Bills to restrict abortion, expand gun rights start in House
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Republicans who control Pennsylvania’s Legislature began Tuesday to advance hot-button bills to restrict abortion rights and expand gun rights, although the bills faced opposition by Democratic lawmakers and certain veto by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.
Since he took office in 2015, Wolf has battled the Legislature’s Republican majorities over guns and abortion, vetoing a number of bills on the topics, including two firearms bills as recently as last fall.
On two pieces of abortion legislation that passed the House Health Committee on Tuesday, Wolf vowed a veto and reiterated his support for abortion rights.
“While members of the Legislature continue to play politics around health choices, I will not let the commonwealth go backwards on reproductive rights or access to health care,” Wolf said in a statement. “I will veto any anti-choice legislation that lands on my desk.”
The bills passed on a party-line basis.
One would outlaw abortion after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, possibly as early as six weeks, before many women even know they are pregnant. It was the first time such a bill has emerged from a committee in Pennsylvania’s Legislature. It carries an exception for when an abortion is medically necessary to protect the mother.
The bill is similar to laws in more than a dozen other states, although federal courts have mostly blocked states from enforcing the measures.
The other bill would prohibit an abortion on the basis of a Down syndrome diagnosis. Wolf vetoed something identical in 2019, and such laws have, in past years, been blocked by federal courts in every state where it was challenged.
However, former President Donald Trump’s judicial appointments have begun to change that, and court rulings already have allowed enforcement of the laws in Missouri, Tennessee and Ohio.
Pennsylvania law allows abortions up to 24 weeks of pregnancy for any reason except to select a gender, with exceptions for rape, incest or to protect the life of the mother.
In the House Judiciary Committee, Republicans passed a bill to allow people to carry a loaded firearm openly or concealed, without a permit, and revived legislation to make it easier for people or gun-rights organizations to sue municipalities over firearms ordinances that are stricter than state law.
Every Democrat and one Republican opposed the measures. Wolf opposes both bills, his office said, and in a statement he urged lawmakers to take up bills to fight gun violence, including so-called “ red flag ” legislation and a bill to end a background check exception for private sales of shotguns, sporting rifles and semi-automatic rifles.
Pennsylvanians are generally allowed to openly carry loaded firearms, although the law is silent on it. Only in Philadelphia is a permit required for it.
The bill also would remove the requirement for people to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon, including storing it in their car. People under 21 cannot get such a permit, although the law allows anyone 18 and older to own a gun.
The Pennsylvania State Police reported just over 311,000 licenses to carry firearms were issued by county sheriffs’ offices and the city of Philadelphia in 2020, a 35% increase over 2019.
A second bill would revive legislation long-sought by gun-rights organizations to expand standing in court to sue a municipality over a firearms ordinance. A similar bill was signed into law in 2014 by then-Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, but later struck down in court on a technicality. Wolf threatened to veto a previous bill, in 2016.
Court precedent has held that someone only has standing to sue if they were prosecuted for violating such an ordinance, although the state Supreme Court has a case in front of it challenging that precedent.
Pennsylvania has long prohibited its municipalities from enforcing firearms ordinances that regulate the ownership, possession, transfer or transportation of guns or ammunition. But gun-rights groups complain municipalities often ignore the decades-old prohibition by approving their own gun restrictions.
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