Sometimes it seems that the gun debate has become a form of trench warfare, with activists and politicians firing above each other's heads, if only to ensure that supporters and campaign contributors keep supplying them with ammo.
Take House Bill 2243, introduced last month by Ford City Republican Jeff Pyle. The bill prohibits any business or property owner from "prohibiting a person from transporting or storing a firearm in a motor vehicle" in their parking lots. Assuming the gun is locked out of sight, and the owner is licensed to carry a concealed weapon, the bill allows gun-owners to sue over such policies. It also provides remedies for anyone fired after stowing firearms in the company lot.
This in a state where many residents can still be fired just for being gay.
It's not clear this measure is going anywhere. Pyle's bill is in committee, though last week, Mon Valley Democrat Ted Harhai tried, and failed, to attach it as an amendment to legislation concerning driver's tests. But Pittsburgh police brass say that, if anything, we should be discouraging people from leaving weapons in cars.
"Leaving guns in vehicles is extremely dangerous," says Pittsburgh Police Zone 1 Commander RaShall Brackney.
Brackney's North Side zone includes Heinz Field and PNC Park, where she says weapons are stolen from parked cars "at least once every other game." It takes less than a minute to break into and search a car's likely hiding places, she says — and criminals know car-owners probably won't return for hours. "That brings a lot more opportunities."
Pyle and Harhai did not return calls for comment; neither did Pittsburgh Rep. Dom Costa, who co-sponsored Pyle's bill. In a memo to colleagues, Pyle's only attempt to justify the legislation was to quote the state Constitution: "[T]he right to keep and bear arms ... shall not be questioned."
Well, mission accomplished. No one in government, at least, does question gun rights anymore, as the numbed public response to mass shootings proves nearly every week. Yet gun-rights absolutists are still on a hair-trigger.
The NRA, for one, is upset that one of its pet bills, HB 2011, was introduced in February and still isn't law — four whole months later! The bill makes it easy for gun-owners to sue local municipalities who pass their own gun laws. Pittsburgh, for example, has a 2008 ordinance requiring gun-owners to report firearms that are lost or stolen ... from parking lots, say. And as the NRA wailed in April, Pittsburgh is among "nearly 50 municipalities" with such ordinances — yet the legislature "has still not acted."
Of course, as City Paper's Rebecca Nuttall reported May 14, local officials haven't acted either. While campaigning last year, Mayor Bill Peduto pledged that enforcing the lost-and-stolen law would be central to his crime-fighting strategy. Since taking office, however, he's decided the ordinance can't survive a legal challenge, even under current law. Gun-rights absolutists have won without firing a shot.
If state legislators really want to expand gun rights, though, they still have at least one option. They could get rid of the state's most notable gun-free zone: the state Capitol building itself. Instead of telling private companies what they can do in their parking lots, elected officials could open their own offices and hallways to gun-toting citizens. Firearms are necessary to keep our government in check, right?
Even gun-control advocates might support the change. "The people making the rules are willing to expand gun rights," says Shira Goodman of CeaseFirePa, "but not in their place of work."
There would be risks, of course. Not the chance of a gunman mowing down innocent people — why should state lawmakers be less at risk than, say, kindergartners? No, the real danger is that, when facing gun-wielding strangers in their workplace, politicians might see an upside to gun control after all. California, for one, passed one of the nation's most sweeping gun-control laws in 1967 — after 30 gun-wielding Black Panthers showed up outside their state capitol.
That law, incidentally, was signed by then-Governor Ronald Reagan, who opined there was "no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons." Imagine a pinko like that getting elected to Harrisburg today.