Does Pennsylvania need more gun laws or better enforcement?

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Every year, the call for gun control can be heard echoing through the halls of the state Capitol.

CeaseFire PA is one of the groups pushing for gun control laws in Pennsylvania.

“We can’t demonize guns, but nor can we treat it as hands off because of the Second Amendment,” executive director Shira Goodman said.

On the other side of the issue are groups like U.S. Law Shield, a membership-driven organization that caters to and provides legal counsel for law-abiding gun owners.

“There are certainly many people out there that feel that the Second Amendment is under attack,” said Michael Giaramita, an attorney for U.S. Law Shield of Pennsylvania. “Many people look at gun owners as paranoid and all kinds of labels, but the fact of the matter is many of the people that I encounter just want to protect their family.

Where do Goodman and Giaramita stand on gun laws in Pennsylvania?

“I think there are certainly a lot more laws on the books than people understand,” Giaramita said. “Sometimes being exposed to the amount of laws that are on the books can be daunting for people, whether they are firearms owners or not.”

“I don’t think current laws do enough,” Goodman said. “I think it is pretty easy to get a gun in Pennsylvania. We don’t have waiting periods, we don’t have a license or registration, and we don’t have limits on how many guns you can buy a month.”

Goodman would like to see restrictions on certain types of semi-automatic rifles.

“I don’t know why we need them,” she said. “We know that they are the weapons of choice for mass shooters. You can kill a lot of people really quickly. We know that many criminals use them against cops. We think they are military-style assault weapons.”

“I don’t think it’s an accurate term at all because I don’t how you would accurately describe an assault rifle,” Giaramita said. “I know what an AR-15 is. I know what modern sporting rifles look like. I know what their capabilities are. When you talk about a broad brush assault rifle, I am not quite sure there is a way to technically describe that.”

Is the term assault weapon used because it sounds scarier?

“I don’t know. Why would they use sporting rifle? Because that doesn’t sound scary,” Goodman said. “There is always going to be issues about jargon and issues about marketing and what is the message.”

No matter what you call them, Goodman believes restricting the magazine size or even banning certain types of semi-automatic rifles could save lives.

Would a ban really help?

“I don’t know,” Goodman said. “If not a ban, higher regulation. Could we do a deeper background check? Could we have a waiting period? I think we can explore different ways to do it.”

“It is a fact that folks who commit violent crimes will use several different tools that they have at their disposal,” Giaramita said. “We saw in France they used a truck. We saw in Boston they used a pressure cooker. Nobody can deny the fact that people willing to commit violent crimes will use means other than firearms.”

Giaramita says only negative news involving guns makes headlines.

“In the United States, there are over 2,000 defensive gun uses a day, and that’s on the low end. There are studies that show even more than that, but you don’t hear about them,” he said.

According to the 2015 Pennsylvania State Police Firearms Annual report, more than one million background checks were run last year. Of those one million background checks, 13,774 were denied, which led to the arrest of 1,971 fugitives.

Even with current checks and balances, guns still get into the wrong hands.

Donald Meyer leaves the Perry County Courthouse May 5, 2016 after pleading not guilty to criminal homicide and other charges. (WHTM)
Donald Meyer leaves the Perry County Courthouse May 5, 2016 after pleading not guilty to criminal homicide and other charges. (WHTM)

Don Meyer is charged with the murder of his 12-year-old daughter Ciara. After he was involuntarily committed, Meyer lied on several background checks to buy guns. By law, the county where he was committed, which is Dauphin County, is required to notify state police. Dauphin County told ABC27 that they “followed all procedures. State police said they were never notified by the county, and that’s why Meyer wasn’t flagged when he went to buy guns.

Last year, Meyer pulled a gun on a constable serving an eviction notice at his Perry County apartment. The constable fired in self-defense. The bullet went through Meyer’s arm and into his daughter’s heart, killing her.

“I would say 85 to 90 percent of the murders we see here in Dauphin County are gun-related,” said Johnny Baer, Chief Deputy District Attorney of Dauphin County.

Baer says most of the cases he prosecutes involve illegal gun owners.

“There’s a real-life impact that that type of crime has, and I see it play out almost on a monthly basis. Families are ruined,” he said.

Eighteen-year-old Tiana Dockens, an innocent bystander, was killed by a stray bullet in Harrisburg in 2013. The shooter, 24-year old Michael Gelsinger, was sentenced to life in prison.

“Tiana is gone and Michael lost his life, too,” said Walter Docken, Tiana Docken’s great-uncle. “It’s not the same. One is in the grave, one is in jail, but life is lost.”

Nineteen-year-old Thorin Burgess Jr. was shot and killed in 2011 when a fight broke out on a basketball court in Harrisburg’s Reservoir Park.

“He was just trying to look out for his brother, ” his father Thorin Burgess Sr. said.

“It happened so fast. In the blink of an eye, he was gone,” his brother Darrien Burgess said.

So how are criminals getting their hands on guns?

“The people that we see coming from the outer lying areas, the townships in Dauphin County, the rural areas in central Pennsylvania, they come into Harrisburg and trade their firearms for drugs,” Baer said. “To me, it’s the bigger problem for us: people using the guns as currency for drugs.”

Does that call for more legislation or better enforcement?

“There are so many laws out there and the government has a limited amount of resources to devote to these laws,” Giaramita said.

“Those are hard conversations to have, but I think we need to have them because neither side is going achieve what it wants on its own,” Goodman said.

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