HARRISBURG, Pa. – Meredith Elizalde pushed away from the table in front of her inside a room at the state Capitol on Thursday, taking a deep breath and sinking into the leather chair from which she pushed hard for gun reform.
Gunmen murdered her 14-year-old son in September in a barrage of bullets at the end of a football scrimmage outside Roxborough High School in Philadelphia. Police say Nicolas Elizalde wasn’t the intended target, but an innocent victim.
Meredith Elizalde, a Philadelphia teacher, says her son was so much more – kind and intelligent, an aspiring lifeguard, a good student interested in agricultural sciences, an animal lover, a noted community volunteer, an artist and an athlete.
Whatever the future held for him, it ended in indiscriminate gunfire and in his mother’s arms, Elizalde having rushed to clutch her only son as he died of a gunshot to his heart.
“How could you possibly argue against stronger background checks? What could possibly be of higher priority than the safety of our children?” Elizalde asked. “Why are we not stopping the flow of illegal guns into the hands of those who would murder children while at school? Why do we accept this as our reality when it is an entirely man-made, uniquely American problem with a solution?”
“I implore this body to act in the best interest of public safety because the Second Amendment does not trump the right to live,” Elizalde said.
Mothers such as Elizalde – and grandmothers, godmothers, fathers, brothers and sisters – gathered in Harrisburg to press lawmakers for tighter gun laws such as safe storage requirements, mandatory reporting of lost or stolen firearms, elimination of straw purchases, universal background checks and extreme risk protection orders.
A coordinated rally on the Capitol steps with March For Our Lives to mark five years since the shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, preceded the state House Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence.
Advocates filled the hearing room and spillovers from the crowd moved to two other dedicated spaces elsewhere in the Capitol to watch a live feed.
The Judiciary Committee blocked attempts at gun reform when Republicans held the House majority. Democrats now control the lower chamber of the General Assembly, but by only one vote. Bills that once would get no consideration seem destined for floor votes.
Any that pass won’t simply sail to the desk for a signature from Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro. Instead, they’d have to pass first through the state Senate, where Republicans are firmly in control.
“The legislature has stood by and watched death after death, shooting after shooting, with no action. Today, that changes,” said state Rep. Tim Briggs, D-Montgomery, the Judiciary Committee chairman.
Dr. Charles Barbera, an emergency physician and president and CEO of Reading Hospital, said the Emergency Department there treated 100 gunshot victims in 2022, up from 60 three years prior.
“Almost any emergency physician in any hospital would tell you that gun violence is an epidemic,” Barbera said.
Aliquippa Mayor Dwan Walker told of his sister’s murder in 2009 and the negative consequences his family suffers to this day.
“I’m on bended knee. I’m asking you. It’s not about Ds and Rs,” Walker said, referring to Democrats and Republicans. “Most change is cosmetic. Do the foundational work so the foundation will stand.”
State Rep. Jim Rigby, R-Ferndale, a former police chief, spoke about an estimated 48,800 firearm deaths and an estimated 106,000 fatal overdoses across the country, citing federal data.
“I see a lot of our drug problem creating a lot of the gun problems we have,” Rigby said. “We’ve got to get them off the streets. I don’t have a problem with them being in the right hands. It’s getting them out of the wrong hands.”
York Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow estimated that three out of every four illegal guns used in crimes in his city were lost by or stolen from lawful owners, or bought through a straw purchase skirting background checks.
One straw purchase investigation conducted over the course of two months led to the arrests of 18 suspects and the removal of 53 illegal firearms from the streets, he said.
“At the end of the day, a lot of this comes down to responsible ownership, and part of that responsible ownership needs to involve maintaining proper chain of custody over your weapons,” Muldrow said.
State Rep. David Rowe, R-Union, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, warned against requiring people whose guns are stolen to report the crime, saying potential penalties turn those victims into criminals. He likened the scenario to forcing victims of rape to file reports.
“I just think it’s a dangerous precedent to set,” Rowe said.
Assistant District Attorney Erin O’Brien, of Chester County, noted that the state has mandated reporter laws to report suspected cases of child abuse.
State Reps. Emily Kinkead, D-Allegheny, and Liz Hanbidge, D-Montgomery, each took exception to Rowe’s comments.
A Republican ally, minority committee chair state Rep. Rob Kaufman, R-Franklin, agreed with Rowe’s sentiment, but described his approach as the “use of inarticulate words.”
“I have to express some concern and real, honestly, disgust with the equivalency that was just made between rape victims and people who do not report lost and stolen firearms,” Kinkead said. “Those are not on par.”
Kaufman disputed a comparison between regulating firearms and requiring a license to drive a vehicle, pointing to the right to bear arms in the U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions.
“I know it’s hard for folks with serious tragedies to relate to that, but for many of us, that’s where our minds are,” Kaufman said.
Jeani Garcia, of Allentown, whose son, Kareem Feed, was murdered inside their home in 2012, maintained that laws on vehicles should not be more strict than those on guns.
“This does not remove the rights of gun owners,” Garcia said of initiatives such as safe storage and mandated reporting of thefts. “It gives us the right to be safe from gun violence.”
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