Philly moms plead to state leaders for gun reform in Harrisburg, with new hope under a Democratic majority

Tribune Content Agency

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Tanya Clark stood quietly in the cold rain outside of Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Philadelphia on Thursday morning, tears streaming down her cheeks.

It was only 7 a.m. and yet her mind was already racing with memories of her nephew Jabarr Richards, the loving young man she raised like a son, who was fatally shot in October in Southwest Philadelphia.

She wasn’t wearing a shirt with his photo on it and didn’t write his name on a poster.

“I’m not ready to share him,” she said. “He’s still mine.”

But she was ready to fight for him.

So Clark, 65, rode on a bus with nearly three dozen Philadelphians who have lost loved ones to gun violence, and trekked to Harrisburg. There, she was among hundreds of Pennsylvanians who descended on the State Capitol to call on state officials to pass stronger gun laws with renewed hope that the new Democratic majority in the state House could finally achieve it.

“I want better,” said Clark. “I have other children, other grandchildren — children who deserve a life.”

Students, mothers, fathers, and aunts arrived by the dozens in groups from across the state for the day-of-action, sponsored by the gun violence prevention group CeaseFire PA. They flooded the Capitol steps and shared stories of loss. They met with lobbyists, and hoisted photos of their brothers and sons outside the ornate rotunda. Together, their mission was clear: Honor their loved ones and fight to ensure no one else feels the pain they’ve endured.

“Living with the pain of just trying to survive, we don’t always get to advocate for the policies to change our systems,” said Chantay Love, co-founder of EMIR Healing Center, which supports Philadelphia families affected by homicide.

“But you can still live, you can still fight,” Love told the survivors like Clark on the bus. “We can fix this.”

Among the names honored on signs and memorabilia were many from Philadelphia: Farod Williams, 31. Kristian Hamilton-Arthur, 28. Faree Givens, 29. Quran Justice, 26. Tyrese Johnson, 17. James Walke, 28.

The gathering on the Capitol steps preceded a panel of gun violence survivors and experts who testified at a House Judiciary Committee hearing. The committee must approve any gun-related legislation before it advances in the legislative process.

With Democrats in control of the House for the first time in over a decade, the new chair Rep. Tim Briggs, D-Montgomery, will soon determine which bills lawmakers should first consider.

Gun-control legislation had mostly languished in the committee under Republican leadership. Former committee chair Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, largely did not allow the committee to consider any gun reforms, even once vowing in 2019 he would not allow his committee to consider one popular gun-control policy “so long as Chairman Kauffman is chairman.”

Adam Garber, executive director of CeaseFire PA, said reform advocates intend to push hardest for two laws: one that would require gun owners to file police reports if their weapons are lost or stolen, and another mandating safe storage standards for guns in homes.

On Thursday, the committee sat through nearly three hours of testimony from nine doctors, teachers, and parents who had lost children to shootings.

Among those who testified was Meredith Elizalde, whose 14-year-old son Nicolas was fatally shot outside Roxborough High School in September.

Elizalde told legislators how Nick died in her arms. She pleaded that they take action to stem the flow of illegal guns into the city, her voice breaking only once — after describing how her son endured a direct shot to his heart.

Next to her, another grieving mother, Jeani Garcia, buried her head in her hands.

“You simply cannot imagine any of it, and you don’t want to,” Elizalde said.

While gun-reform advocates are hopeful under the Democratic House majority, any legislation would still need to pass the GOP-controlled state Senate, where Republican lawmakers have been hesitant to support the issues.

Kate Flessner, the spokesperson for Senate Republicans, said GOP lawmakers would continue to work to support public safety. “The Senate Republican Caucus is committed to our ongoing support of law enforcement, investing in school safety measures, and exploring ways to provide greater mental and behavioral health support to further protect our communities,” she said.

There is no law in Pennsylvania that requires a person to report a gun lost or stolen, which reform groups say enables straw purchasing and makes it difficult for law enforcement to identify and prosecute gun traffickers.

But gun-rights advocates say the law punishes victims, and could criminalize responsible gun owners.

“Would we penalize a rape victim for not reporting their rape?” asked Rep. David Rowe, a Republican from Central Pennsylvania.

Former chairman Kauffman raised similar concerns. He said the laws would further burden responsible gun owners, and said people who acquire guns illegally would not likely follow new laws on safe storage or filing a theft report.

Kauffman also accused some district attorneys, like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, of not fully enforcing existing gun laws. (Under Krasner’s tenure, gun convictions have dropped significantly, though he has said many factors contributed, including pandemic-related court backlogs, no-show witnesses, and weak evidence brought by police.)

Garber said responsible gun owners should already be storing their guns securely, and mandates could keep the weapon from ending up in the hands of a school shooter or innocent toddler.

As legislators discussed the matter, Kerry Green, whose 31-year-old son Farod Williams was killed last May in West Philadelphia, roamed the Capitol halls, thinking about what little action she believes lawmakers have taken to protect her community.

“I want to know why I voted for you,” she said, as if speaking to state leaders. “Why are y’all not protecting us? What can y’all do to keep us safe?”