BY REP. TIM BRIGGS Harrisburg is not for the weak of heart. During my first term in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, I have seen things that have made me think twice about running for re-election. If you are a wide-eyed idealist like me who believes in unicorns and reforming the Pennsylvania legislature, you need to be able to turn frustration and disbelief into passion for action.
For the better part of the last two years I have been able to take many things in stride: bitter partisanship, entrenched colleagues, a legislative process that moves slower than a catcher running to first base (no offense to Chooch). But last week I witnessed a circumvention of democracy so egregious that I could not sit idly by. What higher power was this assault launched in the name of? Who else but the almighty and omnipotent National Rifle Association.
At issue was H.B. 40, an expansion of the Castle Doctrine. Already common law in Pennsylvania, the Castle Doctrine deems it legally justifiable if you shoot and kill someone breaking into your home. While the right to stand one’s ground is already protected, some of my colleagues don’t believe this is good enough. They were promoting legislation that would make it easier for people to shoot first and ask questions later almost anywhere.
I fully support one’s constitutional right to protect themselves from attack. But the expansions sought under H.B. 40 would allow cold-blooded murderers to falsely claim they shot someone because they were under attack. Eliminating the duty to retreat does not make us safer, it makes people more likely to shoot one another.
Agree or disagree with the bill, for it to become law it must go through the legislative process. It passed out of committee and came to the House floor for a vote. Along with colleagues from both sides of the aisle and the issue, I submitted an amendment to the bill in a timely manner as permitted under House rules.
My amendment, along with the others, should have been debated and voted on. But that did not happen. Instead, a motion was filed to move forward without considering any of the amendments. The motion passed.
Next we should have had a debate on the bill itself. We were prevented from considering the amendments, but at least we could still have robust debate before we voted, right? Guess again. A motion was filed to proceed to a vote without any discussion. The motion passed. There was no discussion, we voted and the bill passed.
We lost the vote; that I can accept. But suppressing elected officials’ freedom of speech on the floor of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives is an affront to the Constitution that we all swore to uphold. As a democratically elected member of the oldest elected body in America, I was not allowed to speak on the merits of this bill or speak on behalf of the constituents whom I was elected to represent.
This practicing of parliamentary jujitsu was not in the name of justice or protecting innocent victims. It was in the name of cheap electoral hackery.
For two years now the NRA has been losing battles across our Commonwealth. Municipalities have been passing sensible firearm safety ordinances and resolutions because the majority of Pennsylvanians support them. Polls even show that a majority of NRA members support sensible safety legislation.
But the NRA still chooses to quash debate and the democratic process, lest we have any public debate in the Pennsylvania House on the issue. Hundreds of police chiefs, sheriffs, mayors and prosecutors support my colleague state Rep. Bryan Lentz in trying to close the loophole that let Marquis Hill, a hardened criminal whose Pennsylvania gun permit was revoked, get a Florida gun permit. Police allege that Hill shot an 18-year-old 13 times, killing him.
After getting tired of licking their wounds, the NRA forced the vote on H.B. 40 to get legislators on record before Election Day. To them, putting legislators on notice justifies perverting democracy.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said that the remedy for bad speech is more speech, not enforced silence. The NRA may have silenced my voice on the House floor, but in the coming years they will not silence the speech of Pennsylvania citizens and a majority of their own members. The people are always ahead of their legislators, and hopefully soon the will of the people can control the direction of its own state government, not the NRA.
– Tim Briggs, a Democratic state representative for the 149th District and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, can be contacted at RepBriggs@pahouse.net. His website is www.pahouse.com/Briggs.