Republican lawmakers gathered on the steps of the state Capitol on Monday morning, vowing to protect the rights of gun owners and stand up to any attempts to enact gun control measures in Harrisburg.
The 17th Annual Right to Keep and Bear Arms rally, hosted by retiring state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, featured remarks from state lawmakers and gun rights advocates alike, who said, in stark terms, that the right to keep and bear firearms is under attack.
“There is a real and actual attack on our Second Amendment rights taking place, not just in Washington, D.C., but … here in these very halls of Harrisburg,” said state Rep. Matt Dowling, a Fayette County Republican who chairs the House Second Amendment Caucus.
Dowling encouraged attendees to stay informed about where candidates and officeholders stand on gun-related policies and walked through a list of bills he sponsored that have been vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf. Dowling said that the state constitution protects the rights of gun owners, noting that the document says that right “shall not be questioned.”
“The fact of the matter is we don't need more gun laws. In fact, I believe we need less,” Dowling said.
The event also featured speeches from House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, a Centre County Republican, House Judiciary Committee Chair Rob Kauffman, a Republican from Franklin County, and state Sen. Cris Dush, a Jefferson County Republican.
Kauffman touted his record of stopping legislation that would enact restrictions and regulations on gun ownership, such as a red flag law, which Kauffman said in 2019 would never receive a vote in committee as long as he is chairman. The GOP lawmaker also urged attendees to purchase guns using cash, citing a report that some credit card companies will begin tracking gun sales through payment processing systems.
“Let me tell you – they are coming after you. They are coming after our right to bear arms,” Kauffman said. “They're not going to win today while we're up here. They're not going to win tomorrow while we're up here. While we are here, defending our citizens, your rights, our rights, they will not win, but folks they are coming. Don't be fooled.”
Over the last year, Wolf has vetoed multiple gun-related bills that the Republican-led legislature has sent to his desk, including one proposal that would have allowed permitless, concealed carry of firearms throughout the state. In a veto message last December, Wolf said the policy would “exacerbate gun violence and jeopardize the safety of all Pennsylvanians.”
Wolf has advocated for strengthening the state’s gun laws and has rountenely urged lawmakers to pass safe storage requirements, red flag legislation and strengthened reporting requirements for guns that are lost or stolen.
Nikki Goeser, the executive director of the Crime Research Prevention Center, was one of the rally’s main speakers. Goeser is the author of “Stalked And Defenseless: How Gun Control Helped My Stalker Murder My Husband in Front of Me.” She told the story of how her husband was murdered more than a decade ago by a man who stalked her.
She also expressed concern with so-called “gun-free zones,” saying they do more to harm law-abiding gun owners than they do to help them.
“Being a law abiding citizen, I left my legal, permanent firearm that I normally carried for self-defense locked inside of my vehicle that night. Of course, the man who was stalking me did not have a handgun carry permit, brought a gun in illegally into the middle of a gun-free zone and murdered my husband,” Goeser said, arguing that gun-free areas “leave good, law-abiding people completely helpless.”
At least one advocate in favor of reforming the state’s gun laws questioned some of the proposals that were championed on Monday. Adam Garber, the executive director of the gun violence prevention organization CeaseFirePA, contested claims that expanded access to guns will prevent deaths.
“We've heard this again and again, that allowing guns anywhere will save lives. But what we've seen is it leads to more violence, Garber told City & State in an interview, noting that an alleged shooter behind a recent mass shooting on South Street in Philadelphia was in possession of a concealed carry permit. “We've seen in state after state, these policies drive more gun violence.”
There were fewer attendees at Monday’s event than in years past, but those who made the trip to Harrisburg stressed the importance of protecting gun rights – regardless of how many people turned out. Carrie Brenton, who owns Jefferson Firearms LLC, a gun shop in York County, said that firearm ownership can prevent crimes, saying that owning a gun helped prevent her from being sexually assaulted.
Brenton added that the Second Amendment helps protect other rights outlined in the Constitution. “It's the great equalizer, it truly is,” Brenton said. “If you want your First Amendment, if you want your Fifth Amendment, you're not going to have it without the Second.”
An attendee from Philadelphia who went by the name Hastati, identified as LGBTQ, a “proud and responsible gun owner” and a first-timer at the Right to Keep and Bear Arms rally.
“I feel like a lot of time, politicians who are pro-gun also tend to be anti-gay, and to me, that's just not right. You can't tell me that you're supportive of rights and supportive (of) liberties and then discriminate (against) people entirely just because of their sexual preference or anything like that,” Hastati said. “So, I like to say, “Hey, look, there are LGBT gun owners. We're here, we're visible, we don't hurt anybody.”
While Garber expressed some concerns with the anti-establishment language used at the rally, he also said he believes there is enough common ground between lawmakers to pass some changes to the state’s gun laws – like requiring lost or stolen firearms to be reported to law enforcement.
“It’s legal – you do not have to report a stolen or lost firearm,” he said. “Requiring reporting of stolen weapons is a key tactic that we've seen, in other states, drive down illegal trafficking and save lives, and does nothing to impede gun owners rights.”
“It's time for elected officials to stop making claims about Second Amendment rights and start saving the lives of their constituents,” Garber said.