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Headlines by E-mail

Rendell calls for stiffer gun penalties

Tuesday, February 12, 2002

By James O'Toole, Politics Editor, Post-Gazette

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed Rendell yesterday called for stiffer mandatory sentences for crimes committed with guns.

Campaigning in Beaver County, the former Philadelphia mayor offered the firearms proposals as part of a broader discussion of measures to combat violent crime and terrorism.

Rendell is competing with Auditor General Bob Casey Jr. for the Democratic nomination to succeed Gov. Mark Schweiker. In November, the winner of their contest will face Attorney General Mike Fisher, the sole Republican.

Rendell generally praised the homeland security initiatives Schweiker proposed in his recent budget address and in other pronouncements since Sept. 11. He said the next governor should expand on them, pressing particularly for greater coordination between state and federal agencies to prepare for potential acts of terrorism.

To help local governments pay for new security measures, Rendell said he would ask the Legislature to empower counties to impose a $1-a-month surcharge on cellular phones. Current law allows counties to tax standard hard-wired phones to pay for 911 emergency centers. Rendell said the cellular phone levy could yield as much as $50 million annually for the state's 67 counties.

The former prosecutor proposed a menu of increases in minimum sentences for crimes committed with firearms, including a five-year minimum for any crime in which the perpetrator possessed a handgun.

Rendell said current state law specifies that minimum sentence only in cases in which a handgun is visible during commission of the crime. The change, he said, would bring the state into line with federal law.

Rendell also proposed an ascending scale of mandatory minimum sentences for more serious incidents of gun violence: 10 years for a crime in which a gun is fired; 10 years for possession of an assault weapon during a crime; 30 years for possession of a machine gun.

Rendell also repeated his earlier call for a limit on handgun purchases to one per month for individuals.

In a recent debate, Casey said that violent crime should be combated through tougher enforcement of existing laws rather than new legislation.

Casey spokesman Troy Colbert said, "Crime in Philadelphia skyrocketed under Ed Rendell and no amount of window dressing or a plan is going to change that fact."

In response, Dan Fee, Rendell's spokesman, said, "Ed Rendell won a reputation for fighting crime as a prosecutor and a mayor. Bob Casey has never taken a single criminal off the street or put a single policeman on the street."

Rendell offered his proposals after a campaign swing through Western Pennsylvania calculated to complement the heavy television advertising presence of his campaign in recent weeks.

Casey started the campaign with significantly better name recognition in this region than Rendell. Casey, son of the former governor, hopes to buttress his popularity in the western part of the state with the votes of Democrats with conservative views on gun control.

Rendell acknowledged that his views on new legislation were at odds with those of the National Rifle Association, but he pointed out that as mayor he cooperated with the NRA in a program to exploit existing law by shifting prosecutions of crimes involving firearms from state courts to federal courts, where penalties are more severe.

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