On Monday, President Joe Biden commemorated the passage of a bill designed to reduce national gun violence by incentivizing states to pass stricter gun laws, making it harder for people convicted of domestic violence to purchase a gun, and tightening the review process for gun purchasers under the age of 21. “What we’re doing here today is real, it’s vivid, it’s relevant,” Biden said. “It’s proof that despite the naysayers, we can make meaningful progress on dealing with gun violence.”
“You have to do more,” interrupted attendee Manuel Oliver, whose son was killed in the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. Oliver later told the press that he was frustrated with the fanfare over limited legislation that would fail to eradicate the epidemic of gun violence, a deadly problem felt nationwide.
And sure enough, gun violence is everywhere: In Philadelphia, where a shooter opened fire on the Fourth of July, the gunfire hardly made the news — overshadowed by a deadly mass shooting the same day in Highland Park, Illinois. (No one died in the Philadelphia shooting, although two police officers said they sustained minor injuries.) For Pennsylvania lawmakers, it was one of many opportunities to lament gun crimes in Philadelphia, which saw a record number of homicides last year, with 562 people killed. But despite their rhetoric, Pennsylvania legislators have gone out of their way to avoid addressing the issue. Instead, they’re considering legislation that would weaken gun laws, despite Biden’s state-directed incentives.
Republicans in control of both chambers of the Pennsylvania General Assembly have gutted a gun control bill, inserting language that would allow people without permits to carry concealed weapons. (Last year, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed a bill with similar language.) At the same time, they have advanced legislation to restrict the ability of Philadelphia’s district attorney, Larry Krasner, to prosecute certain gun crimes and crimes on public transit. In June, just seven months after Krasner was reelected with 70 percent of the vote, they launched an effort to impeach him. If that fails, another bill would limit him to two terms in office.
On Friday, more than 25 legal advocacy and criminal justice reform groups wrote an open letter to Pennsylvania House leadership stating their opposition to the efforts to undermine Krasner. “At this moment, it is imperative that we do not waste time on a disingenuous endeavor to impeach a democratically-elected district attorney. The legislature has an opportunity to declare gun violence a public health crisis and move to enact legislation that addresses the structural and systemic inequities at the heart of that crisis,” the letter reads. “In fact, at the very moment intentions to impeach were being announced, the legislature voted down a slate of bills that sought to address gun violence.”
“The impeachment is a circus. It’s just an election-year ploy.”
The focus in Harrisburg on Krasner’s office is an attack on democracy and the rights of Black and brown voters in Philadelphia, said Robert Saleem Holbrook, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, a public interest law firm that was one of the signatories on Friday’s letter.
“The impeachment is a circus. It’s just an election-year ploy,” Holbrook said. “It’s a way for Republicans to try to galvanize their base to create an issue to bring their people out for the gubernatorial election. I normally wouldn’t give much stock to such a circus, except for the fact that it’s also about democracy and agency of Black and brown Philadelphians and Philadelphians in general, who in 2021 elected Krasner overwhelmingly to a second term.”
Philadelphia is the only county in the state where a person risks catching a felony on an otherwise clean record for carrying a firearm without a license; in other counties, such an offense would generally be prosecuted as a misdemeanor. Krasner’s office has dismissed some gun cases to avoid saddling people with felonies, Holbrook said.
“They don’t care about Black and brown Philadelphians,” Holbrook said of the legislators fighting Krasner. “If that was the case, they would do more to stop straw purchases. … What they care about is turning Philadelphia back into the mass incarceration machine of the state.”
Just days after three Republican state representatives announced that they were seeking support for articles of impeachment against Krasner, two of those same Republicans, Reps. Joshua Kail and Torren Ecker, voted in the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee to gut a gun control bill and allow for the carrying of permitless and concealed handguns. State Rep. Todd Stephens was the only Republican to vote against gutting the measure. A week later, Kail was the primary sponsor of a resolution to establish a committee to investigate Krasner. Kail, Ecker, and Stephens were part of a bipartisan group of state representatives who voted to pass the resolution.
Some Republicans, particularly in rural areas, don’t realize the impact of gun violence in their communities, Stephens told The Intercept. “For a lot of my colleagues, they don’t see gun violence affecting their communities on a daily basis the way many others do,” he said. “I wish that there were a greater awareness about the gun deaths that are occurring in rural Pennsylvania so that it might become a greater priority for those representatives representing those communities.” Stephens added that he supports red-flag laws as well as comprehensive and universal background checks.
“I think there’s a general misunderstanding about how gun violence impacts rural Pennsylvania,” Stephens said, pointing out that suicides make up a majority of all gun deaths in the state, and particularly in rural Pennsylvania. “Suicide is not something that’s carried in the mainstream media, it’s not something that’s readily discussed throughout our community.”
While mass media and politicians focus on violence in urban centers, murder rates have soared in rural America. A study last summer showed that suicides in rural parts of Pennsylvania were on the rise and that there were more handgun sales per every 1,000 residents in rural areas than in urban areas.
Kail said that Pennsylvania already has strict gun laws, and “you could pass all the laws you want,” but challenged, with respect to Philadelphia, “What good does a law do if you don’t have district attorneys who are willing to enforce them?” Asked about gun deaths in rural areas, Kail said that if there was a specific instance of a DA in a rural area “not enforcing laws on the books,” he’d be happy to look into it, but “the lives that are being lost, the situations have come out of Philadelphia.”
The recent moves are just the latest in a yearslong attempt by Pennsylvania lawmakers to chip away at Krasner’s power. In 2019, the General Assembly quietly passed a bill to take away Krasner’s authority to prosecute certain firearms violations in the city and instead gave that ability to the state’s attorney general. Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is currently running for governor, said he would support a repeal of the controversial law after pressure from advocates at that year’s Netroots Nation conference in Philadelphia. The law was set to expire at the end of Krasner’s first term, but the General Assembly quickly took up an extension.
The trend isn’t unique to Pennsylvania. Federal lawmakers have also turned away from the gun crisis plaguing the country in favor of piecemeal legislation whose impacts amount to little more than posturing and pushing more funding toward police, who have repeatedly failed to stop mass shootings — and in some cases, even made them worse.
National Democrats need to win a Senate seat in Pennsylvania in November in order to have any chance to pass meaningful legislation before the end of Biden’s first term in office. But lawmakers in the party aren’t treating the remaining four months until the 2022 midterm elections with a commensurate sense of urgency, said state Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, who represents South Philadelphia. Fiedler is one of several progressive lawmakers elected in recent years who has come under attacks similar to those levied against Krasner for her support for popular criminal justice reforms.
Disappointment with Biden at the national level is also prevalent at the state and local level, Fiedler said. Philadelphians were critical to helping Biden win the state in 2020, four years after former President Donald Trump flipped Pennsylvania red for the first time in three decades. Since then, Democrats across the state have lost control of the narrative and instead let it be dictated by Republicans, who in turn have used their control of the state legislature to target Krasner and pass little else.
Things that Biden promised to those voters — taxing the wealthy, eliminating student loan debt, and passing a robust agenda to combat the climate crisis — have slid “so far off the radar,” according to Fiedler. Democrats in the state just voted to cut Pennsylvania’s corporate tax rate significantly over the next decade, a policy that voters in the state overwhelmingly oppose. A bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by progressive officials, just passed a major home repair assistance bill, but party leaders continue to blame progressives for thinning margins in both chambers.
“It does not feel like the path to building a stronger party,” Fiedler said. “There is a path to victory for Democrats locally and nationally, but it has to include an emphasis on taxing the super rich to invest in things a majority care about including care and climate.” But the legislature’s current focus is elsewhere.