Close the Pennsylvania gun loophole

The commonwealth should require background checks of all gun buyers

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I have deep roots in Pennsylvania. Members of my family live in Westchester, Delaware and Bucks County. I grew up in Bucks County and feel in many ways as if Pennsylvania is still home. That’s why I eagerly agreed to testify before the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee on expanding background checks for all firearm purchases in the commonwealth.

I live in Connecticut now, so why was I asked to testify?

Because I had the terrible misfortune of losing a child to gun violence. On Dec. 14, 2012, my son Ben was killed along with 19 other first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. My son Nate’s fourth-grade class was in the school gym during the shooting. He survived.

For me, protecting other families from having to suffer the pain my family has suffered is not a choice; it’s a necessity.

In Pennsylvania today, a convicted felon, who is prohibited from owning an assault rifle like the one that killed my son, can buy a rifle from a private seller or go online and, with a few clicks, do the same thing, no questions asked.

The bill I testified in favor of was just common sense. It would close the loophole that allows criminals and the severely mentally ill to purchase a long gun in a private sale. If you have a criminal record, you couldn’t buy a long gun at a gun store. This bill would just extend that law to private and Internet sales.

Unfortunately, since the hearing last summer, the Legislature has taken no action on this bill.

This week, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives has an important opportunity to take action. Rep. Steven J. Santarsiero, D-Bucks County, has taken the language in his original House Bill 1010, which closed the long-gun loophole, and he is offering it as an amendment to House Bill 1243.

The original bill had 64 co-sponsors, a strong demonstration of bipartisan support. The underlying bill, House Bill 1243, would go a long way to ensuring that Pennsylvania’s mental-health records continue to be updated regularly in the records of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

An amendment like the one Rep. Santarsiero is offering would not have saved my Ben. It would not stop every criminal bent on obtaining a gun. But it would save many lives.

It might have saved Berks County Deputy Sheriff Kyle Pagerly. Deputy Sheriff Pagerly was killed in June 2011 by a young man wielding an AK-47 that he bought in a private sale. The shooter had been convicted of a felony as a juvenile and would have failed a background check.

The overwhelming majority of gun owners are responsible people. This amendment does not interfere with their ability to buy and own guns.

It’s time for a vote on expanding background checks to all gun purchases in Pennsylvania. If we agree that people deemed dangerous because of a prior conviction or institutionalization shouldn’t have guns, then we have to stop looking the other way. We must take at least the basic step to ensure that the person turned away from the licensed firearms dealer can’t just turn to the Internet or a private seller instead. An overwhelming majority of Pennsylvanians, gun owners and non-gun owners alike, agree it’s the right thing to do.

Please ask your legislator to bring the Santarsiero amendment to a vote and pass House Bill 1243 with the Santarsiero amendment.

If we can keep a mother in Pennsylvania from having to go through what I have gone through, and we can do it in a way that makes sense, we ought to do it.

Francine Wheeler is a co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise, a group of parents who lost their children at the Sandy Hook school shooting that seeks to prevent gun violence and help rebuild the community of Newtown, Conn.

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