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HOWELL: To Stop Philadelphia Violence, Mentors Need to Step Up for Troubled Youth

Our city of Philadelphia is known to be called “Killadelphia,” a slang reference to the city of Brotherly Love due to its high murder rate. That is not a good name to be known by in our 2020 decade era. Our politicians have to do way more to change Philadelphia’s narrative and reputation as one of the most dangerous cities in America.

I agree with Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker’s 100-day action plan focusing on public safety, clean and green, housing, economic opportunity, education, and roundtables (business, faith-based, and intergovernmental). More specifically, hiring 300 additional foot and bike patrol officers to walk a beat in every neighborhood of the city, getting to know the community they’re sworn to protect and serve without any tolerance for misuse or abuse of their power.

But still, to this day, almost every day, a shooting is reported in our city of Philadelphia, and it is astounding that this still happens today compared to the 1990s to now. It is also not just Philadelphia. It is our surrounding Delaware Valley, including Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery counties.

The crime rate seems to be increasing due to what is being reported in the news media lately, such as juvenile thefts, drug possession, gun possession, and domestic violence. The drug epidemic, including opioids plus fentanyl, we as civilians in Pennsylvania are all witnessing is entirely out of control. Even our youth starting at such a young age with vapes and electronic cigarettes is disappointing. Smoking does not have to be the only way to relieve stress and try to escape reality.

More funds must be allocated to our police departments across southeastern Pennsylvania to provide more resources to stop this lawbreaking. Focusing on the youth, they need more attention than ever before. When youth are out on the streets committing crimes, shooting, robbing, and selling drugs, all they need is just more in-depth mentorship.

There are plenty of leaders who are of color who can be mentors to all these troubled youth. But the youth have to listen to them. Patience is the key. In this era we live in now, we are trying too hard to be competitive, and social media attention is ridiculous.

There are a lot of organizations out there that are already doing so, but more needs to be emphasized. More constructive solutions from all organizations providing youth mentors need to be established.

In my perspective, if you take guns out of homes, then the murder rate will go down substantially.

House Bill 777 will help significantly with gun violence. On January 17, the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee approved putting the bill in place. The bill closes a loophole in state law to prohibit the production or sale of “ghost gun” components. Either sold separately or in kits that are easily accessed and assembled to make a gun, these parts lack serial numbers and are untraceable in future investigations. Ghost guns are a way for people who are not legally allowed to possess a firearm to evade detection and background checks. Our civilians have to stop this senseless violence crisis.

Making Philadelphia the safest, cleanest, and greenest big city in the nation, with economic opportunity for all, has not been nearly done yet. Many would agree, especially in our senior citizen age range, that nothing changed in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Technology has advanced through the years, but the crime rate is still rising.

Lastly, there needs to be more resources for mental health services. With all this gun violence going on, schools, jobs, and all religious establishments should offer more mental healthcare options because you never know what is going on with someone. There is a lot of divide in America nowadays due to most citizens’ political views. This anger has to stop, and only our police forces and politicians can do that.

It is a shame that generation after generation is experiencing crime and gun violence at such a high level. It is a continuous toxic cycle we are experiencing with crime, drugs, and gun violence, and it needs to be put to an end. But some of us still believe that some things will never change.

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Point: America’s Murder Rate Dropped Historically — but Not in All States; Here’s Why

For another point of view, see: “Counterpoint: More Guns Don’t Equal More Crime”

Following an alarming national spike in violent crime over the first two years of the coronavirus pandemic, in 2023, we saw the largest one-year decline in murder rates in modern U.S. history. However, this remarkable drop hasn’t been felt evenly across the country — and states with the weakest gun laws are seeing the least progress.

If we want to avoid needless death and devastation like our nation has already experienced this new year, we’ve got to follow the data and pass stronger gun safety laws in every state.

We’re an increasingly divided country, and not just politically. Analyzing 2023 Gun Violence Archive data shows firearm homicides fell much faster in states with the strongest gun laws, while states with the weakest gun laws saw marginal improvements to public safety, if any. Of the 300 largest U.S. cities, those in states with the strongest gun laws experienced 19.4 percent fewer gun homicides in 2023 compared to the previous year, while cities in states with the weakest gun laws saw only 5.1 percent fewer gun homicides.

When it comes to gun violence, we’re now seeing two different scenarios play out. Alabama, Georgia, Indiana and Ohio recently passed permitless carry laws, meaning that in most U.S. states, almost anyone can now carry a concealed handgun in public without a permit. On this side of America, such laws are resulting in increased violent crime, firearm robberies and mass shootings while also making it harder for law enforcement to solve cases. Still, some elected officials continue to buy the gun lobby lie that more guns make us safer, putting politics over people.

On the other side of America, states that already have strong gun laws are continuing to bolster their public health approach to gun safety. Last year, Illinois passed an assault weapons ban, New York increased access to victim compensation and services for gun violence survivors, and Maryland now requires gun owners to secure their firearms around children.

Elections matter — this past year Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz signed key gun bills into law after voters elected gun safety majorities in both legislative chambers.

Strong gun laws save lives. Not a single state that received an A grade for gun law strength from the Giffords Law Center last year saw an increase in their gun homicide rate in 2023. Colorado saw a 19 percent reduction in gun homicides last year. Rather than become complacent, the state legislature passed additional life-saving laws, including raising the minimum age to purchase guns, enacting waiting periods, and increasing access to justice for survivors. Colorado was the most improved state on Giffords gun law rankings, moving from a B to an A-minus.

Conversely, Mississippi suffered a 13 percent increase in gun homicides in 2023. Yet, the legislature passed dangerous laws incentivizing teachers to carry guns in schools and preventing agencies from maintaining gun records.

The disparity deepens further in cities since many have established local offices and leveraged federal funds to invest in community violence intervention programs. Chicago, Milwaukee, New York and Philadelphia invested heavily in violence prevention, and these efforts coincided with double-digit declines in 2023. Of the 10 cities with the biggest year-to-year declines in gun homicide rates, seven are in states with a gun law grade of A-minus or higher.

Still, gun violence remains higher overall than before the pandemic hit — and there are significant threats to these hard-fought gains. Our extreme right-wing Supreme Court could roll back critical state and federal gun laws that have protected American lives for decades, like the ability to disarm domestic abusers and regulate machine guns. States with progressive gun violence reduction programs need to follow California’s lead and get creative when it comes to funding these vital programs to avoid a dangerous fiscal cliff when American Rescue Plan Act funds expire.

The data clearly demonstrate that strong gun safety laws save lives when we’re willing to invest in them — yet some states still stubbornly cling to the false idea that looser gun laws mean more safety. A historic drop in violence now presents America with an opportunity to spearhead a holistic national approach to curbing gun violence. Still, we need every state to get on board and invest in gun safety for gains to be felt evenly. As 2024 has already shown, we can’t afford to wait any longer.

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Counterpoint: More Guns Don’t Equal More Crime

For another viewpoint see: “Point: America’s Murder Rate Dropped Historically — but Not in All States; Here’s Why”

There may be no tenet of faith so fundamental to the cult of gun control than the idea that more guns equate to more crime — a theory that was soundly disproven in 2023. Just four years after the biggest recorded one-year spike in our nation’s homicide rate, it looks as if the United States may have just gone through the biggest one-year decline, an impossibility according to gun control activists.

There are millions more guns around than there were four years ago, yet the vast majority of cities reported fewer homicides than they did in 2020. That includes several cities where permitless carry recently took effect. Atlanta reported a 22 percent decline in murders. Toledo, Ohio, saw a 34 percent drop in the homicide rate, almost identical to the 33 percent decline in Oklahoma City. The mayor of Miami boasted that the city had the fewest homicides since 1947, even though gun-control activists predicted the state’s permitless carry law would lead to more violence when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law last year.

Those same advocates also asserted that the demise of “may issue” concealed carry laws, which required applicants to demonstrate a justifiable need to have a firearm in self-defense, would also lead to more dangerous cities. There’s no evidence that the Supreme Court’s decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen had any detrimental effect on public safety last year. Indeed, in the first full year that “shall issue” concealed carry was in place, Baltimore recorded fewer than 300 homicides for the first time in nearly a decade. At the same time, Los Angeles and New York saw 10 percent declines, even as more citizens were lawfully carrying firearms in self-defense.

Meanwhile, some of the most gun-controlled locales in the country saw their violence grow worse last year while it remained stagnant in many others. For instance, the District of Columbia reported the most murders in more than two decadesBridgeport and New Haven, Connecticut, saw double-digit increases in homicide, with New Haven’s murders spiking by almost 65 percent. Seattle witnessed a 20 percent rise in the number of homicides, while the number of murders in Oakland, Calif., and San Francisco were almost unchanged from 2022.

The truth is that most U.S. cities had fewer murders last year regardless of the amount of gun-control laws in place. That shouldn’t come as a surprise given the local nature of violent crime, which is typically driven by fewer than 1 percent of a city’s population and who are already well-known to local police and the criminal justice system. The most effective crime-fighting strategies are those that target the most likely and prolific offenders, which means that gun-control laws aimed at legal gun owners are wildly off-target.

Those strategies vary wildly from city to city, just like their crime rates. And their effectiveness depends far more on the individuals guiding those programs than any legislation signed into law by a governor. Take Kansas City and St. Louis, which operate under the same Missouri gun laws but saw the number of homicides veer off in different directions last year, increasing by 7 percent in Kansas City while dropping by more than 20 percent in St. Louis.

Gun-control advocates may want to point at Kansas City’s woes while ignoring the progress made in St. Louis, but if we’re serious about improving public safety, we need an honest accounting of what’s working, what isn’t, and yes, what can be done without infringing on the fundamental right to armed self-defense. The data are telling us that more guns don’t equal more crime, but unfortunately, the gun control lobby and their allies in elected office don’t seem to be listening.

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POINT: Addressing Gun Violence: Beyond the Mental Health Rhetoric

For an alternate point of view see: COUNTERPOINT: Restricting Second Amendment Rights Isn’t Solution to Mass Shootings

The harrowing mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine, has again thrust the U.S. back into the all-too-familiar and increasingly frustrating cycle of grief, rage, and legislative stagnation. A predictable pattern ensues: gun violence, assault weapons blamed, redirection of focus to mental illness as the scapegoat, and heads back into the sand. As a Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, I feel compelled to express my concern and frustration about the ongoing redirection of the conversation and ultimate inaction.

First, a reality check. While the trauma of Maine will continue to haunt its citizens for years, the gun violence experienced is unparalleled elsewhere in the world. Developed allies like Australia, the UK, Canada, and Switzerland report comparable prevalence of mental illness. However, they have significantly lower rates of gun violence. Why? They have stricter gun laws.

So, why does it come back to mental illness? The myth of mental illness as a predisposition to violence reigns in the U.S., even though research has shown for decades that those with severe mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of violent acts themselves. Undoubtedly, in very rare instances, serious mental diseases that are not well-managed can increase the risk of violent behavior. Let’s face it; if someone kills another, then there is arguably a de facto element of disconnect from morals, laws, or reality.

We can’t ignore that the Maine gunman struggled with paranoia and hallucinations. Here again, a spotlight on our military’s mental health, suicide, and gun violence remains insignificantly addressed. But pointing a finger at mental illness alone, thereby restricting background checks for firearms to those within this population, is shortsighted and potentially dangerous. Already, those with mental illnesses are inherently a vulnerable group, placed further at risk by ignorant stigmas and stereotypes.

Plus, focusing on keeping firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill is naive. Consider these logical points. Individuals may avoid mental health care in order to not be labeled. The Maine shooter purchased his guns prior to visiting a professional for mental healthcare. The restriction wouldn’t have worked. Patient privacy, provider-patient confidentiality ethics, and healthcare data security would be at risk. Issues likely to hold up new policies in the courts for years. Implementing the necessary database to track this information would be monumental, necessitate interstate cooperation and networks, and would be open to immense human error. Psychiatric diagnoses may change, fall into remission, and or be cured. And we haven’t even begun to crack the surface of arguments about whether there be distinctions between mental illnesses—insomnia vs. paranoia vs. grief. The point is that targeted background checks based on mental illness diagnosis will clearly not be a panacea, if even tenable.

We have another option. Let’s align our policies with public opinion. Americans, including gun owners, overwhelmingly support universal and stricter background checks for all. Background checks provide an increased sense of safety and security within communities. Political leaders should revisit motions for nationwide mandatory waiting periods between applying for and purchasing a firearm, required firearm safety classes before licensing, a ban on assault rifles and other firearms designed for military combat, and yellow/red flag laws that could apply to acute episodes of psychosis, mania, or other mental illnesses linked to impulsivity. These policies uniformly will lessen gun violence without simply blaming mental illness as the single causative factor.

How do we know? These measures already have been effective in other countries.

Beyond background checks, combating gun violence necessitates a thorough and multidimensional approach. It is critical to improve mental health services and make sure that everyone in America, especially veterans, has access to care. We can better address the nascent seeds of violence and promote a culture of support and resilience by strengthening community resources, improving crisis intervention services, and removing obstacles to mental health care, starting with reducing the stigma perpetuated by false claims of violent potential.

The killings in Maine are yet another reminder of the complexity and urgency with which the public health epidemic of gun violence in America must be addressed. Frankly, we are failing miserably. The people of America deserve better than the non-action rhetoric of “thoughts and prayers” and are smarter than to accept continued political deflection. We can pay tribute to the victims of gun violence by supporting comprehensive gun control, investing in mental health services, and creating a culture that values safety and well-being. The time for inaction has passed, and we are reminded too often that the cost of remaining passive is immeasurable.

NM Gov. Uses Emergency Power to Override Gun Rights. Could PA’s Shapiro Do the Same?

When New Mexico Democrat Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a 30-day “public health emergency” restricting gun rights and overriding state gun laws, some Pennsylvanians wondered: Could her fellow Democrat, Gov. Josh Shapiro, use the Keystone Sate’s emergency powers laws to do the same?

As recently as June, Shapiro was in Delaware County advocating for more restrictive gun laws. And Philadelphia’s soaring violent crime rate is higher than the crime in Albuquerque, which inspired Lujan Grisham to declare an emergency.

Could Shapiro repeat the restrictive, months-long COVID lockdowns put in place by his predecessor, Gov. Tom Wolf (D)?

According to Pennsylvania political observers and analysts, the answer is not likely.

“The governor is subject to the same laws as every other Pennsylvanian and every other elected official,” Matt Brouillette, president & CEO of Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs, told DVJournal. “He took an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution and the Pennsylvania Constitution, so any action he takes must be in accordance with the constitution, both state and national, and with all current laws. He has no authority to suspend laws.”

Pennsylvania voters approved stricter limits on the governor’s ability to declare an emergency in 2021. The state constitution sets a 21-day limit on all crisis proclamations. Those declarations cannot be extended except by a concurrent resolution of the General Assembly. The governor is prevented from issuing new disaster emergency declarations on the same topic with General Assembly permission.

House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler said he believes the constitutional limits make Pennsylvania a freer state.

“Before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic, Republicans in the General Assembly, and the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in particular, have been stalwart defenders of freedom and liberty and the need to follow the constitution and the rule of law,” he said in a statement to DVJournal. “We will always hold officials accountable by whatever legal means we have when they overstep.”

Maine Policy recently reviewed what states have the most and least powerful emergency powers laws for their governors to wield. It ranked Pennsylvania 10th least powerful, up from 43rd in 2021. South Carolina ranked first in the nation, while Vermont was dead last.

“The restrictions on the timeline are really key,” Commonwealth Foundation Policy Analysis Director Elizabeth Stelle said. “There’s only so much a governor can do in a 21-day period.” She added that putting the limits in the state constitution sets a higher bar “to get around than if it was just in a state statute.”

In New Mexico, Lujan Grisham suspended all open and concealed carry gun laws around Albuquerque for 30 days, with exceptions for law enforcement. The move has been roundly criticized, with multiple lawsuits filed.

“It is extremely clear that Grisham knows she is operating outside of constitutional bounds, especially after last summer’s Bruen ruling, which specifically protected individuals’ rights to carry firearms outside the home,” the National Association for Gun Rights said in a statement.

While both Lujan Grisham and Shapiro are Democrats, he appears to have earned a great deal of trust from friends and critics alike.

“Gov. Shapiro is a ‘thinker,’” says Bruce Castor Jr., former acting Pennsylvania Attorney Generalm who also served ad Montgomery County DA. He’s now in private practice. “By that, I mean he does not do “crazy” things…Our governor, I believe, will have already decided what the limitations are on his authority and would not do anything as obviously contrary to the law as the governor in New Mexico is reported to have done.”

The courts or the legislature would likely get involved should a Pennsylvania governor decide to do their best imitation of Lujan Grisham.

“Absolutely,” declared Castor. “Not just the General Assembly, or individuals within the General Assembly. Also, people aggrieved by any supposed unconstitutional act would go to court to challenge that exercise of authority.”

Stelle is confident in the system currently in place. She warns executive overreach won’t necessarily be immediately tossed. “In the past, those questions have played out through many months of litigation. I would suspect the same thing would happen in Pennsylvania, regardless of the political makeup that there would be pushback from the party that’s not the governor’s party.”

Shapiro’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Shapiro did defend former Cov. Wolf’s COVID orders while serving as state attorney general but said during his gubernatorial campaign that he didn’t agree with them.

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Cheltenham Hosts Emotional Meeting After Armed Student Caught at Football Game

A 17-year-old Cheltenham High School student bringing a gun with two high-capacity magazines to a football game in Abington Friday night sent shock waves through the community, frightening parents over their children’s safety.

To address parents’ concerns, Cheltenham School District Superintendent Brian V  Scriven, PhD., held an emergency town hall meeting Monday evening.

The teenager was taken into custody without incident and remanded to the Montgomery County Juvenile Center. Scriven told the gathering of concerned residents and families there was no indication beforehand the student was having problems.

The youth, who was not identified because of this age, attended Myers Elementary School and had been in the district since kindergarten.

“It does hurt my heart,” said Scriven. “That wasn’t a transplant. That was somebody who came through our district, and we failed. And I own it. And that’s why programmatically I’m looking at what can we do to have those safeguards in place?”

A parent in the stands had spotted the gun in the teenager’s waistband and alerted an Abington officer. Officers took the suspect into custody near a rear fence and another male standing near him. A girl who was talking to them was not arrested, and the second male was released Friday night, police said.

Cheltenham Police Chief John Slavin, whose son was at the game, also spoke.

“As a parent, it hits me where I live,” Slavin said. “I’m on the phone with my son, ‘What’s going on?’ I’m not there. I don’t know what’s happening. I’m getting a little anxious.

“This is a national issue,” said Slavin. “It’s not just a Cheltenham issue. It’s not an Abington issue. It’s a national issue. How do we improve?

“The game means nothing, really,” said Slavin. “It’s not even the point. The point is to get everyone out of there safely. That’s the priority, not the sporting event. It’s the students. And the faculty and staff and the visitors who are at this game. And how we can keep them safe.”

He reviewed the last five years and said very few incidents of juveniles with guns were reported in Cheltenham.

“We have to do work on this. Let students know there are consequences for this,” he said, offering to partner with the district.

One parent asked whether the teen would be readmitted to the high school. Scriven said bringing a gun to school called for mandatory one-year expulsion, but the school board will likely revisit that policy.

A mother said her child told her high school kids sometimes bring guns to school to show them off, which seemed to surprise Scriven and high school Principal Jimmy D’Andrea.

Several parents asked for metal detectors to be placed at the doors. Others said there should be screening at all events with security wands, and someone should check people’s bags before they enter venues.

United Parent Group Co-President Lakisha Rodwell Green read a list of ideas her group devised over the weekend. They included better screening, added security at games, walkie-talkies for various group leaders to improve communication, and a buddy system for students for emergencies.

Novice Ezell, a parent, was in the stands with her two elderly parents and worried they would get trampled when some students, who saw the football players run off the field, started running, too. No one told the spectators what was happening, she said.

“It took about 30 minutes to get answers,” said Ezell.

Later, she said she did not “feel comfortable” that her child was safe at school.

“It’s a very unsettling thing to think about: Is my son going to be safe walking into the school? We’ve seen it across the United States: a gun found in a bookbag, a gun found anywhere…Is he safe?”

“This is the first of many conversations,” said Scriven. “I have learned that I cannot 100 percent guarantee that nothing will happen, just like I had no control over Friday. I think collectively, we have to work on our path forward. That’s why I had this town meeting. And that’s why I try to be as transparent as I can be. We need to all do our part.”

“Is there now going to be a commitment to figuring out what we do to take care of our students’ mental health moving forward?” asked Rachel Ezekiel-Fishbein. Last year, after the Uvalde, N.M. school shooting, a group of stakeholders met to talk about these issues with state Rep. Napoleon Nelson (D-Glenside). “It kept coming back to mental health, mental health. And one of the things I heard about was really amazing was these groups of people from all works of life, counselors, teachers, therapists, O.T.s, police officers, who are always keeping an eye out for children…” And instead of just trying to help the troubled child, they reach out to the family, she said.

There are programs to help students in crisis in the district, said Scriven, including mentorships and leadership programs, and more are being planned.

Another parent said today’s children have endured active shooter drills since kindergarten.

Both Scriven and Slavin assured the parents Thursday night’s home game with Chester would include new safety procedures and more security personnel.

Nelson said, “If you see something, say something. If you see someone just looking like they’re lost or if they look like they’re a danger to themselves or others…The most important thing we can do when we leave here is commit to being that portion of our community that looks at and after our kids.”

“And when I say ‘our kids,’ I don’t mean my daughter who’s in the eleventh grade,” said Nelson. “I don’t mean your specific children. I mean our kids.”

A red flag law he voted for is also important, he said. This would allow family members to ask law enforcement to take away a gun from a relative who was violent or suicidal. That bill passed the House but not the Senate.

“To the extent there is legislation, know we are on it. We’re working on it. And we will continue to work with the school district and the police department on grants, funding, and support. And to wrap our arms around the district that we all love, and you love.”

To report something suspicious anonymously, call the Safe to Say number: 844-Safe-to-Say.

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Montco Cracks Down on Straw Gun Purchases as Philly Crooks Come to Suburbs

While the debate over adding new gun laws continues, a local prosecutor says Pennsylvania’s current laws can have a major impact on gun crimes, and he believes his record proves it.

Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele and his department have been cracking down on straw purchases of guns, charging some two dozen people with so-called straw purchasing and related offenses.

All of the defendants are from Philadelphia.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives defines a straw purchase as buying a gun for someone prohibited by law from possessing one or for someone who does not want their name associated with the transaction.

In June, the district attorney’s office announced the arrests of Antwoin Lofton, 25, and Aja Morris, 27, who were part of an organization involved in straw purchasing of firearms. Kenneth Lyles, 30, has been named in the case. Morris and Lofton turned themselves in. Lyles remains at large.

“Gun trafficking and straw purchasing of firearms put guns in the hands of criminals, arming people who are not legally allowed to possess a firearm,” Steele said in a statement. “This is dangerous and a threat to public safety. We are committed to continue going after and tracking down anyone buying and selling firearms illegally in Montgomery County.”

According to his spokesperson, Montgomery County law enforcement has investigated illegal gun purchases involving more than 750 firearms since 2019.

Unlike other prosecutors in Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who routinely promote more gun control, Steele prefers the law on the books.

“I think we could use more tools,” Steel said, adding he believes Pennsylvania’s current gun laws are particularly effective when local authorities team up with federal agencies. “Lost and stolen mandatory reporting could be helpful in some cases. My point is [the current statutes do] not hinder investigations in these cases…using those existing laws, strategies, and new technologies successfully.”

Tough sentences for those convicted of gun crimes are important, too, Steel added. He pointed to efforts to break up gun trafficking groups and the five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for multiple straw purchases as proof that a strong message is being sent to criminals.

“If you look at the cases, not just the arrests, we’re getting significant sentencing in these cases,” he added. “In Montgomery County, we have not found a system that makes it difficult to punish these cases. Our courts take these cases very seriously, and you see that reflected in the sentencing.”

Since the beginning of the year, 22 people have been arrested and charged with straw purchasing. That includes a case in February when eight people were arrested in connection with a gun trafficking organization that purchased 94 firearms and tried to purchase 23 more, all to be illegally resold. All the defendants were from Philadelphia and faced dozens of felony charges related to straw purchases of firearms, illegally transferring firearms, operating a corrupt organization, and other charges.

Steele recently wrapped up his tenure as president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association and remains a member of the executive committee. PDAA says its mission is to make sure the public and its members understand criminal justice matters.

The PDAA has long complained that straw purchases are to blame for the gun violence in Pennsylvania. It is also one of the few issues that tend to unite gun advocates and gun control groups.

“Generally, Pennsylvania gun laws are quite lax,” said CeaseFirePA’s executive director, Adam Garber. “The main protection we have is a strong background check system. But beyond that, you can walk in and buy a gun in a very short period with minimal safeguards and no training needed.”

CeaseFirePA’s deputy director of government affairs, Brandon Flood, elaborated, saying that Brady (Brady gave Pennsylvania a B-minus in its ratings of gun laws across the United States. That is far from a failing grade, and Flood added the commonwealth can do much more.

“There is definitely room for improvement,” he said. “Just to illustrate, recently, the state legislature took up the issue of liquor privatization, a proposal that was defeated. We need to apply that same level of energy to tighten our gun laws. One thing Pennsylvania gets right is the need for a background check. Anyone who goes into a federally licensed firearm store or even looks to purchase a firearm or a rifle at a gun show is subjected to an extensive criminal background check.”

Steele said having such additional laws would be useful, but not having them need not hinder gun trafficking investigations.

One commonsense strategy used by the Montgomery County Detective Bureau is to routinely review multiple gun purchases by individuals.

“Typically, an investigation begins when a person who is not legally allowed to own a gun is arrested/found to be in possession of a firearm, said Kate Delano, a Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office spokesperson. “That firearm is traced to the purchaser, and the investigation begins.”

According to Delano, tracking those cases is very time-consuming as many gun shops still use a paper/carbon-copy system to record firearms purchases, which are mailed through the U.S. Postal Service to the Pennsylvania State Police, who then hand-key the information into a database. Given the volume of purchases, it takes a while to record serial numbers related to gun purchases.

“The Attorney General’s Office has been making a concerted effort for the last several years to get more gun stores onto the Electronic Record of Sale (EROS) system, which instantly sends the record of the firearms purchase to the state police database, which is traceable by police officers who recover a gun at a scene,” Delano said. “There is continued outreach, and progress has been made, but there is a long way to go.

For example, a routine review of gun purchases by the Montgomery County Detective Bureau led to the investigation and arrest of Daniel Lucas in 2020. Lucas, also from Philadelphia, allegedly straw-purchased 36 firearms in 77 days in eight counties. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced by Montgomery County Judge Wendy Rothstein to ten to twenty years in prison.

Another technological tool for law enforcement is the NIBN (National Integrated Ballistic Information Network) machine that tracks firearms by the signatures left on the fired cartridge cases like a fingerprint. All four suburban Philadelphia counties share the technology. When a bullet is fired, each gun leaves its own signature on the casings. The NIBN system compares these individual casings against its six million FCC database and creates a list of high-probability matches.

Steele said a growing number of gun trafficking organizations have been dismantled, and the mandatory minimum sentencing required by the Brad Fox Law for straw purchasing sends a strong message to the defendants and others who might be thinking of straw purchasing that it’s not worth it.

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Senate Republicans Launch Pro-Gun Second Amendment Caucus

Republicans in the state Senate have launched what’s being billed as a pro-gun caucus that its chairman says will work to counteract gun misinformation in the state government.

The Second Amendment Caucus will give its members “more opportunities to become actively involved in protecting and strengthening lawful firearms ownership,” Sen. Chris Dush (R-Cameron) said in a press release announcing the association.

Dush and 13 other senators—all Republicans serve as inaugural caucus members.

Dush told DVJournal he would be working to get more Democrats involved in the caucus, noting that the state House’s Second Amendment caucus, on which he previously served, has included Democrats as well as Republicans.

Dush said the newly formed caucus has no immediate legislative aims and instead focuses on promoting accurate firearm education.

“What we want to do is get together and start planning a way to deal with the misinformation coming from the left about weapons,” Dush said.

“The phrase about ‘gun violence,’ it’s about violence, period,” he argued. “Our society is going through social contagions with psychological issues and everything, and the violence isn’t just limited to firearms. The left, though, is using this increase in violence as an opportunity to try and focus on the instrument rather than the root causes of what’s causing the psychological issues.”

“We need to make sure that we’re getting the message out that we need to address the core issues that are the causes, and we need to remind people of why the Second Amendment and Article I, Section 21 of the Pennsylvania state constitution are there in the first place.”

The state constitutional article referenced by Dush, among the oldest gun rights provisions in the United States, stipulates that “the right of the citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and the State shall not be questioned.” Gun advocates have pointed to this early code as evidence of the country’s longstanding culture of individual gun rights.

Dush argued that modern Pennsylvania is rife with gun laws in contrast to its pro-gun roots.

“Pennsylvania’s got more laws on the books dealing with firearms than you can shake a stick at,” he said. “I think if you just printed out the sections of the various codes that deal with firearms, and just those sections, I think it’s several inches thick.”

One of the problems with gun violence in the state, Dush said, is prosecutors don’t aggressively follow through with gun charges.

“We don’t have the prosecutors going after these things,” he said, claiming that the state sees “so many rap sheets of firearm charges” with hefty “mandatory minimum sentences,” and prosecutors end up “just dropping them over and over and over.”

“And you have guys who were repeat offenders whose firearms charges were never prosecuted,” he added. “If they start prosecuting those and going after those mandatory minimum sentences in the first place, you would see a drop in firearms used in the commission of a crime.”

Dush said the caucus is not looking to make splashy efforts to pass gun control laws, particularly as the House and Governor’s Office remain in Democratic hands.

“I’m not going to put stuff out there just to gain headlines,” he said. “If it hasn’t been introduced, we’re probably not going to unless someone comes out with something novel.”

Gov. Josh Shapiro has indicated his support for gun control laws. As attorney general, he voiced support for what he said was “a state’s authority to protect its citizens and establish gun safety laws.” Before his inauguration as governor, he suggested pursuing at least some gun regulations while in office.

Earlier this year, Sen. Steve Santarsiero (D-Bucks) introduced an “assault weapons” ban meant to ban dozens of models of popular rifles in the state. Last month the state House passed two gun control laws: A “red flag” law and a universal background check law. Those bills remain pending in the Senate.  

On June 12, at 11 a.m. on the front steps of the state capitol, the Pennsylvania Senate and House Second Amendment Caucus, Dush, and Rep. Abby Major (R-Armstrong/Westmoreland), along with other pro-Second Amendment legislators, will join with law-abiding firearm owners from across the commonwealth for the 2023 Right to Keep and Bear Arms Rally.

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DelVal Senator Calls U.S. Gun Rights ‘Global Embarrassment’ During PCN Debate

Delaware Valley state Sens. Anthony Williams (D-Philaldelphia/Delaware) and Cris Dush (R-Centre) faced off on Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN) on Tuesday evening to debate gun rights in the Keystone State, including Dush’s proposal to allow citizens in the state to carry a concealed handgun without a permit.

At issue was Article 1, Section 21 of the Pennsylvania Constitution which states, “The right of the citizen to bear arms in defense of themselves and the state shall not be questioned.”

Dush is sponsoring a bill in the state Senate that would allow “every person” in Pennsylvania to carry a firearm without a license so long as they are not legally barred from owning the gun.

State Sen. Cris Dush (R-Centre)

Dush argued that “the people who have a lawful ability to carry a firearm in the commonwealth, they shouldn’t have to have a permit. The people who are already lawfully able to carry a firearm, they can do so [under the bill].”

“Those who are not lawfully able, they’re not going to pay attention to any law on the book anyway,” he added.

Williams claimed America’s gun rights have made the nation a global laughingstock.

“The further allowance of armament by Americans is the bane of our existence and the embarrassment of America globally,” he said. “The global community laughs at us. We have more regulations to drink, to smoke a cigarette, and to drive a car in Pennsylvania than we do to buy a gun.”

The two senators debated for over an hour, including taking questions from callers.

Williams said the U.S. has “too many illegal guns, too many illegally purchased guns, and too many people who shouldn’t own a gun. We have to acknowledge that we have a problem.”

Dush said focusing on guns as the ultimate source of violence in the U.S. is misguided.

“As a society, the things that we need to start addressing, they need to actually address the problems,” he said. “Pieces of equipment, that’s not actually the problem.” He argued that breakdowns in family structure and mental health issues were driving violence in communities nationwide.

The politicians also traded arguments regarding the constitutional basis for gun ownership in the U.S.

Dush said the Second Amendment is “there to protect the citizenry from people who abuse their power,” a contention with which Williams sharply disagreed.

“We’re having to debate about people arming themselves against the government. That’s chilling,” Williams said.

Dush’s bill—Senate Bill 357—is part of a recent flurry of laws passed by GOP legislators nationwide to codify so-called “constitutional carry” into law.

Residents of most states have long been required to obtain a license in order to carry a concealed weapon. But pro-gun Republicans have recently moved to abolish those provisions and allow unregulated concealed carry.

The United States Concealed Carry Association says as of January 1 of this year, a majority of states—26 in total—allow permit-free concealed carry.

Gun critics have claimed the proliferation of such laws contributes to a surge in violence in the United States, though the RAND Corporation says that evidence that permissive gun laws increase violent crime and homicides are “inconclusive” and “limited.”

DelVal Cops Tout Arrests in Local Gun Trafficking Ring

Delaware Valley law enforcement agencies announced arrests in a major gun trafficking ring that involved an alleged criminal enterprise involving nearly 100 firearms.

At a press conference on Wednesday, District Attorneys Kevin Steele (D-Montgomery County) and Matthew Weintraub (R-Bucks) were joined by acting Pennsylvania Attorney General Michelle Henry, Abington Police Chief Patrick Molloy and members of state police and ATF.

Steele said Larry Williams, 40, of Philadelphia led a crime ring of straw purchasers who bought at least 94 firearms and tried to buy 23 more but were stopped by alert gun dealers. Twenty-nine guns were recovered by police.

Montgomery County detectives began the investigation in June 2022.

“They were obtaining significant amounts of guns in short periods of time and then reselling them to juveniles,” said Steele. “Or felons who were unable to obtain guns and then used them in other crimes.” He said those prohibited from owning guns would include people with a record of domestic violence or mental illness. “Or to provide guns to drug traffickers.”

County detectives have investigated 750 straw purchase cases since last fall.

The Williams group was the largest snared by law enforcement in an investigation that began with Abington’s police department and led to an investigation by county detectives. Steele said investigators used the Electronic Record of Sales (EROS), cell phones, records, and social media to track the straw purchasers.

It ultimately led them to Larry Williams.

“Williams couldn’t buy a firearm because of his past indiscretions,” said Steele. “He recruited other defendants who lived in Philadelphia to buy firearms.”

Steele said Robert Cooper III, 23, purchased 41 guns and tried to buy eight others in less than two months. Zair Stenson, 26, bought 36 firearms and tried to buy seven others; Malik Rowell-Jernigan, 24, purchased eight firearms and tried to buy three additional guns; Kevin Lester-Logan, 24, bought three guns; Daynell Jones, 40, bought three firearms; Zakayla Deshields, 22, bought three firearms and Shadiid Smaley, 23, attempted to purchase five firearms.

Many of these purchases happened at gun shows in Oaks, Allentown, and York, Steele said. Williams would point out the guns he wanted to his associates. Then, using cell phones and payment apps, they would quickly resell the weapons.

Guns trafficked by the organization have been used in a robbery in Connecticut, as well as shootings in Philadelphia and other crimes.

“It takes collaboration,” Henry said of the various agencies involved in the gun cases. “If this case doesn’t say it, I don’t know what case does. Guns have no borders.”

“Guns far too often end up in the hands of dangerous individuals,” she said.  “There could have been even more weapons if not for the flag raised by firearm dealers…they did the right thing.  This case really shows there are still many ways to flood the streets with firearms.”

“We are working tirelessly around the clock to be sure (people) are safe,” she said. “The numbers are upside down. The numbers don’t work…But for the grace of some gun dealers that are tracking these sales and reporting them. That’s like locking the barn door after the horse left the barn.”

“We recovered almost 30 guns. That leaves another 65 guns that are out there. And sadly, you never fully exhale. I’m always waiting to get that call that this illegally purchased gun was used to do some terrible damage to our citizens,” Weintraub said.

Asked by the Delaware Valley Journal what percentage of illegal possession of gun charges get dismissed through plea bargains, Steele said he did not have those numbers. But many of the straw purchase cases have gone to trial.

“And those are significant sentences,” he said. “These charges aren’t going away on people…Brad Fox was a police officer here that was killed by a man using a straw purchaser, and [the shooter] told that straw purchaser that he would kill a cop if he got stopped, and he did.”

The Brad Fox law, signed by former Gov. Tom Corbett in 2012 and named for a murdered Plymouth Township police officer, requires a mandatory five-year sentence for straw purchasers.

DVJournal asked why the U.S. Attorney’s Office is stepping in and handling so many gun cases, mainly in Philadelphia, Steele said, “I think we’re handling a lot. We’ve had 750 investigations along those lines. Welcome to Montgomery County.”

“We have legislation to do these investigations,” he said. “We’re all working together. And especially the collar counties of Philadelphia. We’ve been really, really active as a team, and we’ll continue to do that.  You’re going to hear more about that teamwork going forward. Matt’s got Bucks. I’ve got Montgomery. And that’s our focus.”


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