Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Austin Davis vividly remembers the moment his life changed.
He was 15 years old, sitting next to his mother in his childhood home in McKeesport, a small city just outside of Pittsburgh, when a shooting occurred outside.
“I remember the look on her face and how terrified she was,” Davis said at the Democratic Lieutenant Governors Association’s first gun violence prevention summit, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.
“I think that was the first time where she felt like she couldn’t protect us from what were outside forces,” Davis continued.
It was also the first time that he can recall gun violence in his neighborhood, the Democratic lieutenant governor said in an interview with the Pennsylvania Independent following the summit. The experience deeply shook him, and soon thereafter he decided to get involved with gun violence prevention in his community. That path of civic engagement propelled Davis to where he is now: serving as Pennsylvania’s first Black lieutenant governor and, at 33 years old when he was sworn in, the youngest lieutenant governor in the country.
“It inspired me to do something about it because people clearly, in my neighborhood, felt helpless; they felt like they couldn’t do something about it,” Davis said during Tuesday’s event, which the Democratic Lieutenant Governors Association held in partnership with Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, March for Our Lives, GIFFORDS, and the American Federation of Teachers.
“I felt like the leadership who was there, quite frankly, wasn’t in touch with the real issues that people in the community were facing,” Davis continued. “I decided to get involved. As I’ve traveled my entire career, I’ve seen that same look in the face of mothers’ and community members’ eyes all across Pennsylvania and, really, all across this country.”
It is that look of terror that Davis never wants to see again. But 20 years after the shooting he experienced as a teenager, gun violence is the No. 1 cause of death for children in the United States. Gun violence killed 1,905 people in Pennsylvania in 2021, the most recent year for which federal data is available.
Which is to say: Davis knows guns are leaving a trail of trauma across the state, and he’s determined to change that. Since becoming lieutenant governor, Davis has championed funding for gun violence prevention work across the state, including the $40 million for gun violence prevention programs in the 2023-24 state budget signed by Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro. This summer, Davis crossed the state to obtain feedback from residents about creating safer communities and to discuss state funding for efforts to curb gun violence. Now he is urging the Republican-led state Senate to do what the Democratic majority in the state House did: pass legislation that requires background checks for all firearm sales in Pennsylvania and allows a judge to temporarily remove firearms from those at risk of hurting themselves or others.
“I think common sense gun reform is an issue that, quite frankly, cuts across partisan lines and cuts across economic lines,” Davis said in the interview. “It’s something that everyone’s worried about, whether you live in an urban community — you’re concerned about the day-to-day violence that takes place in your communities — and If you are also in suburban communities, you’re nervous about whether your kids are going to be safe when they go to school as we’ve seen a proliferation of mass shootings.”
“One of the things that I wanted to dispel was that the gun violence issue was a Philadelphia and Pittsburgh issue,” Davis said at Tuesday’s summit of his summer tour. “So, yes, we went to Pittsburgh and Philly, but we also went to Allentown; we went to Wilkes-Barre; we went to Scranton; we went to Reading; we went to Erie to talk about this issue. And every community, every mayor that I talked to, every community-based organization was struggling with how to deal with the issue of gun violence.”
To deal with that violence, Davis said, it’s largely up to elected officials at the state and community levels to address firearms in light of a divided U.S. Congress that is not expected to pass gun safety legislation any time soon — despite the majority of Americans backing stronger firearm regulations.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans “had a bill in Congress they were trying to pass that would identify gaps and services for gun violence victims and then begin to correct those gaps,” Davis said. “Unfortunately, Congress is dysfunctional, and they weren’t able to get that done.”
The Shapiro-Davis administration piloted a gun violence program in Pennsylvania instead of waiting for Congress to act. In June, Austin announced $3 million in state funds for the Resources for Gun Violence Victims Initiative, which is modeled after the federal legislation proposed by Casey and Evans. As part of the program, the state will study the needs of gun violence victims, identify current gaps in services for them, and ultimately connect gun violence victims and impacted communities with resources.
“That’s a good example of how states can lead, and lieutenant governors and governors are on the front lines in governing now, as Washington seems more and more paralyzed with each passing day,” Davis told the Pennsylvania Independent.
It’s crucial for Pennsylvania to invest in community-based organizations to tackle gun violence and address its root causes by funding public education and workforce development, among other initiatives, Davis said. Ultimately, he hopes for a future in which no child will be sitting with their mother as bullets fly outside.
“So the reality is, if you live in a community that’s plagued by gun violence, you’re traumatized from it, whether it’s directly impacting you or it’s just affecting your community,” Davis said.
“If you live in a community with gun violence, you probably walk home a certain way or you augment your behavior — you won’t go out after certain times — and nobody should live in fear,” the lieutenant governor continued. “Everybody should have the freedom to live in a safe, thriving community.”