More than one week ago, more than 2,000 miles from Pittsburgh, 58 people were killed and another 500 were injured in a mass shooting in Las Vegas. The massacre was the deadliest in modern U.S. history, topping the shooting which took place just last year in Orlando.
Almost always after a tragedy like this, the call for gun control flashes around the country like a collective lightbulb, but in recent years — including after the 2012 Newtown, Conn., massacre, where 20 children between the ages of 6 and 7 were shot and killed — little is actually done to tighten the country’s gun laws.
But while the issue gets the most attention in the days and weeks following each massacre, legislators at the state and federal level work year-round to pass laws to reduce gun violence. In places like Pennsylvania, those bills gain little traction. And most terrifyingly, say gun-reform advocates, others are actually working to weaken the country’s current firearm laws.
CeaseFirePA, a Pennsylvania gun-reform advocacy group, monitors legislative efforts at both the federal and local level. City Paper checked in with the organization to see which efforts the group thinks local residents should keep an eye on after the national spotlight has drifted from the issue.
“While it is difficult to sit back and watch so many horrific tragedies unfold with such regularity,” says Rob Conroy, director of organizing for CeaseFirePA, “and while it is incredibly difficult to sit back and watch as our government, both state and federal, refuses to take any action, let alone meaningful action, to rectify this problem, we cannot give in and sit back complacently, or else nothing will be done.”
In 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people in a church in Charleston, S.C. Roof was able to obtain the gun used in the attack because of a flaw in the federal background-check system.
Right now, Pennsylvania legislators are considering a bill that could make the same scenario possible in this state. Currently, a Pennsylvania citizen who attempts to buy a firearm goes through a background check in both the PA Instant Check System (PICS) and the National Instant Check System (NICS). Legislation introduced in the House by state Rep. Jason Ortitay (R-Allegheny County) would eliminate PICS, leaving checks to be processed through only NICS.
“The PICS system duplicates the background check which is already completed when a NICS check is conducted and as a result, has wasted well over 100 million dollars,” Ortitay said in a statement.
But according to CeaseFirePA, PICS is necessary because unlike NICS, it prohibits a gun dealer from selling a firearm to someone who does not clear a background check within 72 hours.
“It’s important to keep both systems in place because there are additional records in PICS especially regarding mental health and juvenile records that are not readily transferable or easily transferable to the national system,” adds Conroy. “This is at least the third session where our legislators have tried to do something like this. It does have a base of support, and I know it’s a priority of the gun lobby.”
At the federal level, the gun lobby, spearheaded by the National Rifle Association, has also made easier access to firearm silencers and suppressors a priority over the past year. In fact, a measure easing regulations was even set for a vote this month; but since the massacre, the vote has been postponed.
“Silencers and flash suppressors are really hard to get, but just imagine if we didn’t have those regulations,” says Conroy. “The fact that silencers are regulated could’ve saved lives [in Las Vegas].”
Another regulation that experts say could’ve saved lives in Las Vegas is a ban on a device called a bump stock. Automatic weapons have been illegal for more than 30 years, but attachments like bump stocks, which were used by the Vegas shooter, can modify guns to fire at the same rate as automatic weapons.
Last week, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and others proposed legislation that would ban the sale, transfer, importation, manufacture or possession of bump stocks and others accessories that accelerate a semi-automatic rifle’s rate of fire.
“This is an important proposal that could decrease the risk of another Newtown, another Orlando or another Las Vegas,” Casey said in a statement. “Congress has an obligation to implement laws that make people safer. This legislation would close a dangerous loophole that makes it all too easy to create DIY automatic weapons.”
Now CeaseFirePA says it’s time to move forward on the conversation about an overall ban on assault weapons like those used by the gunman in the Vegas massacre.
“We’re not saying this is something that will happen next week,” says Conroy. “But it’s a dialogue that needs to be opened.”