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Behind Regola headlines, a more widespread problem

There are many questions surrounding the death of 14-year-old Louis Farrell, who apparently killed himself last summer with a gun taken from the home of state Sen. Robert Regola III. But judging from the coroner's report, one thing seems clear: The Senator, a Hempfield Republican, is a bad gun-owner.

And judging from gun-related crimes committed in Pennsylvania every year, he is not alone.

No one has explained why Farrell would kill himself. But though the "why" is unclear, the "how" is certain. As Westmoreland County Coroner Kenneth A. Bacha's report states: "Senator Regola permitted his son" -- Bobby, who is 17 years old -- "to keep a loaded, unlocked handgun in his room on the day Louis shot himself."

This was no Red Ryder BB gun, either. It was a 9 mm Taurus PT-111, an easy-to-conceal weapon which Taurus touts as a firearm "you can trust with your life."

A member of the National Rifle Association, Regola testified that he never kept the gun in his son's room. Still, he allegedly told a different story to a state trooper, and a friend of Bobby testified that the young Regola had previously showed off the gun to Farrell, a friend who lived next door.

The elder Regola was charged with perjury last month; his son was charged with a misdemeanor for underage firearm possession. But no matter how those trials go, Louis Farrell's death raises a question: If you can't trust a pro-NRA Republican lawmaker with a gun, who can you trust?

Regola wouldn't be the only Pennsylvanian to get careless about where he left his gun. At a state legislative hearing on gun violence held in Oakland, law-enforcement officials testified that each year, hundreds of criminals are found carrying guns registered to someone else.

At the March 28 hearing, Pittsburgh police detective Joe Bielevicz testified that in the past three years, Pittsburgh police had recovered more than 2,500 guns from people not registered to own them. In all but 300 of those cases, the registered owner never even reported the gun stolen.

Owners often "claim they didn't know" the gun was gone, Bielevicz said. "[But] it's hard to believe someone would buy a $500 Glock and [three years later] say, 'I haven't seen it since I bought it.'"

Many of these owners, Bielevicz surmises, are "straw buyers," who sell guns to criminals who can't buy them legally. Bielevicz told of tracing a gun used in a North Side shooting to Butler County, where the registered owner was dealing guns to finance a drug habit.

"Pittsburgh has some of the same problems Philadelphia has," Philadelphia Democrat Dwight Evans, a longtime gun-control advocate, told me after the hearing. Legislators are conducting similar hearings across the state, and "when you do that, you see a commonality" of concerns about guns everywhere.

Still, gun-owners shouldn't bury ammo in the backyard just yet. The hearing was sparsely attended, and got no major media coverage. As Dr. Bruce Dixon, who heads Allegheny County's Health Department, testified, to pass gun legislation in Pennsylvania, "You need to convince Forest County it's a problem." And in rural areas, gun violence is seen as a city problem ... even if the guns come from Butler County.

Gun-rights advocates counter that even reasonable-sounding laws -- like limiting gun-buyers to one purchase a month -- are unjust. (Gun-buyers might miss out on a sale, they groused.) Gun-rights advocate Kim Staufer testified that gun-owners have been subjected to flawed prosecutions. The debate "needs to apply to everybody's tragedies," he told legislators.

I'm not sure the tragedy of a faulty prosecution -- or a missed Labor Day sale -- compares to the loss of a 14-year-old. But in Republican districts, deaths like Louis Farrell's rarely strike so close to home.

Any number of things might have saved Louis Farrell's life, including a law requiring that guns be stored with trigger locks. But the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action opposes such laws. As the organization puts it in a fact sheet, "Irresponsible people are not likely to obey a law that merely restates their inherent responsibilities."

It's hard to argue with that kind of logic. I mean, why outlaw homicide, for that matter? Murderers aren't likely to obey a law that merely restates their inherent responsibility to not kill people. The prisons are filled with examples: They just lack champions in the legislature.

Then again, maybe they're about to get one.

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