Pennsylvania Rep. Jennifer O’Mara celebrated her 34th birthday on Sunday. It was the 20th one without her father, a Philadelphia firefighter who died by gun suicide in 2003.
“I know with certainty that an ERPO [extreme risk protection order] would have helped us intervene in the mental health crisis that my dad was having in that time,” O’Mara said during a press conference at the Pennsylvania State Capitol on Monday.
At that event, O’Mara joined Democratic lawmakers and gun safety advocates to call on the state’s Republican-led Senate to act on two gun violence prevention bills passed by the Democratic-led House in May.
House Bill 1018, introduced by O’Mara, 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. House Bill 714, introduced by Democratic Rep. Perry Warren, 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.
Both bills passed the House with bipartisan support. Nine Republicans backed HB 714, and two Republicans supported HB 1018. After the House sent the legislation to the Senate in May, the upper chamber has not held hearings or votes on the bills.
“It’s been 175 days since the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed extreme risk protection orders and universal background check bills, and too many Pennsylvanians have continued to die since then — and they didn’t have to if the Senate would follow the House’s lead,” CeaseFirePA Executive Director Adam Garber said at the press conference.
CeaseFirePA, which organized Monday’s press conference, is a group that advocates for gun violence prevention across Pennsylvania.
A spokesperson for Republican Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman told the American Independent that GOP lawmakers are working to address gun violence in Pennsylvania. The spokesperson did not directly address House Bills 1018 and 714.
“Measures to increase safety and security are of chief importance to the Senate Republican Caucus,” Pittman spokesperson Kate Flessner wrote to the American Independent. “We remain steadfast in our ongoing support of law enforcement, leadership of school safety initiatives, and examination of ways to provide greater mental and behavioral health support to help protect our communities. Pennsylvania currently has robust laws in place pertaining to guns, which must be enforced in every corner of our commonwealth.”
But those laws are not sufficiently keeping people safe, advocates said.
“Every single day the Senate does not follow the House’s leadership, does not listen to the Pennsylvanians who want action, more people are dying,” Garber said. “But it’s not too late. Every single day is also a chance to save a life.”
In 2021, the last year for which there is federal data available, 1,905 people in Pennsylvania died from firearms. Between 2018 and 2021, more than half – 57% – of firearm deaths in Pennsylvania were suicides, according to an Everytown for Gun Safety analysis of federal data. Everytown for Gun Safety is a nonprofit that advocates for gun safety legislation across the country.
Gun deaths in Pennsylvania have continued to climb in recent years, increasing by 32% between 2012 and 2021, Everytown reported. This mirrors an overall increase in firearm deaths in the United States, a country where there are more guns than people and where gun violence has been the leading cause of death for children and teenagers since 2020.
“The public health disaster of gun violence is largely unique to this country,” said state Rep. Dan Frankel, the co-chair of Pennsylvania’s SAFE Caucus, which advocates for gun safety legislation. “Weapons have gotten more deadly and easier to obtain.”
A number of the Democratic lawmakers and gun safety advocates who spoke during the press conference noted that the majority of Pennsylvanians support expanded universal background checks and extreme risk protection orders. Polling from 2022 showed 95% of Pennsylvania voters backed universal background checks and 86% support so-called “red flag” laws – also known as extreme risk protection order legislation.
That broad support, Democratic lawmakers and advocates said, could translate to trouble for state Republicans in upcoming elections. Democrats currently control Pennsylvania’s governorship and have a one-seat majority in the state House. Republicans hold a 28-22 majority in the state Senate. The last time Democrats controlled the Pennsylvania Senate was in 1993.
“Read the polling on this,” state Sen. Anthony Williams said at the press conference. “Democrat, Republican, rural, urban, suburban, support practical considerations as it relates to public safety and guns.”
“We’re not begging; we’re asking,” Williams continued, referring to the Senate acting on the legislation. “But be very clear: The next election cycle, the public will be demanding.”
Gary Perecko, a hunter and gun safety instructor from Harrisburg, is one of those members of the public demanding change.
“I’m proud to tell you I am a responsible gun owner,” Perecko said. “I’m a hunter. I’m an instructor for gun safety. And I believe every gun, every gun that I purchase or anyone purchases, regardless of the seller, deserves a full and complete background check.”
Perecko called on the senator who represents his area, Republican Sen. John DiSanto, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lisa Baker to act on the gun safety legislation.
“As a constituent of Sen. DiSanto, I implore Chairwoman Baker, the senators and others in legislative leadership to stop avoiding the action on the gun violence devastating our communities,” Perecko said. “We need them to hold the hearing immediately on these bills and then a vote. The time is here, and the time is now for action.”
However, this action, Rep. Napoleon Nelson said, cannot be the “thoughts and prayers” that Republican legislators so often cite following mass shootings.
“For far too long in Pennsylvania, gun violence has been met with the same, I’ll call it tired, partisan playbook,” said Nelson, chairman of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus. “Republicans in this building have consistently offered thoughts and prayers. They’ve consistently talked about how we need to make sure we have more guns in the hands of responsible gun owners, and that would be our solution to addressing gun violence. It’s a pretty tired partisan playbook.”
The GOP’s refusal to regulate firearms, Democratic lawmakers said, has caused communities to be ripped apart by violence, doctors to tend to wave after wave of bullet wounds, and parents to be terrified to send their children to schools in the wake of seemingly never-ending mass shootings.
Democratic lawmakers and gun safety advocates on Monday installed a clock in the Capitol that displays the number of days since the House sent the gun safety bills to the Senate as a reminder of the GOP’s inaction. The clock will remain in the Capitol until action is taken by the Senate, according to CeaseFirePA.