HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania’s prosecutors and local police chiefs on Tuesday threw their support behind a so-called “red flag” bill that would create a mechanism for relatives to cut off access to firearms for people exhibiting warning signs of potential violence.
“We’re not only first responders, we bear witness to these tragedies,” said Tom Gross, executive director of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association. “When we see an opportunity to have a tool to prevent these tragedies we support it.”
That wasn’t the only major endorsement of legislation at the Capitol intended to respond to concerns about school safety.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro joined members of the Senate Tuesday to back their plan for creating a statewide tipline for students to report potential threats of violence.
Shapiro said that by not taking action to prevent school shootings, “it’s a choice we are making to allow it to continue.”
By moving to pass the tipline bill, lawmakers in the Senate are making the choice to intervene to prevent violence, he said.
The red flag measure proposed in the House is similar to legislation that’s already passed in a handful of states and is being considered in many other states, advocates said.
Eight states have red flag laws, Sarah Higginbotham, of Everytown for Gun Safety, said at a Tuesday morning judiciary committee hearing on potential gun law changes. The red flag bill would create an extreme risk protection order to temporarily bar gun owners from accessing their firearms if they are deemed a risk of violence.
Three of those states – Florida, Maryland and Vermont – passed their red flag laws since the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Florida, she said.
In addition to those states, the idea is being debated in
30 other state capitols across the country, said state Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery.
Dauphin County District Attorney Fran Chardo said the state’s prosecutors support the measure as well. He called it “smart legislation” that provides a means of swiftly intervening when necessary.
“Too often, the wheels of justice move too slowly,” Chardo said.
Stephens is the author of the red flag bill. Stephens’ bill was introduced in the state House in April and has been referred to the judiciary committee. The judiciary committee on Tuesday held its seventh hearing on potential gun legislation, including Stephens’ bill.
State Rep. Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin, chairman of the judiciary committee, said lawmakers are struggling to find compromises that balance the need to better protect the public without illegally interfering with gun owners’ rights.
“It’s no longer shocking to hear about school shootings,” he said. “That’s a call to action.”
Stephens used the House judiciary committee hearing Tuesday to question pro-gun lobbyists about their concerns about his legislation.
Joshua Prince, a gun rights attorney, said he thinks the measure violates the due process rights of gun owners. He added that the law would provide disgruntled former partners the opportunity to levy false complaints to get firearms taken away from people.
Stephens said his legislation specifies that a person who knowingly makes a false accusation against a gun owner using the extreme risk protective order can charged with filing a false report.
While lawmakers in the state House were examining possible changes to the state gun laws, the state Senate is poised to boost school safety by approving a bill that would create a statewide anonymous tipline for students to report if they feel a peer is poised to commit an act of violence.
The hotline would be operated by employees in the attorney general’s office.
Sen. Patrick Browne, R-Lehigh, the author of the tipline bill, said the legislation would allow the attorney general’s office to hire 13 people to run a 24/7 hotline and pass along tips to local authorities.
“Students may not feel comfortable bringing the actions, comments or behavior of their fellow classmates to the attention of authority if they must identify themselves in the process. However, students are more likely to feel comfortable and safe if they are able to report these concerns anonymously,” Browne said.
The measure would cost $100,000 to purchase software and a little more than $1 million a year to cover the salary costs of the hotline employees, according to a fiscal analysis of the bill created by the Senate appropriations committee.
The tipline bill is awaiting a final vote in the Senate. Jennifer Kocher, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said the legislation is expected to come up for a final Senate vote in June.