A gun violence memorial marking each fatality in the city in 2012.

The weekend carnage in Orlando that left 50 people dead and dozens more injured has, once again, reignited a national conversation not only about terrorism, but about guns, and how a man on the FBI’s radar legally obtained an assault weapon.

Could that happen in Pennsylvania? It could — the state’s gun laws aren’t much more stringent than Florida’s and more than 50 gun-related bills introduced last year never had a chance. In fact, a state House committee was poised to vote this week on a bill that would have weakened the state’s background check system. But the bill has been tabled.

On top of the state laws, the more-left-leaning-than-Harrisburg City of Philadelphia can’t do much to enact its own gun control measures. State law prohibits municipalities from doing so.

This is where Pennsylvania (and Philadelphia) stands on guns and the efforts by some to change them:

A quick look

The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gave Pennsylvania a C rating on its gun law scorecard, and it loses the most points in their view because it does not require a full background check on all gun sales at the point of purchase and it doesn’t allow municipalities to enact their own gun violence prevention laws.

Here’s where the state stands on the major points:

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Background checks

Pennsylvania does require a background for most sales of guns, including handguns and long guns from licensed dealers. However, it does not require a background check for a person purchasing a long gun — rifles, shotguns and semi-automatic weapons — from a private dealer.

A bill was introduced in the state House last fall that would have brought long guns under the background check provision and would have made it easier for background checks to be completed in a short period of time at gun shows. The bill never made it out of committee.

This week, the state House Judiciary Committee was set to take a vote on a bill introduced by Speaker of the House Mike Turzai that gun control advocates say would have weakened the state’s background check system.

Currently, those going through a background check in Pennsylvania are run through two systems: the National Instant Check System, or NICS, as well as the PA Instant Check System, or PICS. CeaseFire PA reports that since its inception, PICS has denied gun sales to almost 150,000 “prohibited purchasers.” 

Turzai’s bill, backed by the National Rifle Association, would eliminate PICS and potential gun purchasers would only be run through the national background system. Supporters of the bill say the process is duplicative and PICS has cost Pennsylvania taxpayers $120 million since its inception in 1998.

Wondering what the background checks are looking for? Pennsylvania law prohibits people convicted of a number of crimes from purchasing guns, including murder, burglary, arson, aggravated assault, rape, robbery and other serious felonies. However, the court system must grant relief if the person’s last conviction was more than 10 years ago. You also can’t get a gun if you’ve been involuntarily committed to a mental institution, however a court can overturn that, too.

Concealed carry

Gun purchasers 21 and older have to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon in Pennsylvania, a process that — by law — cannot take more than 45 days. The following people can’t get a concealed carry permit, according to the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms code:

  •  An individual whose character and reputation is such that the individual would be likely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety.
  • An individual who has been convicted of an offense under The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act.
  • An individual convicted of any of the crimes that don’t allow someone to purchase a gun.
  • An individual who is not of sound mind or who has ever been committed to a mental institution.
  • An individual who is addicted to or is an unlawful user of marijuana or a stimulant, depressant or narcotic drug.
  • An individual who is a habitual drunkard.
  • An individual who is charged with or has been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.
  • A resident of another state who does not possess a current license or permit or similar document to carry a firearm issued by that state
  • An undocumented immigrant.
  • An individual who has been discharged from the armed forces of the United States under dishonorable conditions.
  • An individual who is a fugitive from justice.
  • An individual who is otherwise prohibited from possessing, using, manufacturing, controlling, purchasing, selling or transferring a firearm.
  • An individual who is prohibited from possessing or acquiring a firearm under federal law.

Assault weapons and high-capacity magazines

Both assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are legal under Pennsylvania law. Though assault weapons were banned nationwide in 1994 under the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, that law expired in 2004 and wasn’t renewed. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has called for the reinstatement of the ban after it was revealed the Orlando shooter used a legally purchased AR-15 assault rifle to killed 50 people.

Philadelphia state Rep. Kevin Boyle, a Democrat, last year introduced a bill that would have limited the capacity of large ammunition magazines to 15 rounds. It didn’t make it out of committee.

Why Philly can’t enact gun laws on its own

We’ve seen Philadelphia institute laws that seem to somewhat contradict Pennsylvania law like the decriminalization of marijuana and a non-discrimination statute that includes sexual orientation. But in Pennsylvania, no city, county or municipality can “in any manner regulate the lawful ownership, possession, transfer or transportation of firearms, ammunition or ammunition components.” It was largely written in order to prevent cities like Philly and Pittsburgh from instituting their own ban on assault weapons.

Back in 2007 when gun rates in the city were at the highest, Philadelphia City Council basically picked a fight with the state legislature over this issue and passed not one, not two, but eight gun-control bills that would have done the following:

  • Limited handgun purchases to one per month
  • Mandated the reporting of lost or stolen firearms
  • Required a local license to acquire a firearm or bring a firearm into Philadelphia
  • Required annual renewal of this license
  • Allowed a firearm to be confiscated from someone posing a risk of harm
  • Prohibited the possession or transfer of assault weapons
  • Required anyone selling ammunition to report the ammunition and the purchaser to the police department

Led by Councilman Darrell Clarke, now the Council president, and then-Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller, the council members at the time knew passing the bills was illegal. Jim Kenney, now the mayor who was a councilman at the time, said: “What would they do, arrest us?”

Clarke and council sued the general assembly to win the right to pass the bills and lost. The courts ruled in 2008 that though the measures were “practical,” there was a clear pre-emption from the legislature in place that the courts couldn’t reasonably overrule.

The issue is central to a bill in City Council now that was also introduced by Clarke that would require gun owners who live in a home with children take certain safe storage precautions. The NRA is against the bill but hasn’t sent anyone to testify against it before Council because it believes it’d be unenforceable due to the state’s preemption.

PA lawmakers at the federal level

Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat, announced today that in wake of the shooting in Orlando, he plans to introduce legislation that would bar anyone convicted of a hate crime from purchasing a firearm.

But it’s Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who’s currently up for re-election, who led the Senate in enacting gun violence prevention measures after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Dubbed the “Manchin-Toomey” gun proposal because it was created by Toomey and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virgina, the bill was a bipartisan effort to expand background checks to gun shows and internet sales.

In a 54-46 vote, the bill was defeated in 2013 along a largely party-line vote. Just four Republicans supported the bill. Both Pennsylvania senators voted in favor of the bill.

What you can do

Have strong feelings about gun-related legislation? Information at the below links on how to contact:

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.