The House judiciary committee on Tuesday approved legislation that would revive a law that barred local governments from passing gun laws stricter than the state’s and a separate bill that would allow gun owners to carry concealed handguns without getting a permit.
Gov. Tom Wolf opposes both bills, his spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger said.
More than 300,000 Pennsylvanians obtained permits to carry concealed firearms in 2020, according to the state police, and more than 1 million Pennsylvanians have concealed carry permits.
State Rep. Aaron Bernstine, R-Lawrence County, said that under House Bill 659, Pennsylvania would become the 22nd state to allow citizens to carry concealed firearms without getting a permit. The state Legislature in Texas approved a similar bill on Monday and Gov. Greg Abbott has said he will sign it. Among neighboring states, only West Virginia allows gun owners to carry concealed firearms without a permit.
State Rep. Matt Dowling, R-Fayette County, said that House bill 979 would revive the pre-emption provisions of Act 192 of 2014 which were struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2016. In that decision, the court ruled that the law had been passed illegally in violation of state law requiring that bills be limited to a single subject.
"The substance (of the 2014 law) was not called into question” in the court’s decision, Dowling said.
Dowling said the legislation is needed to ensure that there is uniform gun law across the state so that gun owners don’t find themselves unwittingly afoul of the law if they cross municipal borders into a community with stricter gun laws than the rest of the state.
“The Constitution clearly states, ‘the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,’ Dowling said. “But the actions of this administration, and even more so the new administration in Washington, D.C., demonstrate that we must be proactive in our efforts to protect this valuable right.”
Both measures passed 14-11, with state Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery County, joining Democrats in opposing the bill. The bills now go to the full House for consideration.
Gun control groups blasted both bills.
“Despite the pleas of Pennsylvania communities plagued by gun violence, the legislature still refuses to listen. Rather than take action to curb the epidemic, they continue to prioritize dangerous bills that respond to fictional problems,” said Adam Garber, Executive Director of CeaseFirePA Education Fund, a gun-control lobbying group based in Philadelphia. “We’re seeing historic levels of gun violence in our Commonwealth and across the nation. Now is not the time to be removing the few safeguards we do have in place against the carnage,” he said.
Pennsylvania has a state law barring local governments from passing more restrictive gun laws but Dowling’s bill will make it easier for citizens and groups like the NRA to challenge the local laws and get the local governments to cover their legal bills if they’d win.
Those lobbying for tiger gun control laws said the legislation does the opposite of what Pennsylvania needs to do to reduce gun violence.
“After today’s vote, Pennsylvania voters have a clear split screen of who’s willing to take action to combat gun violence and who’s supporting laws that will make gun violence worse,” said Avery Hamill, a volunteer leader with Students Demand Action in Philadelphia. “Lawmakers should be working to protect our communities from gun violence; instead, they’re advancing bills that would only make gun violence worse.”
Bernstine said that his legislation would eliminate a requirement that serves no purpose since only law-abiding citizens bother getting a permit.
"Law-breakers are law-breakers,” he said. “We ought not to put more restrictions on those who are attempting to do the right thing."
State Rep. Joseph Hohenstein, D-Philadelphia, said that Bernstine’s legislation would lower the age for residents to carry a concealed firearm from 21 to 18.
“That is not a law-breaker/law-abiding citizen question,” he said, adding that research shows that suicides among young adults have increased in states with permitless concealed carry laws.
“It’s a question of public safety,” Hohenstein said. “Do we accept reasonable limitations on an individual right in order to ensure safety and security for the broader population?”
The legislation moving in the state House comes as similar legislation has been announced in the state Senate. Earlier this month, Republican state senators unveiled plans for legislation that would make Pennsylvania a “Second Amendment Sanctuary State” and bar state and local officials from enforcing any move to tighten gun laws.
That legislation, Senate Bill 624, has not moved out of the Senate state government committee yet.