Pennsylvania House Approves Universal Background Checks and ‘Red Flag’ Laws to Combat Gun Violence

Rep. Jen O’Mara (D-Delaware) speaks in front of the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg on May 22, 2023. (Photo: Sean Kitchen)

By Sean Kitchen

May 23, 2023

The Pennsylvania House voted on three gun safety bills with mixed results Monday. Two bills pertaining to extreme risk protection orders and universal background checks passed the chamber while a bill combating straw purchases failed to pass.

The Pennsylvania House passed two gun safety bills on Monday, the first major legislative effort to tackle gun violence in Pennsylvania in decades. 

The first bill would establish universal background checks on all gun sales, in an effort to close a loophole that allows private sellers to sell firearms, including at gun shows, without a federal background check. House Bill 714 passed the House with some Republican support by a 109 to 92 vote. 

The second bill, from Rep. Jen O’Mara (D-Delaware), would create extreme risk protection orders (also known as “red flag laws”) in Pennsylvania, allowing family members or law enforcement to apply for an order through the courts that would temporarily take firearms from someone who is deemed a threat to themselves or someone else. 

House Bill 1018 passed the House in a 102-99 vote, as Republican Reps. K.C. Tomlinson (R-Bucks) and Joe Hogan (R-Bucks) joined 100 Democrats to vote in favor of the bill. 

Both bills now head to the state Senate.

A third bill requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen guns failed to pass the chamber in a 100-101 vote. House Bill 338 also sought to reduce the number of straw purchases, which occurs when a person who is legally allowed to buy a gun purchases a gun and sells it to someone who is unable to own a gun.

Rep. Frank Burns (D-Cambria) was the only Democrat to vote against all three gun related bills.   

A fourth bill requiring firearms to be sold with a locking mechanism did not come up for a vote.  

Debate began on Monday with O’Mara’s legislation.

She used the time to speak about her father, who passed away by suicide, and how his death motivated her to introduce the bill.

“As a 13-year-old kid, losing my dad to suicide fundamentally changed my life. I hid that story from others for a long time out of shame, because of the persistence of the mental health stigma,” O’Mara said. “Addressing gun violence and mental health problems head on like this bill does can help ensure that another kid doesn’t have to grow up the way that I did.”    

Prior to Monday’s debate, volunteers from Ceasefire PA and Moms Demand Action members rallied on the Pennsylvania Capitol Steps Monday as House Democrats prepared to pass the gun safety measures.

Speakers at the rally included legislators and community members whose lives were impacted by gun violence. Gina Pelusi, a communications professional from Pittsburgh, emceed the rally and shared how she lost her mother, Ruthanne Lodato, in 2014 in a random shooting.  

Lodato, a music teacher, was murdered in the doorway of her home after she opened the door for a stranger. The person who committed the shooting was a convicted felon who shouldn’t have had access to a gun.  

Pelusi told the crowd that she “shares her story and advocates for gun safety legislation so that no other family has to experience what my family has and to give my mom and all survivors a voice.”   

Pelsui explained that the gun used in her mom’s shooting was purchased by the girlfriend of the shooter in the weeks prior to the incident, but went missing following the murder, leaving no way to prove the gun was a straw purchase, even though the ammunition recovered from the crime scene was similar to the ammunition used by the missing gun.  

Terrance Slade, a Linglestown resident who lost his son, Teddy Slade, to a straw purchase on October 10, 2013, was also in attendance. Slade began advocating for gun safety measures a year prior to his son’s death and explained how his soul was eviscerated on that fateful day.  

“I live with the pain and heartache everyday,” Slade said. “Although I can’t bring him back and understand that, I can fight to save another parent from going through the hell I lived in.”   

Following Monday’s vote, Pelusi expressed mixed emotions. She described the passing of the extreme risk protection bill and the background checks as historic and the type of progress not seen in Pennsylvania in decades.    

Pelsu was disappointed that HB 338 (the straw purchase bill) failed, and believes Republicans’ rhetoric may have had something to do with it. 

“The narrative that they were trying to push  was that this is putting more responsibility on and infringing in some way more on the gun owner, and that is the way it was positioned I feel like by the Republicans yesterday,” she said.  “When most people I think would have looked at that and thought this is common sense, and I was very surprised it didn’t pass.”

Author

  • Sean Kitchen

    Sean Kitchen is the Keystone’s political correspondent, based in Harrisburg. Sean is originally from Philadelphia and spent five years working as a writer and researcher for Pennsylvania Spotlight.

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