Tom Wolf

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at a news conference on Oct. 13, 2017, in Pittsburgh.

HARRISBURG – Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday held a ceremonial bill signing to celebrate Act 79, which eliminates a loophole to keep firearms out of the hands of abusers.

“Domestic violence is a scourge on our society and this bill and its reforms will go a long way to protect victims, hold abusers accountable and keep guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals,” Wolf said.

The legislation had been a priority of advocates for victims of domestic violence, as well as gun reform groups, including CeaseFire PA and Moms Demand Action, the grassroots network formed in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut.

Deb Marteslo, volunteer leader of Moms Demand Action in Pennsylvania, said that advocates had “a beacon of light” to inspire them when they worked, in the form of the memory of Michael Ayers, a 2-year-boy from Huntingdon County, who was shot and killed by his father Kenneth Ayers during a 2013 custody exchange. Michael’s mother, Hollie, was also shot by Kenneth Ayers, but she survived and has spoken out about what happened to her family and the need to change the law to protect victims of abuse.

“Michael and Hollie, this day is for you,” Marteslo said in the Capitol rotunda before Wolf ceremonially signed Act 79.

The measure passed the state House by a 131-62 vote in September. It went to the governor after passing the Senate by a 43-5 vote on Oct. 3.

Randi Teplitz, chairwoman of the Pennsylvania Commission for Women, said that the legislation is important both because it protects victims of domestic violence and because it may encourage victims – who would otherwise have been afraid to report abuse – to come forward and seek help.

Susan Higginbotham, chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said that the group had been lobbying for the bill since it was introduced in 2017. 

Now that it’s law, she expects that advocates will see “a measurable change” in the safety of abuse victims.

The new law does several things:

• It sets new requirements around prohibiting abusers who have been issued a final protection from abuse order issued after a contested hearing or conviction for misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence from possessing firearms and requires them to turn in their guns to law enforcement agencies within 24 hours while the order is in effect;

• It eliminates the concern about simply relinquishing a firearm to a family member or friend;

• And it allows for the time that an individual is incarcerated not to be counted for the 90 days of a temporary PFA.

Wolf and the lawmakers who championed the measure in the General Assemby – state Rep. Marguerite Quinn, R-Bucks, and state Sen. Thomas Killion, R-Delaware – all thanked the advocates for keeping the issue in the limelight until it passed the state Senate in October.

“When this legislation was introduced, probably 60 to 70 percent of the people here at the Capitol thought it would never happen,” Killion said. The lobbying by the advocates “was a textbook example of how to get things done,” Killion said. 

“We would not be standing here without you, no doubt about it.”

While the ceremonial signing was held Wednesday, Wolf signed the measure into law when it reached his desk on Oct. 12, “due to the urgency of enacting the legislation.”

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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