NE lawmakers applaud closing loophole

Some antique guns hand crafted in the late 19th century at the Philadelphia Gun Show on Saturday, January 26, 2013. (Maria Pouchnikova)

State lawmakers from the Northeast are unanimous in support of state Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s move last week to close the so-called Florida loophole.

The loophole enabled Pennsylvania resident gun owners to circumvent the state’s concealed-carry permit process by obtaining less-stringent mail-order permits from Florida.

Kane announced on Friday that she had reworked Pennsylvania’s “firearm reciprocity agreement” with Florida so that Pennsylvania residents who hold Florida gun permits — but do not hold permits issued by their home state — will not be able to carry concealed handguns legally in public in Pennsylvania.

About 4,000 Pennsylvania residents, 900 of whom reside in Philadelphia, hold Florida concealed-carry permits but do not have Pennsylvania permits, said Kane, who used her administrative powers to make the policy change just 24 days into her first term in office.

Kane, a Democrat from Lackawanna County, is the first member of her party to hold the attorney general’s office and the first woman elected to that office.

Eight Northeast Philadelphia-based state lawmakers contacted by the Times, including the area’s lone Republican, consider Kane’s move a wise one, although they maintain sometimes divergent individual views of the broader gun control issue.

“It remains to be seen how effectively it’s going to work,” said Sen. Mike Stack (D-5th dist.), who holds a Pennsylvania concealed-carry permit.

During Friday’s news conference, Kane and Mayor Michael Nutter framed the policy change as a public safety measure, noting that one Florida permit-holder now faces murder charges here in the 2010 shooting death of a suspected thief, while other Florida permit-holders are suspected drug dealers.

Some local lawmakers view the measure as more symbolic than substantive.

“It’s a small measure. I don’t think it’s going to drastically affect violence in Philadelphia. But if it saves one life, it’s worth it,” said Rep. Kevin Boyle (D-172nd dist.).

“It will at least bring the crime down somewhat,” said Rep. James Clay (D-179th dist.). “[But] it’s not the people with legitimate guns, it’s the people with the street guns who are destroying the neighborhood.”

Under the new policy, Florida permit-holders will have until June 8 to obtain Pennsylvania permits. After that, Pennsylvania authorities will not recognize Florida permits. The new policy has dispensations for permit-holders with dual residency.

Pennsylvania has reciprocity agreements with other states, but Florida had become the most common source for out-of-state concealed-carry permits, Kane said. The attorney general did not detail any policy changes regarding other states.

State Rep. John Taylor (R-177th dist.), the lone Republican among Philadelphia’s House contingent, blamed city officials in part for causing permit applicants to look elsewhere in the first place. In Pennsylvania, local authorities oversee the permitting process. In Philadelphia, authorities have made it harder to get a permit than it is in other counties, Taylor contends.

“We want to make sure the ability to get a permit is not any more onerous in Philadelphia than it is in any other county,” Taylor said.

Yet, he acknowledged more could be done in the effort to reduce gun violence.

“It’s an open dialogue in the legislature. I think there’s a lot of common sense things we can do,” said Taylor, who proposes mandatory prison time for those who carry guns without required permits.

Stack proposes tougher background checks with more thorough mental health evaluations, along with tougher penalties against those who sell or transfer guns illegally, also known as “straw purchasers.”

State Rep. John Sabatina Jr. (D-174th dist.) is a former city prosecutor and supports mandatory reporting for lost or stolen guns so that a legal gun owner should have to account for his or her missing gun.

“I think the lowest-hanging fruit is the lost and stolen gun legislation,” Sabatina said. “From my experience in the DA’s office, that’s the excuse the straw purchasers use: ‘It was stolen five years ago.’ ”

Rep. Ed Neilson (D-169th dist.) knows many law-abiding gun owners in his district who fear they might have to sacrifice their weapons under proposed laws.

“People are afraid of losing their guns,” Neilson said. “They support the Second Amendment but they’re for some change. A lot of laws are outdated and have to be brought up to the times. Nobody’s going to take your guns. I’m a gun owner and it’s not about that.”

Neilson would like to see more public investment in mental health and anti-violence programs.

“We have to be realistic. This isn’t a panacea that’s going to solve all of our problems,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-170th dist.). “It’s a small step in the right direction.”

Lawmakers from the Northeast also recognize that statewide politics make any gun control legislation a tough sell in Harrisburg. Kane’s measure didn’t require the support of lawmakers or Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, but others probably will.

“It is still a tremendously uphill battle to get anything done through the Pennsylvania legislature,” said Rep. Mark Cohen (D-202nd dist.), who was first elected in 1974 and is the longest-serving House member or senator in Harrisburg.

“I’m not sure what else the AG’s office can do and I don’t know what the legislature can do because of [its] composition, the rural legislators from both parties. The problem of getting these [gun control measures] through has not been with the Philadelphia delegation.”

“I think people in the Northeast want sensible gun control,” Stack said. “For the other side, ‘gun control’ is a dirty word.” ••

Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215–354–3031 or wkenny@bsmphilly.com