Explaining the issues

Gun control: Who calls the shots, from Philly to D.C.

A no-frills explainer about firearm policy.

Joshua Shearn / Wikimedia Commons

In the aftermath of every mass shooting — from Sandy Hook in 2012 to the recent massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue to the hundreds of high-fatality bloodbaths that plague U.S. cities every year — Americans return to the gun control debate. It’s as regular as clockwork.

The U.S. holds an ignominious gun violence rate, the 31st highest in the world. More than 70 percent of all homicides in the country are committed with firearms.

You probably know some of the major talking points. But who controls what? From national policy to the borders of Philadelphia, we break it down below.

The big debates

  • Expanding background checks: 90 percent of Americans support them for all gun sales, but a federal “gun show” loophole still allows unlicensed sellers to peddle firearms without performing any background check at all.
  • Studying the impact of gun violence: The Center for Disease Control has been effectively banned from studying the causes and effects of gun violence. This could change soon, but critics are skeptical anything will come of it.
  • Banning certain classes of weapons:  From semi-automatic assault rifles to “bump stock” modifications that enable rapid fire, gun control advocates regularly call for restrictions on the variety of purchasable firearms.

How national policy can address gun control

The federal government holds the lion’s share of the power to pursue these issues.

The feds hold the purse strings — and the ability to set priorities — when it comes to nationwide research. In the new spending bill signed by President Trump this year, the CDC received notice that, for the first time in decades, they had the “authority” to study the crisis. Critics say it likely won’t happen, though. Research is prohibitively expensive and there’s no written agreement to provide funding — let alone any interest.

The federal government’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also regulates which guns and gun products are legal. The sale of new machine guns — defined as any firearm that can shoot off multiple rounds with a single pull of the trigger — has been outlawed since 1986.

Amid deafening calls to ban “bump stocks” modifications after the 2017 Las Vegas massacre, critics have asked the ATF to reconsider its 2010 ruling that these devices did not technically turn a firearm into a machine gun. Or, Congress and President Trump could move to outlaw bump stocks from manufacture and sale in the U.S.

So far, progress has been slow. On the one-year anniversary of the Los Angeles massacre, Trump said that the ban was coming in a matter of weeks which has not happened.

How state policy can address gun control

Pennsylvania does not need to wait for Washington to enforce universal background checks.

Currently, state law differs slightly from national law in that all handgun sales must go through licensed retailers where buyers must undergo a background check. But the law applies only to handguns. You can purchase semi-automatic weapons or a shotguns in-state from unlicensed dealers, legally.

A bill that would require universal background checks on all firearm purchases in the state failed to make it through a Pa. House committee this summer — but only by one vote. It will likely be reintroduced in a new form next year, as some 86 percent of Pennsylvanians now support enhanced background checks for firearms purchases, according to a March 2018 F&M poll.

But the State law also explicitly bars local municipalities like Philadelphia from tracking firearm purchases. No law enforcement agency may “create, maintain or operate any registry of firearm ownership within this Commonwealth,” the law reads.

How city policy can address gun control

Philadelphia has limited power in circumventing lax state laws around firearms.

The one notable difference is with permits. Any Philadelphians looking to “open carry,” “concealed carry,” or transport a firearm within city limits is required to have a license. (You can apply for that here.) This exemption has been codified at the state level in the Uniform Firearms Act.

Beyond spending tens of millions of tax dollars every year on anti-violence initiatives, Philadelphia and its high gun crime are at the mercy of Harrisburg and D.C.

Further reading:

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Gun violence