Like other states, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has a nickname (“The Keystone State”), a state flower (mountain laurel) and even a state dog (The Great Dane, because William Penn owned one). Unlike most other states, it may soon have an official state gun.
Yes, that’s right. In the wake of yet another mass shooting – this one near UC Santa Barbara just a couple of weeks ago – the state’s lawmakers in Harrisburg have decided it’s a great time to promote deadly weapons by declaring the Pennsylvania long rifle the state’s official firearm.
This effort began four years ago. Had it succeeded at that time, Pennsylvania would have had the dubious distinction of being the first state in the US to exalt its ties to guns in this way. The legislation died, but its proponents did not surrender. This time, though, they seemed to sense that a stand-alone bill might actually garner them some bad publicity and attract the outrage of groups, including those here in Pennsylvania, that support sensible gun safety laws. So they did it the sneaky way, which is often the way it happens in Harrisburg. They tagged it on as an amendment to a House bill that designated the Piper J-3 Cub, a small single-engine plane made in the state during World War Two, as the state’s official airplane. The amended bill passed the state House easily, 157-39, on June 2, and now will go to the State Senate.
Since this campaign began in 2010, four other states have jumped ahead of Pennsylvania on the “yay for us, we have an official state gun” list: Utah, Arizona, West Virginia, and Indiana. Astonishingly, Utah and Arizona’s action came within months of the mass shooting in Arizona that critically wounded Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. When Utah became the first, just a couple of months after the Tuscon murders, its sponsor, Republican State Rep. Carl Wimmer, admitted that it was bad timing but added that, hey, we’re only part-time lawmakers and we’re in session for a short time, so “no disrespect to the tragedy in Arizona, we moved forward in doing this because it’s the only opportunity that we had.”
According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, our nation has suffered more than 70 mass shootings just since the Tuscon murders in January of 2011 and, on average, 32 people are murdered in this country every day using guns. And that’s just murders, not suicides and so-called “accidental” shootings. Yet far be it from our own proud Pennsylvania lawmakers to miss their opportunity to make history in the wake of the UCSB killings. It was far more important to honor 18th-century Pennsylvania’s gun history than to honor the memories of 21st-century gun victims.
But for lawmakers in large urban areas, this bill was a horrific slap in the face. “Having a state gun is deeply offensive to many people in Pennsylvania,” said Representative Mark Cohen of Philadelphia, where gun deaths are growing in number even as other violent crimes are on the decline. “We ought not to pass this amendment. We ought to show some sensitivity to the loss of human life.” Sensitivity clearly is in short supply in Harrisburg, though, where lawmakers seem more interested in, say, attracting gun manufacturers to the state from places like New York that are moving toward more common sense gun-safety laws.
When the governor Utah signed that first-in-the-nation law in 2011, his PR person tried to deflect criticism by contending that the bill wasn’t so much about honoring a weapon as it was honoring its creator. But what about honoring humanity’s Creator? What about honoring every single human life, created in God’s image, by refraining – just this once – from glorifying violence?
This bill is not just ill-timed. It is not just ill-conceived. It is abhorrent to all of us who believe in the sanctity of life and the intrinsic worth of every human being. We were put onto this planet to create and to tend, not to neglect and destroy. Throughout our state, people face so many challenges every day, from unemployment to ill health to lack of educational opportunities – and yes, to violence in their homes and in their neighborhoods. Once, just once, it would be refreshing for our elected officials to place public safety and welfare above petty self-interest. It doesn’t happen too often. But maybe once, just once, they could surprise us, do the right thing, and send this bill to the Biblical shades of Sheol, where it belongs.
Rabbi Audrey Korotkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel, Altoona, Pennsylvania