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Gubernatorial Flashbacks in Pennsylvania  by Andy Barniskis

Gubernatorial Flashbacks in Pennsylvania

by Andy Barniskis
Legislative Chairman of the Bucks County Sportsmen's Coalition

August 2, 2002

Something that is darkly amusing about the NRA's national endorsement of a Pennsylvania candidate is that after proclaiming Fisher solidly pro-gun, they could not think of a single pro-gun thing he has ever done, to cite as an example in their article!

KeepAndBearArms.com -- Back in the '60s, they warned my generation that a variety of things, ranging from controlled substances to combat duty in Vietnam, would give us uncontrollable flashbacks for the rest of our lives. Someone should have warned us that involvement in the gun rights battle in Pennsylvania would be among those things.

The gubernatorial race in Pennsylvania this year is showing uncanny similarities to that of 1994. In both races, Republican candidates with records of disdain for the right to keep and bear arms were endorsed by the NRA and many in the state's mainstream sporting community. 

In 1994 it was Tom Ridge, who while in the U.S. House of Representatives had voted for the federal ban of a wide variety of semiautomatic firearms. He also voted for the Clinton era Federal Crime Bill, whose unconstitutional features were opposed by most constitution-oriented gun rights organizations. 

In 2002, it is state Attorney General Mike Fisher, whose eight-year tenure has been marked by solid support for Ridge's anti-gun initiatives, not to mention a series of anti-civil-liberties initiatives opposed by Pennsylvania's firearms rights community. If 2002 is a flashback, it is a flashback in many ways worse that the original experience.


WHAT RIDGE DID

In early September 1994, a summit meeting of regional gun rights organizations was held to address the crisis that both major party gubernatorial candidates had well established anti-gun histories. Democrat Mark Singel was outspoken in his opposition to gun rights. Republican Tom Ridge had established his anti-gun credentials with his pivotal anti-gun vote in support of the Clinton Administration while in congress. The organizations attending the summit meeting resolved to support independent candidate Peg Luksik, who had political credibility as a result of having come close to winning the Republican gubernatorial primary in 1990. 

However, one week later, Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania -- one of the groups that had participated in the summit meeting -- reneged on the commitment their representative had made at the meeting. Under heavy lobbying by the NRA, accompanied by offers of a seat near the throne in the form of membership in a "Governor's Sportsmen's Advisory Council," they endorsed Tom Ridge. A major split in the state firearms community resulted.

Ridge won the election, and it proved disastrous for Pennsylvania's gun rights. Within days of his inauguration he called for a Special Session on Crime in the General Assembly, insisting that a comprehensive gun control package had to be part of the agenda. Model anti-gun legislation that had come out of a "Senate Select Committee," a charade chaired by Vincent Fumo -- a Democratic state senator and self-described NRA Life member from Philadelphia -- was quickly adapted to fulfill Ridge's demand. Dubbed the "Sportsmen's Omnibus Anti-Crime Bill," and solidly supported by both the NRA and HCI, it sailed to easy passage as the now-infamous Act 17 of 1995. A typical example of its features was alarming: hunters who in ignorance took their handguns hunting without first obtaining a 75-cent pro-forma "provisional firearms permit" were guilty of a felony -- one that would bar them from all firearms ownership for the rest of their lives. In addition, many non-violent crimes -- including juvenile crimes -- were added to a long list of violations disbarring one from all firearms possession, forever. People with old and forgotten records of mere pranks or rowdiness became "gun criminals" overnight.

FISHER, EVEN THEN

It is here that our tale of two elections begins to overlap. Republican Attorney General Mike Fisher had also been elected in the 1994 general election. Fisher had formerly served as a state senator, with a reasonably good voting record on firearms issues, so he was supported by nearly the whole of the firearms rights community. During his campaign, he made then-credible promises never to support violations of Pennsylvanians' gun rights in any way. However, acting on behalf of the Ridge Administration, and with cover from the NRA, he quickly showed himself to be subject to the same invisible hand that appeared to be guiding Tom Ridge. He became an adamant defender of every comma and nuance of Act 17 as it was originally conceived.

As a result of the twin shocks of the NRA's support for the election of anti-gun Ridge, followed by their even more astounding teaming with HCI to endorse Act 17 (which the NRA still itemizes as one of its great "pro-gun" victories of 1995), a loose coalition of regional gun rights organizations called the Keystone Firearms Coalition (KFC) functioned in Pennsylvania from 1995 through 1997 and later. While the coalition, per se, did not accomplish a great deal, it was for those years an effective communications medium between regional organizations. During that period, the Allegheny County Sportsmen's League (ACSL), Firearms Owners Against Crime (FOAC) and the newly formed Pennsylvania Sportsmen's Association (PSA) lobbied long and hard to achieve important reforms in Act 17. Many worthwhile reforms were achieved in the form of Act 5 of 1997. However, during the entire two-year period of their lobbying effort, members of those organizations complained bitterly to coalition members that Attorney General Mike Fisher was fighting their every move, resisting so much as simple curative amendments intended to correct inconsistencies or self-contradictions within the law. Mike Fisher's enmity to issues dear to the hearts of the firearms rights community made frequent fodder for the PSA's hard-hitting tabloid publication, "Pennsylvania Sportsmen's News."

One of the initiatives that Keystone Firearms Coalition attempted was to mount a campaign to stop many of Pennsylvania's 67 county sheriffs from adding illegal, extra requirements to the application process for handgun concealed carry permits. In the process, it contacted Attorney General Mike Fisher's office to advise him of specific cases of sheriffs violating state law. Not once did the Attorney General's office so much as acknowledge notification. The only example of a sheriff being made to cease and desist from imposing illegal carry permit application requirements was when the Bucks County Sportsmen's Coalition, a KFC member organization, filed suit against their county sheriff.

HOW DISLIKED WAS FISHER?

An indication of the depth of animosity that existed between Pennsylvania's gun rights advocates and Attorney General Fisher was seen when the NRA organized a private, invitation-only meeting in the state capitol, in an attempt to mend fences with state organizations after the major schisms of 1994 and 1995. A portion of the meeting was to be set aside, at which the NRA's CrimeStrike Division was to present an award to Fisher for his "get tough on crime" initiatives in the state. The majority of gun rights organizations invited to the meeting refused to attend that portion of the meeting when Fisher was present to receive the award, and the agenda for the meeting had to be arranged to separate that activity from a later discussion of gun rights.

It was in fact Fisher's support for so-called "tough on crime" initiatives that caused additional friction with many organizations in the state gun rights community. Among the initiatives presented by the Ridge Administration and supported by the Attorney General were: 

  • a bill that would have made it legal for federal authorities to enforce any Pennsylvania state law, at federal discretion; 
  • a constitutional change making Pennsylvania's standards for search and seizure subservient to federal standards, taking all discretion regarding those issues away from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court; 
  • a constitutional change permitting prosecutors as well as defendants to demand a jury trial, thus enabling prosecutors to coerce middleclass defendants into plea bargains using threats of expensive jury trials; 
  • a roving wiretap bill allowing authorities to tap as many unspecified phones as they wanted, on the strength of a single warrant; 
  • and much, much more. 

Recognizing the increased frequency with which guns were being used in lieu of drugs as an excuse for invasions of homes and businesses by law enforcement, most in the forward-looking gun rights community actively opposed these anti-civil-liberties initiatives.

A RIDGE/FISHER VICTIM

One notable example of a home invasion by rogue law enforcement personnel involved a gun owner guilty of nothing more than oversleeping. When Russell Laing's coworkers became worried after he did not show up for work one morning, they unwisely called an emergency response number. Laing, known to be a gun owner, awoke to find a SWAT team at his door. Laing was guilty of nothing but cooperating with authorities, yet ambiguities in Act 17 permitted him to be temporarily committed involuntarily to a mental health facility, while his firearms collection was confiscated and held by police. Many months and thousands of dollars in legal expenses later, Laing was fully vindicated in the courts and recovered his guns, but it was without the help of Mike Fisher, or anyone else in the Ridge Administration.

Today Laing recalls, 

"I appealed many times to Attorney General Fisher's office and got the run-around. Members of Firearms Owners Against Crime and Allegheny County Sportsmen's League accompanied me to a Republican breakfast meeting in Pittsburgh, where I got to personally pose my dilemma to featured speaker Mike Fisher during the subsequent question and answer session. The phrase 'deer caught in the headlights' was invented for the facial expression with which he bore my account. His mumbled response was so faint that I thought maybe we should put a mirror under his nose to be sure he was even still alive. His aide gladly met with myself and representatives of FOAC and ACSL on several occasions, and cancelled and hemmed and hawed on a bunch of other occasions, and to my knowledge did. . .nothing!"

As with the other reforms to Act 17, amendments to those sections of the law addressing mental health, inspired by the abuses suffered by Mr. Laing, met with no encouragement from Attorney General Fisher. He continued to behave as if his mandate was to preserve every anti-gun, anti-civil-liberties feature of the law as it was originally conceived.

One of the few features of the 1995 law that could be construed as being pro-gun was that it incorporated a prohibition of the State Police, or any state agency, maintaining a registry of firearms. Nevertheless, in the law and order environment of the Ridge Administration, with Attorney General Fisher as chief state law enforcement officer, the State Police continued to acquire and maintain permanent gun ownership data through the state "Instant Background Check" system, and to do so with impunity. A letter calling attention to their flagrant violation of state law was signed by twenty state legislators. Although the letter caused a political stir, it did not move Attorney General Fisher to take any initiatives to bring the state into compliance with the law whose other provisions he enforced vigorously. Instead, a lawsuit challenging the registry had to be filed by ACSL. That lawsuit is presently awaiting hearing by the state Supreme Court.

"THREE BATTLES FOR FREEDOM"

Which brings us up to today, the present gubernatorial campaign, and flashbacks to 1994. The most jolting flashback came when I opened the August 2002 edition of the NRA's "American Rifleman" to page 72, and found that among their "Three Battles for Freedom" was the election of -- Mike Fisher for governor of Pennsylvania! Just as they did for Tom Ridge in 1994, the NRA is again endorsing and providing revisionist cover for someone who has demonstrated they have nothing but contempt for the rights and interests of gun owners.

Something that is darkly amusing about the NRA's national endorsement of a Pennsylvania candidate is that after proclaiming Fisher solidly pro-gun, they could not think of a single pro-gun thing he has ever done, to cite as an example in their article! The only initiatives cited on his behalf are a "three strikes and out" crime bill, and his support for "Operation Cease Fire," Philadelphia's version of "Project Exile," which transfers responsibility for enforcement of firearms crimes from state to federal authorities. As most gun owners are rapidly coming to understand, fighting crime may be a laudable thing in its own right, but it has nothing at all to do with either preserving our firearms rights, or recovering those rights already lost. More often, as with Fisher's other get-tough-on-crime initiatives, such legislation poses a real threat to the rights of everyone, including gun owners. A legal gun today may become tomorrow's contraband, exposing its innocent owner to the full brunt of enhanced-penalty "firearms crime" prosecution.

Ironically, of the two specific credits offered in support of Fisher, Operation Cease Fire might equally be credited to his Democratic opponent, former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, who if anything was a more vocal and visible public advocate for its enhancements of penalties for firearms possession crimes. (An internet search produced dozens of references linking Rendell to Operation Cease Fire, but not a single linkage for Fisher.) Since neither Fisher nor Rendell were part of the actual legislative process, the claim that Fisher organized Operation Cease Fire rings as barely more credible than Rendell's similar claim, which the NRA ridiculed during his primary election campaign. It is amusing that during the primary election campaigns, the NRA maintained that Rendell's vocal support for Operation Cease Fire was not a pro-gun credential!

The flashback to 1994 would not be complete without the element of state sportsmen's and gun rights organizations following the NRA's lead and jumping on the Fisher bandwagon. Due to a state-level tightening of restrictions on the ways citizens groups can participate in political campaigns (read, violations of their freedom of speech) at present only registered political action committees feel free to issue "endorsements." The political action committee of Firearms Owners Against Crime -- one of the organizations that complained that Mike Fisher resisted their efforts to reform Act 17 -- quickly followed the NRA's lead and issued an overt endorsement of Fisher. Other organizations with a history of Fisher-bashing are being coy about "endorsing" him, yet the "educational" information they have been issuing about the coming election has suddenly become quiet regarding his eight years of anti-gun antics, instead amplifying how evil his opponent is. This is exactly like the selective amnesia displayed by the groups that came out for Tom Ridge in 1994.

THE "LESSER EVIL" TRAP

There is no doubt a complicating factor this year is that on the surface, the "lesser-of-two-evils" phenomenon appears to be worse than in 1994. While Democratic candidate Mark Singel in that election was an outspoken supporter of gun control, Republican Tom Ridge mouthed the de rigueur gun rights language -- after voting for a federal gun ban. But Singel was not a national spokesman for gun control the way Ed Rendell has been. Rendell is the author of the plan to bankrupt the firearms industry with numerous, frivolous municipal lawsuits, while Fisher's enmity to gun rights has been muted, and covered up for eight years by the NRA. That leaves him free to mouth the same gun rights phrases that Ridge did, and appear to be a world apart from his opponent. However, as one observer commented, "Fisher really is Rendell in sheep's clothing."

The problem of gun rights advocates being faced with elections in which both major party candidates are anti-gun has become a perennial one everywhere, not just in Pennsylvania. Invariably mainstream organizations who value their credibility with politicians (and thus, by their grace, with the electorate) feel compelled to participate by issuing endorsements, overt or implied, for the candidate with the most supportable image, if not record -- the lesser of two evils. But the concept of "endorsement," in the sense of providing enough visible public support to give an impression of swaying voters, necessarily connotes that the candidate is "good." The endorsers are thus required to lie, via the withholding of the whole truth about the candidate. As with all lies, this becomes a tangled web when the organizations must continue to lie after the election to further protect their credibility. For example, Tom Ridge's HCI-endorsed Act 17 was also endorsed by the NRA, after they had endorsed his election. Rank and file members would have asked too many hard questions if the NRA had reported that Ridge had done evil within four months of being elected.

The effect on the endorsing organizations themselves can be deadly. The Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania, who first followed the NRA lead in 1994 by endorsing Tom Ridge and later his gun control law, are not considered credible spokesmen for gun rights issues anymore, though they still serve as useful marionettes for the administration to wheel out occasionally to endorse its policies. In the community of firearms rights groups, which they betrayed, their name never comes up.

The inevitable outcome of the phonied-up endorsement process is that the gun owner vote is becoming predictable, and therefore marginalized and unimportant. Many of us have seen the analysis of the voting population that shows that the greatest percentage of voters are predictable and dependable assets of one or the other of the two major parties, and therefore of no interest to vote-seeking politicians. It is the smaller percentages on the edges, who are not sure things, whose votes are wooed with tangible actions and commitments. When the gun owner vote is consistently and predictably delivered to a mere lesser-of-two-evils, usually-Republican candidate, whose sole merit is that his opponent can be portrayed as the bigger bogeyman, it is no wonder that scenario is what we are being offered in most elections. 

LOOKING FORWARD

My dream for at least a decade has been to see a lesser-of-two evils election that the broader firearms rights community would greet with a very loud and collective public yawn for either candidate. That would send a clear message that whatever the percentage of votes we have to offer, it will no longer be guaranteed, or delivered cheaply. There is some evidence that at the rank-and-file level, gun owners are greeting such elections with at least their private, muted yawns. In more than one recent election, lesser-of-two evil candidates went down to defeat after receiving insufficient support from pro-gun voters. 

Unfortunately we have no shortage of organizations too much interested in their self-images as real political players, who insist on maintaining the illusion that gun owners are know-nothings who march to the beck and call of their baseless endorsements. Expect more and worse flashbacks in the future, if that attitude continues.

Andy Barniskis is Legislative Chairman of the Bucks County Sportsmen's Coalition in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Other articles by him on this website can be viewed at http://www.KeepAndBearArms.com/Andy.

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 QUOTES TO REMEMBER
To trust arms in the hands of the people at large has, in Europe, been believed...to be an experiment fraught only with danger. Here by a long trial it has been proved to be perfectly harmless...If the government be equitable; if it be reasonable in its exactions; if proper attention be paid to the education of children in knowledge and religion, few men will be disposed to use arms, unless for their amusement, and for the defence of themselves and their country. Timothy Dwight, Travels in New England and New York [London 1823]

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