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Both sides of gun debate square off over 'constitutional carry' bill

Members of CeaseFirePA protested against state Rep. Natalie Mihalek's support for a bill that would allow gun owners to carry concealed firearms without a permit
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Members of CeaseFirePA protested against state Rep. Natalie Mihalek's support for a bill that would allow gun owners to carry concealed firearms without a permit.

Two sides in the ongoing fight about gun rights squared off Monday outside the Upper St. Clair district office of state Rep. Natalie Mihalek, as gun-control advocates sought to head off efforts to make it easier for Pennsylvanians to carry concealed firearms in public.

At issue is Senate Bill 565, a so-called “constitutional carry” measure, which holds that because the right to bear arms is in the Constitution, people eligible to own guns should not be required to seek a permit to carry them. In Pennsylvania and other states that have debated such moves, including Ohio, the bills have been contentious and even opposed by law-enforcement groups.

Josh Fleitman, the western Pennsylvania manager of gun-control advocacy group CeaseFirePA, called SB 565 “dangerous legislation that would make Pennsylvania less safe." He said the permit process allows for a measure of vetting by local law enforcement. Abandoning that review, he said, "would undermine our existing public-safety regulations by allowing anybody to carry a gun concealed in public spaces without getting a permit.”

Fleitman was joined by a few dozen advocates of gun control, who spoke against — and often had to speak over — a noisy counterdemonstration staged by gun-rights activists.

“Senate Bill 565 will do absolutely nothing to bring us peace. It is not a sane piece of legislation,’ said the Rev. Sally Jo Snyder, a United Methodist minister, who called the measure “nothing but a way to score reactive political points.”

“Does saying, ‘You don’t need to carry a permit, you can be 18 years and older and carry a concealed weapon' — does that sound sane to you?” Snyder asked.

“Yes!” shouted some counter-demonstrators.

Mihalek, a Republican, represents Bethel Park, Peters Township and Upper St. Clair. She was in the crosshairs because she had voted to support SB 565 in the Judiciary Committee last week, and she backed a similar House bill earlier this May. Last week’s bill was put before the committee one day after passing the Senateon a mostly party-line vote — an unusually fast turnaround that prompted complaints from Democrats. (State Sen. Devlin Robinson, whose district overlaps Mihalek’s and who voted in favor of the bill, also was criticized by CeaseFirePA Monday.)

“I’m definitely disappointed” by Mihalek’s vote, said Upper St. Clair resident Gina Pelusi, a Mihalek constituent whose mother was killed in a 2013 home invasion. "I know that she’s a mom, and I know that she cares a lot about her community and her kids, and keeping kids safe. So to me it isn’t logical, but unfortunately I wasn’t all that surprised.”

Mihalek previously has touted a package of bills intended to help crime victims “address their traumas” by, for example, allowing them to terminate leases or demand landlords change their locks.

In a statement, Mihalek said, “As part of a legislative body, I am constantly in search of a balanced approach to the issues of the day. On this issue, I look to put forth meaningful legislation that would protect Pennsylvania communities while also honoring Constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens.”

SB 565 is part of an ongoing campaign by gun-rights absolutists to use a Republican legislative majority in Harrisburg not just to head off new legislation, but to roll back regulations that have existed for decades.

Kim Stolfer, who heads the advocacy group Firearm Owners Against Crime and who attended the counterprotest Monday, is himself now seeking to overturn the 1987 permit law, which he said he helped craft. For its time, that law was an effort to expand gun rights by replacing language that could have given officials the ability to deny permit applications.

But Stolfer said Monday that the permit requirement never should have been imposed in the first place, and that the coronavirus pandemic had exacerbated the burden it places on gun owners. He said SB565 would restore a status quo that existed before the permitting requirement.

“Ninety years ago, Pennsylvanians had this very law,” he said. “It was biased attitudes then because of crime that stopped it. And it’s biased attitudes now that’s exhibited by Ceasefire.”

Gov. Tom Wolf has pledged to veto SB565, but his term ends next year in a midterm election cycle for which Democratic prospects nationwide seem murky.

It can be difficult to assess the impact of gun legislation on overall safety because many factors shape crime rates and the sample size of states with different laws is small.A 2020 Rand Corporation survey of research noted that there was “limited evidence” to suggest that easing concealed-carry laws would result in violent-crime increases.

But such nuances get lost easily in the gun debate, as gun-rights advocates used car horns and chants to disrupt Ceasefire speakers, including those whose family members had been killed with firearms.

“If we can learn positive ways to resolve conflict, we can create a community with less violence,” said Valen Tasser, who spoke, at times tearfully, of having lost a sibling to a shooting. “The agony of losing my brother is at times intolerable...”

“USA! USA!” the gun-rights supporters chanted.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.