Gun Control Debate Comes out of the closet in PA Politics

So where does Tom Corbett stand?

When two Western Pennsylvania politicians running for governor squabble over who has a better record on gun control, you don’t have to be a political scientist to know that change is in the air.

But that’s what happened during the campaign when Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, touting his high score from CeaseFirePA, a statewide organization fighting for common sense gun safeguards, and State Auditor Jack Wagner tussled over who had the better record on banning assault weapons while serving on Pittsburgh City Council.

Two and a half years ago, I actually visited Onorato, now the Democratic candidate, in his Pittsburgh office in my capacity as president of the board of CeaseFirePA to take his pulse on the gun issue. I walked away non-plussed by his lack of commitment, and his calling some of our suggestions “feel good” legislation.

By the end of his winning campaign, however, Onorato’s television ads were touting his support for many CeaseFirePA reforms and the high grade he received from our organization. And, in fact, he did receive a high grade—a B+ to be exact—based on his answers to our questionnaire that we released in our “Voters Guide, Where do the Candidates Stand on Gun Violence.”

It was actually Sen. Anthony Williams—who earned an A minus—who first took to the airwaves talking about common sense gun reforms.

With all the ads flooding the airwaves positively mentioning gun reform, it’s safe to say the third rail in Pennsylvania politics—so-called gun control—has come out of the closet.

It’s not surprising given what public opinion polls have revealed. The vast majority of Pennsylvanians favor common sense gun safeguards to help reduce gun violence. In fact, over 90 percent of respondents agree that people should tell the police if their guns have been lost or stolen.

Legislation on reporting lost and stolen guns is a no-brainer. Except to the NRA, which has been fighting us at every turn—and losing—as CeaseFirePA has gone from town to town throughout the state getting local officials to pass such a law.

Action has been taken not only in urban areas like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Erie, Allentown, Harrisburg, York, Lancaster and Reading, but in 32 smaller towns from east to west, many you’ve never heard of like Wilson, Catasauqua, Duquesne, Homestead, Liberty, Munhall, Oxford, Clairton. So much for the argument that gun violence only affects Philadelphia. In one Western Pennsylvania town, the vigilantes came to the Council meeting packing heat on their hips to intimidate the public officials. Undeterred Council voted 6-1 in favor of requiring the reporting of lost and stolen guns to law enforcement officials.

The gubernatorial campaign simply reflected the polls and the voices of small towns throughout the commonwealth. It’s safe to talk about unsafe guns.

Of course, not everyone understood that. Sen. Arlen Specter ran last-minute ads in selected markets reminding voters that Rep. Joe Sestak received an F rating from the NRA and voted to ban assault weapons. Regardless, people voted for change; in with the new, out with the old.

And Tom Corbett, the state’s top law enforcement official and now the standard bearer for the Republicans in the general election for governor, thumbed his nose at the CeaseFirePA questionnaire and earned an F for not sharing his opinions with the voters.

Granted, the NRA remains a major player in the state but let’s not forget that they threw lots of money into Pennsylvania during the 2008 presidential race trying to defeat Barack Obama. He won the state by double digits. It tried to dethrone Western Pennsylvania Rep. Dave Levdansky, a hunter and NRA member, who had the courage to support the common sense lost and stolen measure in Harrisburg. He won; the NRA lost. And it lost when it tried to intimidate Pennsylvania mayors who joined Pennsylvania Mayors Against Illegal Guns. More mayors, not fewer, joined the fight.

One of the lessons from Tuesday’s election is that the time has come in Pennsylvania for a rational debate on how to stem the easy access to guns, divorced of strong-arm tactics and hysteria about loss of freedom.

It’s time to recognize what the U.S. Supreme Court said in its landmark 2008 ruling recognizing that the Second Amendment grants the right to bare arms to individuals. “The right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited … not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority.

It’s not a fight between two extremes: guns everywhere or no guns at all. But rather where, when, how and by whom they can be used.

With his primary victory on Tuesday, it’s time for Tom Corbett to share with the voters where he stands. We would be glad to give him another grade.