by Chris Potter
So far, state Attorney General Kathleen Kane has been getting press coverage mostly for her fledgling investigation of how Gov. Tom Corbett handled the Jerry Sandusky child-abuse scandal. But Kane, a Democrat, may already have notched up a more lasting accomplishment: making it harder for gun owners to skirt Pennsylvania's "concealed-carry" license requirements.
Late this morning, Kane's office announced that she had closed the so-called "Florida Loophole", which allowed Pennsylvania gun-owners to get concealed-carry permits from Florida — even if they were rejected by law-enforcement in their own home state. If Pennsylvanians using a Florida concealed-carry permit want to carry a concealed weapon legally, they must apply for a Pennsylvania license at their local sheriff's department by June.
The loophole took advantage of a provision in a "reciprocity agreement," in which Pennsylvania and Florida agreed to honor the licenses issued by another. Such agreements aren't uncommon, and they make some sense: You wouldn't want to have go through a whole new permitting process every time you crossed a state line. But gun-control advocates have had long-standing concerns with the arrangement in Florida. Under the state's previous agreement, Florida could issue concealed-carry permits to people who weren't Florida residents — and unlike other states, Florida doesn't bar gun-owners from getting a license even if they have been rejected by their home state. That allowed people in Pennsylvania to go license-shopping: If they were barred from obtaining a concealed-carry permit in Pennsylvania, they could order one online from Florida instead.
In a controversial case from 2010, a Philadelphia man who'd been denied a concealed-carry permit ordered one from Florida instead. He later shot and killed a teenager who was breaking into his car.
Kane's move came as no surprise: State law gives the attorney general's office the ability to negotiate reciprocity agreements, and Kane had campaigned on a pledge to tighten up the terms with Florida. In fact, that pledge "was a big part of the reason for our endorsement of her," says Shira Goodman, the executive director of gun-control advocacy group CeaseFirePa.
Goodman, whose group's agenda has been frustrated by Harrisburg Republicans for years, called Kane's move "a tremendous step forward. We've been working on this for years, and she's taken decisive action on it in her first few months."
The inevitable question is: Is anyone actually safer as a result of this? After all, while the loophole has been in place for years — and while more than 3,000 Pennsylvanians are believed to have used it — gun-control advocates described the 2010 Philadelphia incident as the first they knew of in which it could be tied to an actual shooting death. Which might lead one to conclude that most of the people who use the loophole stay out of trouble ... and that by applying for a concealed-carry permit at all, they are still trying to obey some kind of law.
"I don't buy this argument that only law-abiding citizens follow laws, and that these laws only punish law-abiding citizens," Goodman says. In Pennsylvania, licenses are issued by the sheriff's department (an appeal is possible) and Goodman says local law-enforcement "may be aware of trouble at home, or some other reason that people didn't pass the character test," even if they didn't have lengthy records. In any case, she says, allowing gun owners to seek approval in Florida undermines the ability of "local police and prosecutors to keep us safe."
Kane's move won't come as much surprise to gun owners: The NRA has already raised alarms about her stance on the issue. And while Goodman says it's too late to void the new deal Kane struck with the Sunshine State, the NRA isn't powerless. At the federal level, there have already been efforts in Congress to require reciprocity between states, effectively preventing Kane and other state officials from setting rules themselves.
But legislation to that effect died last year. And while it could be resurrected, Goodman is optimistic that momentum is on her side. Kane's move dovetails with a recent decision by the State Police to being transmitting mental-health records to a national database used for background checks carried out when a gun is sold.
"We've won some administrative battles," Goodman says. "Now we need our legislature to take some steps." Next on the group's agenda: expanding background checks to include gun sales that take place at gun shows and elsewhere.
As for the NRA? Goodman cites polls recent polls suggesting that in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, a large majority of voters supports gun-control measures — like background checks for all gun sales — the NRA opposes.
"The NRA certainly isn't representing most Americans on these issues," Goodman says. "They aren't even representing most of their own members."