OPINION

Three ways to stem gun violence

By Peggy Walsh

The Women’s Advocacy Coalition (WAC) believes gun violence is a public health emergency and agrees with the American College of Physicians that it demands our immediate attention. We are also painfully aware that COVID-19 has exacerbated gun violence stemming from domestic abuse, suicide, and violent crime. Unfortunately, the number of guns flowing into our communities has increased dramatically during the pandemic. Even if vaccines get us past the pandemic, the influx of firearms will continue to damage our communities unless Harrisburg legislators act now.

More guns lead to more deaths. Pennsylvania gun sales in 2020 increased 44% while Philadelphia homicides increased 40%. Meanwhile, Harrisburg homicides increased 60% and Allegheny County homicides rose 13%.

On a national level, 40% of national gun purchases were made by first-time buyers, an alarming statistic. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that “the decision to buy a handgun for the first time is typically motivated by self-protection. But it also raises the purchasers’ risk of deliberately shooting themselves by ninefold on average, with the danger most acute in the weeks after purchase.”

Unfortunately, one of the first bills proposed this session would prevent the governor from implementing any restrictions on the possession, sale, and transport of firearms during a declared state of emergency. It is similar to a bill the governor vetoed in the last session that classified all gun-related businesses as “life-sustaining” so they could not be closed for any reason.

To save lives, we need to alter this course. WAC has joined Cease Fire’s statewide coalition of faith groups, medical organizations, and community groups to advocate in Harrisburg for three gun-safety laws: universal background checks, extreme risk protection laws (ERPO or Red Flag) and reporting lost and stolen guns.

Background checks (Senate Bill 88) provide the first line of defense in keeping communities safe. Just last year, our background checks system (PICS) ensured that 25,000 individuals on Pennsylvania’s list of prohibited buyers could not purchase a firearm. Unfortunately, these same individuals could buy a military-style rifle from a private seller without a background check. Closing this gap in the background checks system has the support of 88% of Pennsylvanians.

ERPO laws (SB134) allow family members to temporarily remove firearms from individuals at risk of harming themselves or others. Through the ERPO process, a court — after hearing extensive testimony from both sides — can lawfully suspend an individual’s access to firearms when the individual is behaving in a way that is likely to harm themselves or others.

Reporting Lost and Stolen Guns (SB217) is critical to gun safety. Police found a majority of the 23,000 stolen guns recovered between 2010 and 2016 were connected to crimes; and more than 1,500 of those were used in violent acts including murder and armed robbery. Nearly one-third of guns recovered at Pittsburgh crime scenes were said to have been stolen. Without a legal requirement to report lost or stolen firearms, guns will continue to be illegally transferred to criminals and prohibited purchasers.

Passage of these commonsense gun safety laws will save hundreds of lives without impacting the rights of law-abiding gun owners. As the U.S. Supreme Court held in District v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), “the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.”

As citizens, we can help get these three commonsense guns bills passed by calling our legislators and joining the Common Agenda to End Gun Violence in PA. Information about the Agenda and other ways to prevent gun violence can be found on the websites of the Women’s Advocacy Coalition, www.bcwac.org. To sign on to Common Agenda visit https://ceasefirepa.salsalabs.org/commonagenda/index.html

Unless otherwise cited, all statistics are from Cease Fire PA.

Peggy Walsh is an individual partner of the Women’s Advocacy Coalition, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advocates for gender equity and economic security for all. She closely follows the status of gun legislation proposed in Harrisburg and Washington.