PBS: The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act is law. What comes next?

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Following the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act in June, Pennsylvania Democrats urged both the public and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to adopt a state-wide set of red flag laws.

Met with opposition from the National Rifle Association and a lack of support by Republican colleagues, State Sen. Art Haywood, who serves parts of both Montgomery County and Philadelphia County, and U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, who serves most of Center City, West, and Northwest Philadelphia, forged ahead anyway, holding a press conference in June to discuss the benefits of accepting the federal incentives.

“My current view is that in order to move red flag legislation forward, we’re going to need to get some new members of the state Senate in the November election,” Haywood said in a follow-up interview. “We need 26 votes and I can get 20 to 21 on the Democratic side. Of course, that still leaves getting another five.”

Some of those votes were lost to recent elections. Former State Senator Tom Killion, a Republican who represented Delaware County, wrote HB 2060. Along with Pa. Rep. Marguerite Quinn, Killion’s bill, signed into law by Gov. Wolf in 2018, protects survivors of domestic abuse by temporarily repossessing guns from domestic abusers under ‘final protection from abuse’ orders. Killion said that the passage of that bill was hard, and passing red flag laws would be even harder: “It’s a heavy lift in Pennsylvania because [of] the NRA … it’s a very pro-gun state.”

The NRA has been a constant opponent of gun policy reform across the United States. Leading up to 2020 elections, the organization supported former President Donald J. Trump with over $16 million in funding, with another $12 million going to congressional candidates. It has also been a staunch opponent of research projects aiming to detail the negative effects of owning guns, including supporting the Dickey Amendment of 1996, which cut gun violence research funding by nearly 90% in some cases.

The passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act by the federal government offers a $750 million dollar incentive for states to adopt red flag laws of their own, which states do not have to accept. The alternative, leaning into enforcement of other parts of the act, could take time to become reality.

Swing states like Pennsylvania are being observed by federal lawmakers for their response. This week, Chris Murphy, the junior Senator from Connecticut, met with Philadelphia community leaders to discuss what red flag laws would mean for Philadelphia and the whole of Pennsylvania.

Murphy broke down the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act into four parts, first highlighting the hundreds of changes to current gun law, the incentive for red flags laws, and closure of the ‘boyfriend loophole’ (previous laws framed domestic gun abuse within the framework of a spousal relationship).

“We treat under-21 purchases differently now, including a waiting period and a phone call to the local police department,” Murphy added. “So now any time a young person under 21 goes to buy a gun, the FBI has to call… if we’re smart about working with police departments they will have a protocol about what to do with that phone call — they will go check to see if that kid is somebody that they know about as a kid in crisis.”

Lastly, the act changes the definition of what it means to be engaged in the sale of firearms.

“Right now, you’ve got a lot of people who are selling weapons online on the Internet… but they don’t register as a firearms dealer, meaning they don’t have to do background checks,” said Murphy. “That’s how a lot of these guns get into Philadelphia. More people are now going to have to be licensed as firearm dealers.”

Finally, the act includes a federal prohibition on gun trafficking, with a framework similar to drug trafficking in terms of arrests, prosecution, and punishment.