While COVID cases in both Dauphin and Lebanon counties have increased, Reps. Andrew Lewis, Susan Helm, and other Republicans pushed to end Gov. Wolf’s disaster emergency declaration and reopen widely.
As Central Pennsylvania’s coronavirus crisis worsens, the region’s Republican representatives passed legislation last week making it easier to obtain and openly carry guns during a disaster emergency declaration—a move that gun safety advocates say makes communities less safe and distracts from the current public health crisis.
The effort came just two days before Pennsylvania recorded 600 new coronavirus cases on Friday, the largest one-day increase in two weeks. The state’s seven-day average of new cases has been climbing, which is attributable to both an increase in testing and a higher percentage of positive tests. The uptick in positive cases is particularly alarming in Central Pennsylvania.
Dauphin County currently has the second highest rate of new cases in the state per capita, and the highest positive test rate in the state, with 7.7% of tests coming back positive between June 22-28, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Neighboring Lebanon County is doing slightly better with 5.7% of tests coming back positive over the past week, a huge improvement over the 8% positivity rate the week prior.
But both counties’ rates are still far above the statewide rate of 4% and do not meet what is considered to be one of the basic criteria for a safe reopening: a positive test rate of 5% or less.
While the outbreaks in both counties have gotten worse, Rep. Andrew Lewis (who represents Dauphin County) and Rep. Susan Helm (who represents part of Dauphin County and Lebanon County) have pushed to end Gov. Tom Wolf’s disaster emergency declaration and reopen widely. (Their efforts were blocked by the state Supreme Court Wednesday, a move Lewis called “absolutely inconceivable.”)
Currently, Lebanon remains the only county in the entire state to be stuck in Gov. Tom Wolf’s yellow phase for reopening. (That changes Friday when it enters the green phase.) Last month, however, Helm joined three fellow lawmakers representing the county to issue a letter encouraging residents to ignore the Wolf administration’s reopening guidelines.
“As far as we are concerned the governor has lost all credibility regarding every aspect of his shutdown, and deserves only to be ignored. Lebanon Countians, and Pennsylvanians as a whole, should treat this edict with the same respect that he has treated all of us, absolutely none,” the letter concluded.
Most recently, Helm and Lewis also joined their Republican colleagues in voting to limit Gov. Wolf’s emergency powers to restrict the sale and carrying of guns during disaster emergency declarations, 127-74.
The bill, which is now being considered by the state Senate, would reverse a ban that currently prevents Pennsylvanians from openly carrying a gun during a disaster emergency declaration unless they have a contained carry license, are exempt from having such a license, or are defending their life or property. Under current law, police officers can take away someone’s firearm if they’re caught in defiance of the emergency order.
The bill would also revise the state’s disaster emergency law, eliminating guns from a list of items or activities that the governor can restrict, making it impossible for Gov. Wolf or future governors to close gun shops during a disaster emergency—which Wolf did for a brief time in March during the early weeks of the pandemic.
In voting for the bill, Republicans cited the constitutional right to keep and bear arms. Lewis and Helm have both fashioned themselves as Second Amendment advocates, so neither of their votes was a surprise. Both members have received “red” grades from CeaseFirePA, a gun safety group, for their votes against gun violence prevention policies. “Regardless of their rationale, they consistently ignore those clamoring for better gun laws and vote the way the NRA asks them to,” the group said of its red grade recipients on its website.
Adam Garber, executive director of CeaseFirePA, opposed the bill, saying it would make people less safe during a pandemic and during instances of civil unrest, like the ones that have occurred in recent weeks following the police killing of George Floyd.
“During emergencies, police officers need numerous tools to prevent situations from escalating,” Garber said. “We’ve seen people wielding guns while they threaten protesters or defend statues, taking a potentially unsafe situation to a deadly one, and so giving law enforcement the ability to de-escalate and remove guns from those situations during an emergency—when temperatures can be running high—will help keep communities safer.”
Garber argued that giving the governor the ability to shut down gun stores was critical for public safety. He pointed to a new study of first-time gun buyers published in The New England Journal of Medicine, which found that men and women who owned handguns were far more likely to commit suicide than those who didn’t own a firearm. This statistic is particularly alarming to Garber because of the recent uptick in gun sales during the pandemic.
“We saw a huge spike in gun sales during the coronavirus pandemic and that puts people’s lives at risk … when a gun is present, often people are less safe,” Garber said. “I think that we should be focusing on addressing the emergency we’re facing, i.e., the pandemic, instead of looking at ways to actually add more danger to these situations.”