and a third offense a felony.

"The reality is, if this is going on multiple times, it's likely pretty obvious what's going on here, it's a person involved in straw purchases," Levdansky said.

People whose criminal backgrounds prevent them from buying guns legally sometimes enlist those with clean records to buy guns for them. Investigators say those straw purchasers often lie and say the guns that were traced back to them had been stolen or lost.

Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery, a former police officer, said the amendment failed to define what would constitute a "criminal investigation" in which a gun was recovered, triggering criminal penalties for a nonreporting owner.

"I would just rather leave that up to the law enforcement community and the prosecutors to make that judgment based on past practice and based on what's already in state statute," Levdansky replied.

Rep. Cherelle Parker, D-Philadelphia, said Graterford state prison inmates told her last week that reporting of lost and stolen guns would reduce violent crime.

"They said ... you're going to make it rough and tough to get hot heat on the street," Parker said.

Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said the amendment's language was unclear and penalized gun dealers too harshly for failing to provide customers with information about the rules for lending or transferring a gun.

"You are making the job of a prosecutor much more difficult," Turzai said. "I tried hundreds of cases as a prosecutor, and I can assure you that this is not a statute that either a prosecutor's office or the police would be able to readily use."

Levdansky proposed the measure as an amendment to a bill that would increase the penalty for altering serial numbers on guns, making what is currently a misdemeanor into a felony.

Gun legislation is always fiercely debated in the Pennsylvania Legislature, usually pitting lawmakers from the state's urban areas who favor more restrictions against a substantial contingent not inclined to impose new limits.

Last year, Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell appeared before a legislative committee to push for lost-and-stolen reporting and other gun control measures. Members of the Legislative Black Caucus walked off the House floor in December to draw attention to the problem of gun violence.

Philadelphia has endured more than a murder a day in recent years - most of them shootings - and two members of the City Council have sued to seek authority to enact the city's own gun restrictions.

Monday's session ended before the House could vote on a claim by Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, that the Levdansky amendment is unconstitutional.

After the House finishes considering all amendments to the bill, it would have to pass the chamber on another day and get through the Senate before it would go to the governor.


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