Democrats signal need for action on guns after Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

“Ultimately, we know we can make our community safer by having some common sense gun laws,” state Rep. Dan Frankel said Sunday.

Gov. Tom Wolf, center, walks with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald

Gov. Tom Wolf, center, walks with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald

Sarah Anne Hughes

Elected officials in Pennsylvania are signaling the need for action beyond thoughts and prayers in the wake of a massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 people dead.

Law enforcement officials were unable to say Sunday morning how suspected shooter Robert Bowers obtained the Colt AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and three Glock handguns he allegedly used Saturday inside Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill.

But the use of a military-style weapon in yet another mass shooting has renewed calls by Democrats for stronger gun measures.

“Ultimately, we know we can make our community safer by having some common sense gun laws,” state Rep. Dan Frankel, a Democrat who represents Squirrel Hill, said Sunday.

Frankel serves as co-chair of the House SAFE Caucus, which advocates for legislation like requiring background checks for all gun purchases and limiting access to firearms after involuntary mental health treatment.

“I think we need to be talking about how we move forward with a legislative agenda that’s going to address some of these challenges in front of us,” he said.

That doesn’t just include gun legislation. Frankel also noted the need for an improved and expanded hate crimes law in an era where “hatred is more unleashed than ever before because of the national dialogue.”

House Bill 505, which Frankel co-sponsored, would extend protections under the existing statute to people based on “actual or perceived ancestry, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity.”

It has been sitting in the Judiciary committee since its introduction in early 2017.

Joining the call

Frankel isn’t alone in calling for stronger gun measures in the wake of the Squirrel Hill killings.

“We’ll get past this, but it makes you wonder what has to happen in this country before we start to have some common sense about guns,” U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, a Democrat who represents Pittsburgh, said Saturday on CNN. “I just don’t understand why any civilian needs a military weapon. Those weapons are designed to do one thing: kill a lot of people quickly.”

Doyle is running unopposed this November.

Gov. Tom Wolf, also a Democrat, said at a Saturday press conference that “we must take action to prevent these tragedies in the future. We simply cannot accept this violence as a normal part of American life.”

Both Doyle and Wolf support banning military-style weapons and expanding background checks.

Wolf’s opponent, Republican Scott Wagner, opposes a ban on assault-style firearms and implementing universal background checks. Instead, he’s proposed a review of Pennsylvania’s existing background check system and the hiring of armed guards for schools.

Wagner is endorsed by the NRA’s political arm. He called Saturday’s shooting “sickening” and suspended campaigning.

President Donald Trump, who said he plans to visit Pittsburgh, said shortly after the shooting that if there had been “some kind of a protection” inside the synagogue “maybe it could have been a very much different situation.” He said the shooting had “little to do” with gun laws.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto pushed back against the idea of arming guards inside places of worship and schools at a press conference Sunday.

“We’re dealing with irrational behavior. There is no way that you can rationalize a person walking into a synagogue during services and taking the lives of 11 people,” he said.

“I think the approach that we need to be looking at it is how we take the guns — which is the common denominator of every mass shooting in America — out of the hands of those who are looking to express hatred through murder.”

November and beyond

Frankel does see reason to hope that new gun measures could pass in the General Assembly.

He pointed to the passage of House Bill 2060, which mandated the relinquishment of firearms when a final Protection from Abuse order is in place. Frankel called it the first “meaningful” gun measure to pass in his 20 years in the state House.

At one point this summer, the bill appeared to be stalled. The grassroots group Moms Demand Action, alongside Democratic and Republican supporters, rallied in September to put pressure on lawmakers and push the legislation over the finish line. After some heated debate, it passed with bipartisan support and was signed by the governor.

Frankel said there needs to be “constant, intense advocacy” around this issue. He added that passing legislation like HB 2060 wouldn’t have been possible even two years ago.

“I sense some movement,” he said. “Maybe there is a path forward.”

Then there are the midterm elections, which are just over a week away.

Frankel said “the gun issue isn’t going to change dramatically until politicians believe that there are consequences” — like getting voted out of office.

While lawmakers who talk about guns in the wake of massacres like this one are accused of politicizing tragedy, that doesn’t appear to be a concern for the Squirrel Hill community.

At the end of a vigil to honor the victims Saturday night, those gathered chanted, “Vote! Vote! Vote!”