Gun owners up in arms over Pa. bill
By Robin Acton
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Doug Balliet describes himself as an outdoorsman, a lifelong hunter and fisherman who happens to own "a pile of guns."
Balliet, 42, of Winfield Township, Butler County, insists he's not a "gun freak -- just a good, old-fashioned, red-blooded American" who is tired of intrusions upon his personal freedoms. So, when he read the text of a bill introduced in Pennsylvania's House of Representatives last month, the timber worker "about flipped."
"I can't believe they're trying to do this in Pennsylvania," Balliet said. "I cannot lose any more of my given rights in this country."
House Bill 760 has outraged gun owners across the state because it would require annual registration of every weapon they possess other than antiques -- guns manufactured before 1898 -- certain collector's items, and law-enforcement duty weapons.
Balliet doubts the bill will become law because it is too politically divisive. Legal experts say it is too soon to tell.
"It sounds like one of the more extreme pieces of gun control legislation," said Arthur Hellman, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
The proposal, under consideration by the House Judiciary Committee, would require gun owners to pay a registration fee of $10 per weapon per year, undergo a state police criminal background check and submit detailed personal information for a registry that would include fingerprints, Social Security numbers, birth dates and passport-sized photographs.
Applicants who are denied registration would be required to surrender their weapons to the state police. Anyone who violates the law would be charged with a summary offense.
Because no permit is needed to own a gun, it is difficult to say how many Pennsylvanians own one. As of November, more than 589,000 permits to carry concealed weapons had been issued to state residents, the Pennsylvania Sheriffs Association said.
The District of Columbia and several states, including California, Hawaii, New York and Michigan, require some form of registration for handguns, long guns or both, according to information compiled by the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action. A few states have imposed guidelines for gun owners in specific areas.
Critics of Pennsylvania's proposal are vocal in their opposition, with some resorting to name calling and character attacks against the bill's sponsors.
"People from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh support it, but people from the rural western part of the state say I'm a Nazi and that I should go back to my country," said state Rep. Angel Cruz, who represents Philadelphia County's 180th District.
Cruz said he proposed the measure as a means to install a tracking system to determine where criminals responsible for gun violence are obtaining their weapons.
"I'm not in favor of taking away people's right to bear arms," he insisted. "They would just have to register them -- like they register a vehicle every year. I want to make it safe for all people across the state."
The National Rifle Association immediately took a firm stance against the bill and urged its 3 million members to contact lawmakers and oppose it. The organization contends that a registry would do nothing to curb gun-related crimes.
"The NRA is fundamentally opposed to any sort of firearms registry for law-abiding citizens," spokeswoman Ashley Varner said, adding that lawmakers should focus on "dealing with the criminal element" rather than placing the burden on law-abiding gun owners.
In only a month, the issue has become so polarizing that two of the bill's original sponsors, both Allegheny County Democrats, have withdrawn their support: state Reps. Jake Wheatley and Lisa Bennington, whose districts include parts of the city of Pittsburgh, removed their names from the bill in recent weeks.
Bennington's legislative assistant, Jann Chirdon, said Bennington withdrew her support because the text of the bill changed considerably from the time it was initially proposed to the day it was introduced to lawmakers.
Wheatley believes the bill "goes a little too far."
"I have some concerns because this is more punitive than it needs to be," Wheatley said. "There are too many senseless deaths. We all struggle with gun violence in the city streets and in rural areas, and there is a black market in which someone legally buys a gun and then gives it to a criminal, but this is a little too punitive to the law-abiding citizens."
Authorities in Philadelphia on Monday announced arrest warrants for 14 city residents accused of illegally buying guns for felons, transactions known as "straw purchases." Attorney General Tom Corbett and Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham said the warrants were issued through the efforts of a gun violence task force formed in December.
Authorities say it is difficult to track illegal weapons transactions.
"It's unclear as to how many might be straw purchases until they come up in the criminals' hands," said Philadelphia police Sgt. D.F. Pace. "But it is a very serious issue in Pennsylvania with the kind of gun violence we have."
Pace cited a recent case in which an individual purchased 13 weapons, including some used later in kidnapping, robbery and murder cases. When that happens, the straw purchaser is charged in connection with the crimes, Pace said.
Pittsburgh police Sgt. Mike Tracy said the registry would help authorities track straw purchases by providing investigative leads.
"We're not after the law-abiding gun owners. We're after the illegal owner who has gotten a gun by illegal means," Tracy said.
In addition to Cruz, the bill's remaining sponsors are state Reps. Rosita Youngblood and Cherelle L. Parker, both of Philadelphia, and state Rep. Lawrence H. Curry, who represents parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery counties.
The state police have no official position on the bill, spokesman Jack Lewis said. He said the department is analyzing the potential operational and fiscal impact of the bill on state police.
"As you would expect, the department follows closely any proposed new laws that would increase the workload of the department without providing additional personnel or funding," Lewis said.
Youngblood, whose 198th District encompasses several Philadelphia city neighborhoods, introduced related legislation, House Bill 291, which would require increased safety performance and manufacturing standards for handguns.
Her proposal would require personalization of handguns so they could be fired only by authorized users and incorporation of personalized handgun technology into handgun designs that could not be readily deactivated. It would require state police to formulate testing procedures to determine whether handguns comply with safety standards.
"People in Philadelphia are looking for ways to protect our citizens," Youngblood said.