Gun violence is ripping families apart. Pennsylvanians want lawmakers to hear their pain. - TAI News
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David Elliott and Karen Yust speak about their son, Dakota Ryan Elliott, during a gun safety rally at the Pennsylvania State Capitol on May 7, 2024. (Dave Hochendoner)

Eight months ago, Dakota Ryan Elliott was a 21-year-old college student who had four classes left before he could graduate with a degree in information technology.

He was an amateur handyman who never found a computer he couldn’t fix and an animal lover who built shelters for the stray cats that congregated outside the Philadelphia Police Department. Dakota had been counting down the days before he and his family would go on a trip to Las Vegas to celebrate his birthday.

Then, on Sept. 6, 2023, he discovered he had been blocked online by a girl with whom he’d been romantically involved.

“He frantically ran up the stairs to the front bedroom, where his grandfather kept a loaded, unlocked revolver and shot himself,” Karen Yust, Dakota’s mother and a Philadelphia resident, said as she stood next to her husband and Dakota’s father, David Elliott. “Our son was in a momentary crisis, mostly over a girl, and, had the gun been locked, he would’ve had time to calm down, and he’d still be here.”

He’d still be here. It’s a sentiment that advocates voiced time and again during a gun safety rally outside the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg on May 7. The rally drew approximately 500 people — including faith leaders, gun violence survivors and Democratic lawmakers — who called on state lawmakers to pass gun safety legislation. CeaseFirePA, a group that advocates for gun violence prevention in Pennsylvania, organized the event.

Many of those attending the rally had their own story of someone who should still be here but isn’t because of gun violence. For a Philadelphia trauma surgeon, there’s the never-ending stream of patients whose lives are ended by bullets. There were the parents whose children were shot and killed years, or months, or just weeks ago. The high school students who, as teenagers, have been to a string of funerals for close friends who have been shot and killed.

There’s this mosaic of people who, had there been greater protection against gun violence, may still be alive, celebrating holidays with families and going on vacations with parents. Perhaps, had there been a safe storage law in Pennsylvania — something Democrats have pushed for in the state House — there would not be an empty chair at the Elliott family’s dining table. Instead, Dakota would be here, telling his parents about the job he had been looking for before he died.

But the people whose pictures and names now fill signs at gun safety rallies are suspended in time, forever the age that they were when their lives ended. Dakota will never turn 22. He will never celebrate his birthday in Las Vegas.

“There are very few things left that we can do for our son, but I hope that by bringing Dakota’s story to your attention my son will not have died in vain and other lives can be saved,” Yust said.

For Yust, saving those lives entails state lawmakers passing gun safety legislation, and many of those attending the rally called on the Republican-led Senate to greenlight legislation already approved by the Democratic-led House. That includes House Bill 777, which bans the purchase, sale and production of ghost gun parts. Ghost guns are homemade firearms that can be assembled from a kit with no serial number and can be purchased without a background check.

Law enforcement officials have found a skyrocketing number of ghost guns during criminal investigations in recent years. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reported that police recovered about 20,000 ghost guns during criminal investigations in 2022, a tenfold increase over 2016.

Rally participants also urged state senators — and specifically the Republican leadership that has not held a floor vote on the House-backed legislation— to pass House Bill 1018, which would allow family members or law enforcement to ask a judge to issue an extreme risk protection order to temporarily remove firearms from someone who is at risk of harming themselves or others. They also want the Senate to pass House Bill 714, which would repeal the exclusion of long guns from the state’s background check requirement. Long guns include such firearms as rifles, shotguns and military-style assault weapons.

The House failed to pass two other pieces of gun safety legislation on May 7, when Democratic state Rep. Frank Burns joined every Republican lawmaker to vote against House Bills 336 and 2206. Both pieces of legislation failed by a 101-100 vote. Democrats control the state House with 102 members and there are 100 Republicans. House Bill 2206 aims to prevent gun trafficking, and House Bill 335 would ban deadly machine gun conversion devices.

“Today, 500 Pennsylvanians from over 45 counties and 3/4ths of state legislative districts showed that the broad majority of our commonwealth demands safer communities,” Adam Garber, executive director of CeaseFirePA Action, the group’s advocacy arm, said in a statement emailed to the Pennsylvania Independent. “And also today, a handful of radical lawmakers defied that mass movement of survivors, youth, doctors, and interfaith leaders, choosing instead to allow illegal machine guns and firearm trafficking to continue killing Pennsylvanians. We will hold them accountable for betraying their duty to keep us  safe, and we won’t stop until we can all live our lives free from gun violence.”

With only a slim majority in the House and a Republican-controlled Senate opposed to most gun safety legislation, the Democratic lawmakers attending Tuesday’s event said more Democrats need to be elected if the public wants gun safety legislation to pass. Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Josh Shapiro, backs gun safety legislation and has said he would sign it if it came to his desk.

“You’ve got my commitment, my pledge, if Senate Democrats are in charge of the Senate, these measures will be on the Senate floor the first week in Harrisburg,” said Democratic state Sen. Jay Costa. “And we will be there every single day voting on these measures until we get Republicans to join us.”

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