FILE - Gun store, gun shop, firearm sales, gun control

(The Center Square) – A new gun safety coalition said Friday that requiring residents to obtain buyer’s permits before going through with a sale would reduce firearm-related violence in Pennsylvania, though it's a policy that will likely face a lukewarm reception – at best – in the conservative General Assembly.

“We’ve all been conditioned to believe that there’s noting that works and that’s there’s nothing we can do to reduce gun violence,” said Jennifer Clarke, executive director of the Public Interest Law Center. “Our coalition is based on the idea that we can do something.”

The Public Interest Law Center is one of eight steering members of the new PA Safety Alliance, a coalition of advocacy groups that prioritize reforms in public health, criminal justice and social welfare. More than a dozen other organizations – from teachers unions to district attorneys to physicians groups – have signed on as endorsing members.

“Polling shows that voters do support gun regulation,” Clarke said. “This is not about taking away guns. This is about implementing sensible gun policy.”

The alliance prioritizes legislation that would require residents to apply for a permit before buying a gun. Clarke said research connects licensing laws with decreases in firearm-related homicides and suicides, with rates in Connecticut declining 40 percent and 15 percent, respectively, after lawmakers enacted a similar policy.

Critics of such legislation argue that stricter regulation only hurts law-abiding gun owners and does little to deter criminals, who will always find ways to skirt the rules.

"Killers don't obey laws," said Chris Dorr, executive director of the Pennsylvania Firearms Association. "Only law abiding citizens do."

In Pennsylvania, the only barrier to purchase includes passing a background check at a licensed dealer. Private sellers can transfer long guns without any background check at all, though private handgun transfers can only occur after the buyer completes a check at a licensed dealer. 

But the alliance said mandating permits before a gun sale can even be initiated would prevent some of the impulsive firearm related violence that’s plagued the nation and the state, too. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 1,000 Pennsylvania residents killed themselves using a gun and nearly 600 were shot to death in 2018. 

“There’s been a lot of research that shows that licensing laws do result in reduced gun violence and deaths and injuries,” Clarke said. “There’s a waiting period so people who are contemplating suicide or shooting someone can cool off."

Dorr argues that the state with the most notorious licensing law, Illinois, could hardly tout its successes in reducing rates of gun-related violence. Illinois residents must apply for a Firearm Owner Identification (FOID) Card before buying a gun.

"This law would only hurt good people," he said.

It’s unclear what traction such a policy would get considering the current conservative majorities in the House and Senate. While Gov. Tom Wolf and legislative Democrats have advocated for state laws that would expand background checks and create extreme risk protection orders as recently as last fall, Republicans have been wary of overly-restrictive policies.

Dorr warns that implementing a permit to purchase law would be exactly that – the first in a slippery slope of restrictions on ammunition and accessories, too.

"We have a constitutional right so that's why we will viciously go after anyone who supports this legislation," he said. "No one should support this, especially Republicans."

Clarke said a licensing law shouldn’t be controversial.

“What we need to do is show the legislature that they need to listen to what people want,” she said. “And if this legislature won’t do that, we are in this for the long haul. There will be another legislature some day.”

Staff Reporter

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.