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Gun rights, gun deaths divide Pa. voters

The candidates are gingerly threading their way between two of the state's most politically charged numbers: almost 1 million licensed hunters and Philadelphia's nearly one-a-day rate of gun murders.
Pennsylvania Primary Guns
Philadelphia police officers examine handguns after a news conference on the "Groceries for Guns Exchange" program in Philadelphia.George Widman / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton are gingerly threading their way between two of the most politically charged numbers in Pennsylvania: the state's almost 1 million licensed hunters and Philadelphia's nearly one-a-day rate of gun murders.

Gun control arouses deep emotions here. Deadly shootings have earned the state's largest city the ominous nickname: "Killadelphia." One of the strongest opponents of gun control, the National Rifle Association, has 250,000 members in Pennsylvania, more than in any other state. This month the Pennsylvania House soundly defeated a bill to require handgun owners to report the theft or loss of their guns to police.

As the state's hotly contested April 22 primary approaches, the Democratic presidential candidates have struggled to avoid alienating either side, to the point of pandering.

Unlike most members of Congress, neither senator has taken a position on the historic case before the U.S. Supreme Court over whether the District of Columbia's ban on handguns violates the Constitution's Second Amendment.

Previous problems
Democrats have shied away from gun control since 2000, when they blamed presidential and congressional losses in part on their aggressive stance at the time.

Clinton that year supported far-reaching measures including a federal mandate for state-issued photo gun licenses, as well as a national registry for handgun sales. Obama repeatedly backed tougher state gun controls as an Illinois lawmaker.

Such proposals have been brushed aside in favor of vague talk about "common sense" regulation and assertions by the candidates that they honor the Second Amendment.

Their ability to duck the issue may end Wednesday — the date Clinton and Obama square off in their only Pennsylvania debate.

Politics of Virginia Tech
It's also the first anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre — the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history — in which a lone gunman killed 32 people and himself. "Lie-in" demonstrations to dramatize the need for tougher guns laws are planned in many states, including one near the debate site, Philadelphia's National Constitution Center.

Amrita Grewal, the 24-year-old organizer of the Philadelphia demonstration, is a 2006 Virginia Tech graduate whose best friend and former roommate was killed in the shooting.

"That changed the rest of my life in one day," she said.

So far, the Democratic candidates have carefully crafted their gun control positions to reach voters on both sides.

Obama assures people he has "no intention of taking away folks' guns," but believes in background checks for prospective gun buyers.

Clinton has called for renewing the national ban on assault-type weapons and allowing federal authorities to share gun-tracing information with local police.

Obama has ridiculed the New York senator's attempts to identify with the rural gun culture, joking that "she's talking like she's Annie Oakley." This, as the Illinois senator tries to overcome the furor over his remarks that embittered blue-collar voters "cling to guns and religion" because they trust no politician to relieve their economic plight.

Philadelphia ground zero
What's lost in this is a precise sense of how they balance gun rights and controls.

"Gun control is divisive, controversial and likely to divide their core support," said Terry Madonna, a professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

"They want to delay anything really specific right now until they get more of a feel of where this (court case) is going to go," said Buddy Savage, a Republican who owns a gun shop just outside of Pittsburgh. "They're looking for anything that can help them. ... They want to be with a winner. "

In Pennsylvania's debate over gun control, Philadelphia is ground zero.

In the City of Brotherly Love, police say 343 people were killed by guns in 2006, and 330 more in 2007. The pace is slower so far this year, but five fatal shootings over the weekend pushed the total gunshot deaths to 63.

The Legislature has placed gun regulation under its exclusive control, so Philadelphia is powerless to impose its own restrictions. City officials, legislators and second-term Gov. Ed Rendell — a gun-control advocate who has a home in Philadelphia — perennially push for state laws they say would help police crack down on illegal gun trafficking, but without success.

This month's defeat of the gun theft reporting measure left some wondering whether any gun-control measure can pass.

"This is one of the more simple things that could be done," lamented Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, a Clinton supporter.

Tough Pennslyvania constitution
Outside Philadelphia and other cities, the traditions of hunting and gun ownership run deep in this mostly rural state.

Between 2002 and 2006, nearly 2 million rifles, shotguns and handguns were legally purchased or transferred in the state, according to the state police.

Last year, the state Game Commission sold 945,000 general hunting licenses, including more than 850,000 purchased by deer hunters.

Even the 232-year-old right-to-bear-arms section of the Pennsylvania Constitution is more straightforward about the rights of individual gun owners than the U.S. Constitution.

The Second Amendment says, "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." In the D.C. case, the Supreme Court is expected to interpret the amendment for the first time since it was ratified in 1791.

The older Pennsylvania provision declares, "The right of the citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and the State shall not be questioned."

Some pro-gun lawmakers consider any legislation advanced by gun-control forces an attempt to chip away at that right.

"Many of us believe their objective, ultimately, is to disarm American citizens," said Republican state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe.

While there are no state laws restricting the purchase of assault weapons or multiple handguns, the state has required criminal background checks on nearly all firearms purchases since 1998.

The Washington-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence ranks Pennsylvania's laws 10th best nationally, even though the state scored only 26 out of 100 points in a survey of whether specific laws are in place.

Paul Helmke, the group's president, said Pennsylvania ranks high because most states do a worse job of regulating firearms, but its weaknesses stand out compared with stronger laws in neighboring New York and New Jersey.

"When Pennsylvania is the weak one in the region," he said, "that's where people go to get their guns."