A gun rights advocate at a rally in Harrisburg in 2019

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Republican lawmakers in Harrisburg are pushing to make it easier for Pennsylvanians to carry a handgun. The proposal has become the latest flashpoint over gun rights in the commonwealth.

Currently in Pa., you don’t need a permit to open carry a firearm — in a hip holster, for example. Carrying a concealed weapon, however, does require a license, and 1.7 million residents have one, according to the Pennsylvania State Police. Philly’s rules are more strict: in the city, both concealed and open carry require a license.

A new bill aims to make all of those permitting requirements unnecessary.

Pro-gun groups and Republican backers of the legislation say the permit process is redundant, considering background checks are already required.

Law enforcement officials and gun control advocates counter it’s a necessary safeguard, especially in big cities. Removing the license requirement altogether, they argue, would pose a grave threat to both officers and citizens at a time when violence is soaring — and embolden more people to openly carry firearms on the streets of Philadelphia.

Western Pa. state Rep. Aaron Bernstine, the bill’s main sponsor, had introduced similar legislation in 2019, repeating past attempts from Republican lawmakers to get rid of the concealed carry permit requirement.

While previous efforts all languished in the committee phase, this bill is advancing.

Bernstine’s proposal received a favorable 14-11 vote from the House Judiciary Committee last week. The committee’s 10 Democrats voted no, while all but one GOP lawmaker from suburban Montgomery County voted in favor.

More than 20 other states have removed handgun licensing requirements altogether. A so-called “constitutional carry” law to that effect recently passed in Texas, where gun regulations are already some of the least restrictive in the nation.

Where concealed carry does require a permit, some states require extra training and proficiency testing. In Pennsylvania, the process is simpler: pass the background check required to purchase a handgun, then provide two character references and pay a $20 license application fee. Permits currently last for five years before they must be renewed.

The new bill, HB659, would amend the law so Pennsylvania residents over 21 can skip the permit process and conceal their firearms by right.

Philadelphia’s district attorney and sheriff have come out strongly against the proposal, which they argue would make it more difficult to identify illegal gun owners.

“Eliminating concealed-carry permits allows anyone to carry a weapon out in the open, and that would bring a whole lot of misunderstanding, and a whole lot of potential danger,” Philadelphia Sheriff Rochelle Bilal told Billy Penn. “How would you identify those that are legally carrying versus those who aren’t?”

Gun safety vs. gun rights

Rep. Bernstine, the bill’s sponsor, says concealed carry licenses in Pennsylvania are a “duplicative” process that can be eliminated at no cost to public safety. The lawmaker, whose district winds through three counties north of Pittsburgh, views these permits as an arbitrary hurdle on top of the necessary background check to buy a handgun.

“It’s a process that people have to go through after they’ve already went through a more extensive background check in order to purchase their firearm,” Bernstine told Billy Penn.

“There’s no reason that we shouldn’t take line and do exactly what the other 20 states have done across this country, and make sure that law-abiding citizens have the opportunity to protect themselves,” the lawmaker added.

Currently in the state, background checks are required on all handgun and long gun sales from federally licensed firearm dealers. Private sales of long guns do not require a background check.

The handgun homicide rate was nearly 11% higher in states that didn’t require permits to carry, according to a two-decade study published in 2017 in the American Journal of Public Health.

Gun safety advocates say this isn’t the time to be removing safeguards like permits, especially given the ongoing shooting surge in cities like Philadelphia.

Max Milkman, an organizer with statewide advocacy group Ceasefire PA, said eliminating licenses could create dangerous situations during car stops. “This could be a real risk not only to the driver, but also to the law enforcement officer,” he said.

Advocates also worry the bill would also encourage more people to “open carry” in Philadelphia.

While licenses for concealed firearms are required statewide, open carry is technically legal everywhere in Pennsylvania — except in “cities of the first class,” which means Philadelphia. Even with a license, city police view open carry negatively. The issue has landed the city in legal trouble in the past when officers approached licensed people walking around with guns visible. Even the Pennsylvania Firearm Owners Association advises against open carry in urban areas.

Bernsite claimed his bill would not impact open carry laws. As written, however, it seeks to repeal the very section of the firearms code that requires permits for both concealed and open carry in Philly.

“This process would essentially allow individuals to essentially openly carry and concealed carry without having to go through any permit check system whatsoever,” Milkman said.

Philly law enforcement decries bill, Wolf would likely veto

Bernstine said the bill is supported by pro-gun groups across Pennsylvania, including the NRA. The municipal police officers union and county sheriffs’ are neutral, Bernstine said.

In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner has already stated his opposition to the measure, as did Sheriff Bilal. The Philadelphia Police Department, which processes gun permit applications, did not respond to a request for comment.

The bill must now win a majority on both the House and Senate floors. If passed, it would still likely face a veto from Democratic Governor Tom Wolf.

Bernstine cast Wolf’s choice as one to stand “in line with the anti-gun lobby that wants to consistenly violate or rights” or “the Pennsylvania Constitution and the oath that he swore to uphold.”

Wolf spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger told PennLive last week that “the governor urges the General Assembly to join him in prioritizing addressing gun violence,” citing a push for stronger gun laws and a state-level universal background check for all gun purchases.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...