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Gun control measures advance out of Democratic-controlled Pennsylvania House committee

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Democrats in majority control of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives advanced several gun control measures Wednesday, including one that would ban sales of automatic and semi-automatic guns, after years of standstill in the politically divided state government.

The bills were passed by the Judiciary Committee on party lines and await the full House's consideration.

Even if the bills clear the House floor, however, they will likely face a cold reception in the state Senate; other gun control measures passed by the House last year did not even get called up in committee. Instead, senators have prioritized working with Democrats to boost funding for anti-violence and mental health programs.

Still, it’s the second time since Democrats regained majority status in the chamber that they've used their heft to push gun control measures. They kicked off the current two-year session last March with a hearing on gun violence. Under Republican majorities in both chambers until last year, the Legislature has not seriously considered broadening gun-control measures since 2018.

The slate of bills that passed Judiciary on Wednesday would balance gun ownership with protecting average citizens, Democrats argued.

“These are issues that we were clear at the beginning of the session we wanted to tackle,” said the committee's chairman, Democratic Rep. Tim Briggs of Montgomery County. “The first thing we did was have a hearing on gun violence prevention measures.”

Republicans raised concerns about infringing upon constitutional rights.

“If the government can infringe on our Second Amendment rights, no rights can be enjoyed by citizens of this nation,” said Rep. Joe Hamm, a Republican from Lycoming County.

One bill the committee approved would ban future sales of “assault weapons,” defined as automatic and semi-automatic firearms. Sponsors cited the use of high-capacity semi-automatic rifles in a number of mass shootings, including in Pittsburgh, where a gunman carried out the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history in 2018 armed with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons.

Previously, Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro has said he’d support legislation that limits the availability of such firearms. At least 10 states have enacted laws banning them, sometimes spurring litigation.

Among the other legislation that passed the committee, one bill would prohibit accelerated trigger activators, which increase the rate of gunfire. Another bill would prohibit the purchase, sale and production of untraceable gun parts. A fourth would subject 3D-printed firearms to the same regulations as standard firearms.

Another bill would shorten the time a judge has to notify the Pennsylvania State Police about a person with mental health from about a week to four days.

Adam Garber, executive director of CeaseFirePA, a gun violence prevention group, said the advancing of the bills showed a “commitment to survivors.” He called the automatic weapons ban proposal the first such effort in “modern times.”

“This is what it looks like to tackle the violent crime that plagues cities from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and everywhere else in between," Garber said.

Nationally, the U.S. set a record pace for mass killings in the first six months of 2023. But gun violence measures also seek to address domestic violence killings, community violence and suicides.

In Philadelphia, gun violence played a significant role in the campaign for mayor, with now-Mayor Cherelle Parker, a Democrat, promising a tough-on-crime approach that included declaring a public safety emergency.

Philadelphia has been buffeted by violent crime, tallying a record number of homicides in 2021, most of them gun-related. That number has steadily fallen, but it still remained above pre-COVID-19 levels in 2023.

A full House vote likely won’t come for months, as the chamber is deadlocked at 101-101 after the resignation of a Democratic lawmaker. A special election will again determine majority status in February.