Pa. bill aims to end gun law loophole
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HARRISBURG -- Legislation now before the House Judiciary Committee is just a paragraph long, but it has set off a major battle between firearms owners and law enforcement authorities who want to reduce gun violence, especially in Philadelphia.
State Rep. Bryan Lentz, a Delaware County Democrat who's running for a congressional seat in suburban Philadelphia, has introduced House Bill 2536, aimed at ending the "Florida gun loophole." It would prevent Pennsylvanians who have been denied a Pennsylvania license to carry a concealed firearm (or have had their Pennsylvania permit revoked) from simply getting a license from another state.
The proposed legislation would prohibit Pennsylvania residents from exploiting what Mr. Lentz calls a loophole in current law, a provision that lets them obtain a license to carry from another state.
Mr. Lentz said his bill is needed "to ensure that local authorities retain control over the [firearms] permit process and that Pennsylvania residents who are granted a license to carry have met the standards of our state and not those of another state, whose standards may be less than ours."
Residents of other states can now carry concealed weapons in Pennsylvania if they have permits issued by their home states.
Florida has been a popular state for Pennsylvanians to use the end run on gun permits. It has issued about 3,000 weapons permits to Pennsylvanians, in part because many vacationers and "snow birds" from the Keystone State go there for the beaches, sun and Disney World.
However, Mr. Lentz said, many Pennsylvanians who get Florida permits have "absolutely no connection" to the Sunshine State -- they merely go there online or through the mail.
Pennsylvania law requires a person to be licensed in order to carry a concealed weapon on his person or in his vehicle. No permit is required to openly carry a firearm.
But Pennsylvania permits are not issued by the state police or another state agency. They're given out by the county sheriff in 66 Pennsylvania counties and by city police in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia has had serious problems with gun-related violence and killings for years, which police are trying to stop.
Mr. Lentz cited a case where a man was arrested in a rental car at the Philadelphia airport. There was a loaded weapon in the car trunk and another gun concealed on his person. The man had had his Pennsylvania license revoked.
While the legal proceedings were still pending, Mr. Lentz said the man "obtained a Florida 'license to carry' by mail. He was subsequently stopped by Philadelphia police in a car with another loaded firearm. There was no arrest, however -- even though his Pennsylvania 'license to carry' had been revoked -- because he now had a Florida license to carry."
But groups representing firearms owners are opposed to the Lentz bill, saying it will unfairly impinge on the rights of gun owners who have been accused of a crime but not yet convicted.
Kim Stolfer, director of Firearms Owners Against Crime, contended that the bill is just part of Mr. Lentz's campaign for Congress. "It's political theater," he said.
He said that a Pennsylvania firearms' permit can now be revoked if a person is subsequently arrested on a charge unrelated to guns, such as driving while intoxicated. He said the current system gives county sheriffs and Philadelphia police too much leeway and subjectivity in deciding whether to deny or revoke a firearms permit.
State law lists about 15 reasons for denying a permit, including denying one for "an individual whose character and reputation is such that the individual would be likely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety."
Such criteria is far too vague and gives too much latitude to a sheriff to deny a weapons permit, Mr. Stolfer said. Also, a person shouldn't have a firearms permit revoked based merely on an arrest; that step should wait until there is a conviction.
"This bill will let authorities take action based merely on an accusation," he said. "Our system of justice is based on the presumption of innocence."
Joe Grace of CeaseFirePA, who supports the Lentz bill, said that in Pennsylvania, county sheriffs and Philadelphia police "look at a person's 'character and reputation' before issuing a permit. Florida doesn't have this requirement to look at character and reputation. That is a key difference between the two states."
That's why, he added, a number of Pennsylvania residents who have "criminal backgrounds, prior arrests or protection from abuse orders against them," can't get a Pennsylvania license to carry "but can get one in Florida. By going to Florida, we think it does an end run around Pennsylvania law enforcement."
Mr. Lentz insisted his bill is not related to his campaign for Congress, adding, "It's an effort to help law enforcement. Ask the Western Pennsylvania police chiefs, who have endorsed the bill, and the sheriffs association and police chiefs in Delaware County. Getting a permit from Florida is essentially a 'get-out-of-jail-free card' for criminals."
First Published June 15, 2010 12:00 am