Dueling Ideas on Gun Control in Harrisburg
Last week, hundreds of people gathered inside the Capitol rotunda in Harrisburg to call for sensible gun laws in Pennsylvania. The rally was organized by CeasefirePA, a coalition of gun violence survivors and advocates against the flow of illegal firearms.
The mothers spoke first. “I’m here today because my poor precious son Ryan, who you see here, is gone,” said Mary Beth Hacke of Pittsburgh. A young woman standing next to her, lips pursed and eyes cast downward, held a picture of a baby’s face. Ryan was 14 months old when he was shot while in a parked car at a gas station.
“My youngest son was shot and killed,” said Fay Dawson. Her son, Vincent Michael Woodson, was shot and killed outside a party in 2005.
Another woman took the podium. “Up until last year, I had three sons,” said Lisa Haver. When he was 24 years old, Haver’s son Daren was shot four times at close range. He survived a quadriplegic and died December, 2011. She held a photo of her son as she spoke.
“Darren was a member of Ceasefire,” said Haver. “He did not want what happened to him to happen to anyone else.”
Anti-gun control counter-protesters lined the edge of the crowd of the floor and cluster in the balcony.
One sign read: “Are we at last brought to such humiliating and debasing degradation that we cannot be trusted with arms for our own defense?” Another: “Guns control is false hope.”
Legislators spoke next.
“If we do not come together as a people and begin to get real about what’s going on out there, and ask the question, why someone on the street needs a weapon that can kill hundreds of people in seconds?” asked Senator Larry Farnese (D-Philadelphia). “Why does a civilian need a gun that can fire thousands of bullets in the matter of minutes? I’ll tell you why. It’s designed to do one thing and one thing only, that is to kill a large amount of people in a sort amount of time. I support the second amendment but I’ll tell you what else—”
A shout of “Liar!” echoed through the rotunda. The man who yelled it stood with a yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag draped over the balcony railing.
“I support common-sense gun laws,” retorted Farnese. The crowd erupted into loud applause.
Next, Senator Daylin Leach (D-Philadelphia/Montgomery) spoke to the Second Amendment. “Every right has an exception. The way the courts look at it is, they say, ‘What is the state’s interest in the right, and how much of an impingement does that have?’” said Leach. “And the state’s interest in preventing the sort of shooting in Newtown and the sort of carnage we see on the streets, I think everyone would agree, is compelling as a state interest.”
Joe Kawalski is a 62-year-old retired military man and gun owner who attended the rally because, he says, he believes Pennsylvania needs more sensible gun laws. “Look, I’ve been writing to people since after Aurora,” said Kawalski. “Senators, the White House, congressman… It was Aurora that made me realize specifically about assault weapons and high-capacity clips
“President Obama laid out the federal agenda a week ago, and I didn’t see anything there that I don’t support, the ban on high capacity clips to universal background checks to closing gun show loopholes, it just makes so much sense … If they want that kind of action, why don’t they join the military?”
Paul Saber, 36, from Central Pennsylvania and Jeff O’Brien, 42, from south-central part of the state, came to counter-protest the event.
Both men said that they believe in background checks and that guns should be kept out of the hands of mentally ill people, but neither believe limitations should—or legally could–be put on the type of firearm or ammunition that can be purchased.
“I [came] to encourage the legislature to uphold the Constitution they swore to uphold,” says Saber.
O’Brien says the Pennsylvania Constitution defends his right to own his AR-15, one of the guns frequently mentioned in gun control debates since Adam Lanza used it to kill 20 children and 6 teachers and administrators last month.
“It’s easy to shoot,” he says. “My wife can shoot it.”
The men say the issue is not about what kinds of guns are used in hunting; they say it’s about their right to posses the “elite” weapon of their time.
The morning of the event, conservative and gun-rights advocate Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) introduced HB 357. Called the Right to Bear Arms in Pennsylvania Protection Act, the bill would make, to quote Metcalfe’s press release, “federal gun-grabbing” a criminal offense in Pennsylvania.
“Passage of my legislation will send the message that there will never be additional gun control, anywhere in Pennsylvania,” said Metcalfe in a release. “Whether by White House executive orders, congressional fiat, or judicial activism, we will never allow the left to benefit from the wicked acts of murderers in order advance their senseless gun-grabbing agenda.”
Pennsylvania already has preemption laws, which means that townships and cities within Pennsylvania cannot pass laws stricter than those passed by state. Passage of Metcalfe’s bill would effectively legislate that the federal government can’t make laws stricter than Pennsylvania, either. According to Metcalfe’s description of his bill, even federal agents could be arrested for attempting to enforce “any type of gun restriction within [Pennsylvania] state borders.”
Last month, the GunCrisis Reporting Project tracked 92 shootings for a total of 105 gunshot victims in Philadelphia. The oldest victim was 63 years old; the youngest was four years old.
Photos by Tara Murtha. See more photos of the rally here.