Pennsylvania soon could become the 40 th state to adopt new gun laws in the wake of the Valentine’s Day slayings at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
On Wednesday, state House members voted 131-62 to pass a bill that would require defendants issued a final order in protection-from-abuse cases to surrender all firearms within 24 hours. Current law leaves it to the discretion of judges to invoke such requirements. It gives those facing such orders two months to comply and offers them the option of surrendering their firearms to a friend or relative.
The new legislation that domestic violence and gun safety groups supported would require that firearms be surrendered to law enforcement agencies or a licensed gun dealer.
The vote came one week after 62-year-old Joseph A. Dowdell, a Fayette County man who had been permitted to keep his firearms despite a protection from abuse order, stormed into a district justice’s office in Masontown and opened fire. He injured four people before he was shot and killed by a police officer.
Domestic violence prevention groups, gun control advocates and the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association all applauded passage of the bill that would have required an individual in Dowdell’s position to surrender his weapons.
Advocates said such legislation would break longstanding gridlock surrounding gun safety measures in Pennsylvania.
“We’re hoping that the Senate takes this up as soon as possible and passes it and that the governor signs it. Lives need to be saved,” said Rob Conroy of CeaseFire PA, an advocacy group that pushes for tougher gun restrictions.
According to the Associated Press, 39 other states have passed bills to expand or restrict gun rights in the seven months since the Parkland school shooting that left 17 students and teachers dead and 17 more wounded.
Four state legislatures were not in session this year: Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Texas. The remaining seven states, including Pennsylvania, had passed no new gun laws as of Wednesday.
Florida lawmakers found themselves besieged by survivors of the Valentine’s Day slayings and were among the most active on the gun control front. They raised the minimum age for purchasing firearms from 18 to 21, imposed a 3-day waiting period for gun purchases and created a new Office of Safe Schools.
While several states expanded the definition of who can carry a firearm and where they may be carried, the AP survey found nine states banned bump stocks — the devices the Las Vegas gunman used to convert his weapons to rapid fire capability. Eight states adopted red flag , or extreme risk, laws that allow judges to seize the weapons of those deemed dangerous.
In Pennsylvania, a red flag proposal stalled in the legislature, despite Gov. Tom Wolf’s calls for such a law.
Although the bill imposing new requirements on defendants in PFA and domestic abuse cases passed the House by 2-1 margin, all of Westmoreland County’s lawmakers were among the 62 who voted no. That includes Reps. George Dunbar, R-Penn Township; Joe Petrarca, D-Vandergrift; Eric Nelson, R-Hempfield; Mike Reese, R-Mt. Pleasant Twp.; and Justin Walsh, R-Rostraver.
Nelson said he had reservations about the bill. One concern is that it did not define weapons. Another was that a police officer falsely accused but who had a PFA issued against him or her would automatically lose their ability to carry a firearm, which could lead to them losing their job, he said.
“Removing a judge’s ability to make a decision after hearing all the facts is dangerously counterproductive to public safety,” Nelson said. “In substance, it’s a good bill. I hope the Senate will correct that, send it back and we’ll be able to support it.”
The bill now goes to the Senate, which previously passed a similar bill unanimously. Senate spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said the Senate expects to bring it up for consideration soon.
The bill was among a package of legislation Wolf urged lawmakers to send to his desk this year. The Senate reconvenes Monday and will have seven session days left before Nov. 14.