School children took over the Pennsylvania Capitol Monday. A band played Christmas music in one rotunda, while singers from East Pennsboro High School sang carols in another. It was a sweet addition to the season of giving.
But behind the scenes, lawmakers, focused on school children in Connecticut, said it should now be the season of taking. Representative Ron Waters (D-Philadelphia) sent an email seeking co-sponsors for a bill that would ban assault weapons in Pennsylvania.
The memo sent to other lawmakers concludes: "Sadly, gun violence continues to permeate cities and towns across America. The time to act is now. Please join me in sponsoring this crucial legislation."
Former Lieutenant Governor Mark Singel supports Waters's attempt to get assault weapons out of the hands of Pennsylvanians.
"I'm tired of hearing the arguments about the Second Amendment," Singel said. "I have nothing against handguns, nothing against rifles, nothing against sportsmen, but there's no rational reason why people should be carrying weapons of mass destruction like semi-automatic weapons. Assault weapons do violence to individuals. That's their only purpose, so they shouldn't be in the hands of the general public."
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence rates the states' gun laws with a report card. Pennsylvania scores a 26 out of a possible 100. The report says Pennsylvania is not tough enough on who's buying guns, how many they're buying and the type of bullets they're using.
Several lawmakers wouldn't comment publicly for this story. They know that any lawmaker who proposes tougher laws becomes a target of powerful pro-gun forces and could find a well-funded opponent in the next election if they're too vocal.
Singel, now a lobbyist himself, knows that's an issue but says this to legislators:
"You're gonna hear from the NRA, and you're gonna hear from your constituents saying, 'you're taking my guns away.' You know what? You gotta look them right in the eye and say, 'if necessary I will. If it's a choice between you walking around with a semiautomatic, and my kid being protected, I'm protecting my kid.' "
Senator Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) is unconvinced.
"When people have bad intent in their heart, I don't know how you stop that. I don't know how you legislate that," he said.
Folmer doesn't believe that more laws equal citizens having more protection.
"When people want to get a gun, they're gonna get a gun, no matter what you try to do, because the bad guys will always get them," Folmer said. "I hate to say it. I know it sounds trite, but they always will."
Stephen Drachler hopes the fallout from the Connecticut shooting isn't the same, tired, gun- control debate that has swirled around the Capitol for decades.
"It is time for people to think, how can we stop this madness? What can we do about it?" he said.
Drachler has unique perspective. He's a former House GOP spokesman who now works for the United Methodist Advocacy in Pennsylvania; sort of political animal turned preacher. Drachler now organizes vigils for the victims of gun violence in Harrisburg. He says he's organized 20 in the past 2 1/2 years. He says guns are a problem, but the solution isn't just about guns.
"The answer's gotta be about the types of guns people can get ahold of and the bullets they fire, it's gotta be about mental illness and it's gotta be about the safety of our schools and institutions," he said.
Drachler knows it's a thorny political issue for lawmakers. He knows there are no simple answers. He says it's going to take strong political leadership and courage and because of that suspects it won't happen. But he hopes the 20 innocent kids who didn't come home from school in Connecticut on Friday can prompt real change in Pennsylvania.
"Their deaths need to be a signal that it's time to do something," he said. "If we don't have a will to solve the problem, we're gonna be judged very harshly someday when we come to the pearly gates and say, 'God let me in.' "
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