The importance of open debate, especially with legislation that deals with gun laws and public safety

Freedom has three dimensions. Our Constitution is not a flat, lifeless piece of paper. It is a document that we have interpreted for more than 230 years. This week in Harrisburg, we are discussing the Constitutional right to carry a concealed, loaded weapon anywhere – without any accountability to fellow citizens – Senate Bill 565. Some people call this “Constitutional carry” and others call it “permitless carry.”  I believe the key difference is whether you have a flat, one dimensional view of the Constitution, or you can see all three elements of true freedom: individual liberty, equality, and accountability.

This is a complicated issue. No matter which side of the issue you are on we all agree on that. We should have a debate, hear from all the different sides – people who feel safer with guns in their community and those who see guns as dangerous, fueling rises in suicide deaths and violence in our streets. In Harrisburg, that debate was cut short when the Republican supporters of SB565 moved to table all of the Democratic amendments to the bill. This means that no one was able to talk about what those amendments would do to make the bill better, to improve and balance the individual liberty to own a gun with the right to public safety.

How we can we give life to the words of the Second Amendment? It reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” It is not an individual right, but rather one that is given to all of “the people.” The goal is “security of a free state.” To reach that goal it is necessary to have “a well regulated militia.” All of these words give shape and form to the final “shall not be infringed,” language – they provide the limitations on the right.

I, and my colleagues who proposed amendments to SB565, only wanted to have a discussion on the Floor of the House – the People’s House – about the limits on the individual right. But we were shut down. By closing debate, the Speaker of the House, Bryan Cutler, silenced our voices and the voices our constituents. We were left to talk about the fact that we were being silenced – but never got to talk about the amendments themselves. Debate on these issues is necessary and, as I said on the Floor, “We owe that the citizens of this Commonwealth if we are to call ourselves representatives of the people, and a true democracy.”

The amendments that never got to see the light of day were good policy. Extreme Risk Protection Orders would temporarily prevent people in mental health crisis or domestic who are a danger to themselves or others, from having a gun. Safe storage of firearms makes sense to keep guns out of the hands of children. Waiting periods and backgrounds checks keep people who shouldn’t have guns from obtaining them. Requiring firearm safety courses should be a no brainer, but we never got to talk about this simple measure. Prohibiting people on terrorist no-fly lists would also keep us safer. These are the type of reasonable limitations to one right (gun ownership) that help other rights (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) to be fully enjoyed. They represent that third dimension of freedom – a system of accountability to each other.

Experiences in other states make it clear that repealing the basic permit requirement will make Pennsylvanians less safe. Under existing law, law enforcement can run more extensive background checks and evaluate the character and reputation of concealed carry applicants. This can include looking at whether they are involved in potential criminal activity, whether or not they have a disqualifying felony on the record, or if they have other concerning indicators such as domestic violence or substance abuse. Arizona experienced a 44% increase in aggravated assaults committed with a firearm in the six years after enacting permitless carry in 2010. 

The legislation would also lower the age for concealed carry from 21 to 18, posing additional risk for suicide and violence. After Missouri lowered the minimum age to 19 for concealed carry, firearm suicide increased 7.2% among people aged 19 to 24. 

Additionally, the current concealed carry permit process does not in any way inhibit the rights of  Pennsylvanians whom law enforcement deem able to responsibly carry a concealed weapon. In 2020, Sheriff's departments and the City of Philadelphia issued 311,000 concealed carry permits  a 25% increase from the previous year. Franklin County, for instance, saw a 42% increase in permit requests and expects permits to continue to rise. Other areas are making it easier to apply for permits by implementing an online application system.

This is not a partisan issue. Law enforcement organizations like the PA Police Chiefs Association and PA District Attorneys Association oppose this policy because they know the danger of removing existing safeguards that allow law enforcement to ensure concealed firearm carriers act in a manner that does not endanger public safety.

I believe this bill creates a fictional problem that requiring concealed carry permits undermines Second Amendment rights. In fact, taking away the reasonable requirement that gunowners have concealed carry permits will undermine public safety and make it harder for law enforcement to reduce crime. Current state law often represents the only mechanism for police to seize illegal guns. If this legislation passes, illegal guns can and will remain in the hands of those who contribute to this gun violence epidemic. It will also lead to increased deaths by suicide. These are the reasons I oppose SB565.