There is no debate that gun violence – whether gang-related, terrorism-inspired, lone wolf attacks or suicides – must be stopped. It’s the question of how to achieve that goal that has long caused legislative stalemates at all levels of government around the country. Pennsylvania is no exception. For years, gun control advocacy groups have been stymied in their attempts to pass what they call “common sense gun reform.”
Shira Goodman has learned to focus her energy. As executive director of CeaseFirePA, the state’s largest gun control lobbying group, Goodman is dedicated to the seemingly Sisyphean task of passing gun control laws. “We’ve been working with a Legislature that is heavily Republican, although gun violence doesn’t break down along party lines,” Goodman said. “The main frustration is that there hasn’t been a whole lot of appetite to bring these things up in committee, let alone on the House floor.”
Goodman and her colleagues hope that state Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery) will change that. Dean is co-chairwoman of PA Safe, a caucus of mostly Democratic legislators formed after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and reorganized in March 2016 after the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. “Our work begins by repeating the facts about the insanity that is gun violence,” Dean said. “Until we actually wrap our minds around this absolute horror, epidemic and scandalous set of statistics, we’re not going to get anywhere.”
Dean and Goodman have the support of Michael Bloomberg’s nonprofit, Everytown For Gun Safety, Gabby Giffords’ nonprofit, Americans For Responsible Solutions and a cadre of Pennsylvania-based groups, including Mothers In Charge, the Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. But the alliance has been mostly ineffective in the Keystone State, thanks, in large part, to Kim Stolfer, the kryptonite of Pennsylvania gun control.
Stolfer is co-founder and chairman of Firearm Owners Against Crime, a Second Amendment advocacy group based in McMurray. A veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, Stolfer was a mechanic and crew chief for one of the Boeing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters that evacuated the U.S. Embassy during the fall of Saigon, Vietnam in 1975. “In the pictures, you can see my helicopter,” Stolfer said.
Dismissing Stolfer as a gun-toting, “Oorah”-ing Vietnam vet from the red part of the state is a tactical error. Since forming FOAC in 1994, Stolfer has made target practice out of bills proposed by gun control groups. Not only does Stolfer frequently testify at hearings, but he and FOAC’s attorneys have consulted with legislators on language written into new bills.
Goodman described Stolfer as “to the right of the NRA,” but he has minimal dealings with that organization. Stolfer formed FOAC to focus on affecting Pennsylvania legislation. “We work with the NRA when we can, but otherwise, it’s like that old saying: Lead, follow or get the hell out of the way,” he said.
With 108,000 supporters and multiple chapters across the state, Stolfer leads a statewide charge to protect the Second Amendment, and it’s hard to argue with his success rate. “We present information that is irrefutable,” Stolfer said. “That’s what people in the state Legislature have relied upon for more than 20 years. We document our positions, use credible sources and prove our points.”
For example, Dean said that gun control is a must because, in America, 33,000 people a year die of gun violence, with two-thirds of those deaths classified as suicides.
“That’s utter nonsense,” Stolfer said. “Suicides haven’t stopped in California, have they? And California has universal background checks. Why is it that in Japan, where almost no one owns guns, suicide rates are almost triple what they are in
Stolfer’s statistics check out: Multiple sources cite Japan as having almost airtight gun laws – and as the country with the second-highest percentage of suicides. Dean’s statistics are also correct. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 33,736 deaths from guns, of which 21,334 were suicides.
Nevertheless, Stolfer said that blaming guns for suicides is like blaming Chevys for drive-by shootings. “If we want to deal with suicides, which are a big concern, we have to look at the reasons that people go down that path,” Stolfer said. “The anti-gun groups’ intent is not to make people safer, but to create a regulatory climate where people are scared to execute their right to bear arms.”
Stolfer wants the justice system to prosecute offenders of existing laws. “In 80 percent of the crimes where people are killed with guns, the victims have a prior criminal record, often a substantial one,” he said. “Virtually the same percentage of perpetrators of the crimes have criminal records. So neither side, victim nor perpetrator, was allowed to lawfully possess a firearm. Why don’t we try to fix that?”
That was the intent behind the 2016 introduction of HB 921, the FOAC-backed move to eliminate the Pennsylvania Instant Check System. Maintained by the Pennsylvania State Police, PICS parallels the background checks done by the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check. Sponsored by Republican state House Speaker Mike Turzai, the bill didn’t make it out of committee, something Dean and Goodman cited as a big victory for gun control groups. “The work that PICS does is greater than what the national system does,” Dean said. “Our system is very effective and we ought to be proud of it.”
Pure poppycock, Stolfer said. He called the 1998 implementation of PICS “a power grab by the Pennsylvania State Police and not an intention to make people safer.” Pennsylvania should use only the FBI database, like 36 other states do, he said. He claims there is a big backlog of criminal records that have not been uploaded to PICS or NICS, making both ineffective. Stolfer wants to repeal and replace HB 921, redistributing the annual $6 million cost for PICS into updating NICS. “The PICS system leads to crime,” Stolfer said. “We want to end that. These records have to be put in one comprehensive database to streamline the background check process, which is something even Madeleine Dean should be able to see is good.”
Stolfer hasn’t given up on eliminating PICS. He’ll push for it in 2017 and oppose other “laws that restrict the right to bear arms without reducing crime.”
Dean’s 2017 legislative agenda includes reintroducing HB 1010 (expanding background checks to include the sale of long guns like shotguns and semi-automatic rifles), HB 1020 (a 72-hour reporting requirement of lost or stolen guns) and HB 1030 (creating a “firearm restraining order” against people who are a threat to themselves or others.) Though all three were quashed last session, Dean is optimistic about their chances because she’s enlisting Republican colleagues as co-sponsors. She hopes that will provide political cover for legislators on both sides of the aisle.
“The biggest hurdle has been that these bills can’t get out of committee,” Dean said. “But we know that eight out of 10 Pennsylvanians want us to close the background check loophole. Gun owners also think we should close that loophole. But we have legislators afraid to bring it to an important vote.”
Or they think those are badly written laws, Stolfer contends. Expanding background checks is a colossal waste of resources, he said, and hasn’t stopped crime in states where it’s been enacted. HB 1020 and 1030 put unfair liabilities – possibly criminal ones – on people who legally own guns. Create laws that will be effective and enforce those already on the books, Stolfer said, instead of punishing people who follow the law and execute their constitutional rights. “The right to bear arms isn’t an obscure amendment,” he said. “It’s the second one.” ■