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Democrats, marchers press gun violence debate at Pa. Capitol

Students from Philadelphia hold photos of gun violence victims at a rally at the Pennsylvania Capitol pressing for stronger gun-control laws, Thursday, March 23, in Harrisburg, Pa.
Marc Levy
Students from Philadelphia hold photos of gun violence victims at a rally at the Pennsylvania Capitol pressing for stronger gun-control laws, Thursday, March 23, in Harrisburg, Pa.

Anti-gun violence advocates rallied Thursday and packed into a friendly legislative hearing in Pennsylvania, where a politically divided government has fought firearms policy to a virtual standstill for decades, and rising gun violence has gripped the state’s largest city.

The March For Our Lives at the state Capitol rally marks its fifth anniversary since its inception after the 2018 shooting that killed 17 students and staff at a Parkland, Florida, high school. Hundreds gathered on the Capitol steps in Harrisburg, coinciding with similar rallies this week at state Capitols in Florida, Michigan, California and Texas.

Dr. Eugene Reilly, a surgeon, listed some of those who were among the 100 gunshot wound victims to come through the doors of his Reading hospital last year.

They included a grade school girl, made paraplegic when a stray bullet struck her in the spine; an outdoorsman, whose gun discharged during cleaning and shot him in the stomach; a concert-goer shot in the leg in the crowd; and a man shot in the chest to protect his coworker from an ex-boyfriend.

“Pennsylvanians are reliving the same preventable tragedy again and again and again and again,” Reilly told the crowd on the Capitol steps. “Day after day. Hour after hour.”

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Outside the Capitol, they displayed black-and-white photos of gun-violence victims while saying the names of those who had died.

The rally comes as Philadelphia is fighting in court to impose its own gun-control policies and police are mourning three officers shot and killed already this year: Christopher Fitzgerald of Temple University police, Chief Justin McIntire of Brackenridge police and Sean Sluganski of McKeesport police.

Gun violence is playing a big role in this spring's campaign for mayor of Philadelphia, while Temple University's president, Jason Wingard, told a panel of lawmakers Tuesday that Philadelphia's record-high homicide rate has wrought a climate in which students, faculty, parents and staff are afraid.

That fear was something that West Chester East High School senior Madeline Barbezat acknowledged as she took the podium, saying she knows parents — including her own — who won't send their children to Temple or Drexel University in Philadelphia because of the violence.

“Anyone who’s ever lived near or around Philly knows it wasn’t always like this,” Barbezat said. “You didn’t always have to think twice before walking down the street or going to Fourth of July fireworks shows.”

Emotional testimony followed for hours in a packed Capitol hearing room, filled with ralliers who also viewed from overflow stations elsewhere in the Capitol.

Hearing witnesses said the problem was statewide.

“Remember this,” said Mayor Dwan Walker of Aliquippa, “gun violence is not just in Pittsburgh and Philly. Gun violence is in Aliquippa, Chester, McKeesport, Beaver Falls. It’s all over.”

Meredith Elizalde described running toward the gunfire during a September shooting outside of Roxborough High School in Philadelphia to find her 14-year-old son, Nicolas, who was killed in the shooting.

“You cannot imagine what it feels like to hold your child as his soul transitions to eternal life,” she said.

The event's organizers and hearing witnesses called for various pieces of legislation, including one to ban sales of what they termed “assault weapons” and another designed to punish gun owners who sell guns to criminals by requiring them to report lost or stolen firearms.

Since 2018, Pennsylvania's Legislature — long controlled by Republicans — has not seriously entertained any new firearm restrictions.

However, this year a one-seat Democratic majority has taken over the House and the chamber's Judiciary Committee kicked off this session's debate over gun violence with a hearing Thursday.

The advocates have philosophical allies in newly elected Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro and Democratic lawmakers, who say they are more optimistic about getting legislation passed now that their majority in the House has the power to bring up bills for votes and possibly press a compromise with Republicans.

Republicans, who hold a six-seat Senate majority, are historically protective of gun rights and have blocked nearly every new gun-control measure while also cooperating with Democrats in boosting funding for anti-violence and mental health programs.

Rep. Rob Kauffman, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said the criminals who commit crimes with guns won’t be stopped by tighter gun laws.

Speaking Thursday, he pushed back on those who advocated for strengthening gun laws, like the safeguards in place to get a driver's license.

“I know it’s hard for folks with serious tragedies to relate to that, but many of us, that’s where our minds are -- that you cannot affiliate a driver’s license and gun ownership because one is a constitutional right and one is not,” he said.

Legislation introduced thus far by Democrats includes a so-called red flag bill, but also a bill to require first-time gun owners to get certified to use a firearm and a measure to give state law enforcement agencies broader jurisdiction to pursue gun crimes.

In Philadelphia, there were 473 shooting fatalities in 2022 and 1,789 nonfatal shooting victims, according to city statistics. That was down slightly from 2021, but up from 311 shooting fatalities in 2019 and 1,162 nonfatal shooting victims.

Statewide, there were 924 shooting fatalities in Pennsylvania in 2022 — up slightly from 2021 — and 2,589 nonfatal shooting victims, according to the non-profit Gun Violence Archive.