Hundreds of gun rights supporters took their cause to the state Capitol on Monday, pushing for an agenda that includes looser rules for carrying concealed weapons.
A “Make the Second Amendment Great Again” rally in the Rotunda brought together state lawmakers, sheriffs and gun rights enthusiasts for what has become an annual event.
“The right to defend yourself is a God-given right. It is not even given by man,” said Rosco Bickel, a 65-year-old retired machinist from near Oil City, Pennsylvania. Like many others at the rally, Bickel came to Harrisburg with a group, in his case gun owners from Clarion County.
House Speaker Mike Turzai, a Republican expected to announce a run for governor next year, told attendees he and his allies have been able to beat back anti-gun proposals.
“Think about all the stuff we have held off, in terms of taking away your rights,” Turzai said.
Republican leaders have successfully thwarted proposals to require reporting of lost or stolen guns or to require background checks for private sales of long guns, said Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFirePA, an advocacy group working to reduce gun violence. She said Pennsylvania has about 1,400 gun deaths a year.
“Where can you carry a gun, who has the right to have a gun, what kind of weapon can you have — I think those are the debates,” Goodman said.
Speakers advocated eliminating Pennsylvania’s criminal background checks system for gun buyers in favor of participation in a national checks system. They voiced support for a bill that would make it easier for people to launch legal challenges to local gun ordinances that go beyond state law. And they spoke in favor of letting people carry concealed weapons without permits, which are now required.
“Who here thinks they should have to pay a fee to exercise their constitutional rights?” asked Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-Allegheny, sponsor of the background checks legislation . The crowd voiced its agreement with him.
Rep. Mark Keller, R-Perry, predicted the local gun ordinance bill that passed the House 134-53 last month will make it out of the Senate and onto the desk of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.
“We need to get it done and get it done this year,” Keller said.
The proposal would again enact a law that was thrown out by the state Supreme Court last year on grounds it violated the state constitution’s requirement that laws may only address a single subject.
It would provide reimbursement for legal fees for those who challenge illegal gun restrictions, giving standing to anyone eligible to own a gun and membership groups such as the National Rifle Association. A similar bill passed the Senate 34-16 last month. Wolf has threatened to veto them.
The sponsor of a “constitutional carry” bill , Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Allegheny, told those at the rally not to become complacent. His bill would allow anyone eligible to own a gun to carry it secretly, doing away with the permits that are currently required. Wolf’s office said he is opposed to the constitutional carry and background checks bills as well.
“While we sleep, the other side works night and day to try and take away our constitutional rights,” Saccone warned the crowd.