If almost everyone wants more regulation of guns, why is it so difficult to get that passed? That question was posed during a meeting of Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence by a woman skeptical of extremely high polling results for certain gun control measures in Pennsylvania.
Dana Kellerman, policy director with the anti-gun violence group, responded by explaining the overwhelming power of organizations like the National Rifle Association, which dumps millions of dollars every year lobbying politicians. Gun control legislation proves one of the most difficult political fights across the country, but that doesn’t deter impassioned activists. It takes strategizing.
The Squirrel Hill group, joined by state Rep. Arvind Venkat, D-McCandless, hosted a meeting Wednesday evening focused on practical actions gun regulation advocates can take, including workshops for writing letters to local representatives and newspapers.
The specter of the antisemitic mass shooting at a Squirrel Hill synagogue, in which a gunman killed 11 members of the Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light congregations in 2018, loomed over the meeting. The anti-gun violence group formed in the wake of the shooting, and late April began jury selection in the trial of the accused shooter.
Hadley Haas of Pittsburgh Moms Demand Action joined Kellerman and Venkat on a panel at the meeting, which drew about 30 people at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Squirrel Hill North. The three walked through data as well as their experiences and recommendations for advocating for Pennsylvania gun control laws before taking questions and then breaking into letter writing workshop groups.
The group outlined The Common Agenda to End Gun Violence, a collection of four bills developed by CeaseFirePA, an organization formed in 2002 that combats gun violence. Representatives introduced each of these bills in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on May 3:
- HB 1018 would enact Extreme Risk Protection Orders, known as red flag laws, which would give residents a mechanism to petition a judge to take away guns from a family member who is likely to harm themselves or others.
- HB 731 would mandate safe storage of guns not in use in homes.
- HB 714 would introduce universal background checks for all gun purchases.
- HB 338 would require gun owners to report lost or stolen guns.
Kellerman said polls show these measures to be popular among Pennsylvanian voters. For example, a poll released in June of 2022 by Third Way and GS Strategy Group found majority support for policy proposals such as red flag laws and universal background checks.
Absent from the package of bills are more controversial proposals like an assault weapons ban.
Venkat spoke about his experience prior to politics as a physician at Allegheny General Hospital, where he primarily worked in the emergency room..
“I’ve personally treated a toddler who found his parents’ gun and accidentally shot himself and died in my emergency department,” Venkat said. “And we in emergency medicine tend to be a pretty hardened group, but there were tears flowing that day while we were caring for that child and in subsequent hours, just because it’s something that haunts you.”
Venkat urged advocates to make support for gun control measures a requirement for their votes.
“That is the way that we get this legislation across the finish line,” Venkat said.
He said he believes there is significant momentum for getting the bills passed in the House and pointed to a May 16 special election in a House district representing Delaware County.
The outcome could flip House control from Democrats to Republicans. GOP lawmakers have publicly opposed new gun restrictions, arguing that they restrict an important freedom to bear and use guns and infringe on the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment.
“That is a critical race for ensuring that we have a gun safety majority in the state House, because if that race goes the wrong way, then the legislation may not even come up for a vote,” Venkat said.
Kellerman split the audience into two groups, one focused on workshops for writing letters to representatives and the other on writing letters to newspapers. About six people joined each group and received paper, envelopes, stamps and tips for writing the letters.
Richard Edgecombe, a 74-year-old Fox Chapel resident, wrote a letter to his representative, Mandy Steele. Though Edgecombe is a member of the Fox Chapel Democratic Committee and thus no stranger to political advocacy, this represented the first time he wrote a letter to a representative, he told PublicSource. He imagines Steele will be supportive of these bills.
“Mandy’s gonna get a kick out of this, because this is the first time I’ve ever written about anything because usually I just talk to her,” Edgecombe said. “But I’m doing it for the sake of practice.”
Edgecombe has long followed the gun violence issue and raised the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United, often credited for opening the United States political system to the significant influence of lobbying money, as the reason fighting for gun control proves so difficult.
“The history of gun violence in this country is preposterous,” Edgecombe said.
Matt Petras is a freelance reporter and adjunct professor based in the Pittsburgh area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mattApetras.
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