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Felons who carry guns could face hard time

Thursday, October 14, 1999

By John M.R. Bull, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Correspondent

HARRISBURG -- Ex-cons aren't allowed to carry guns, but many who do are getting slaps on the wrist, law officers said yesterday in announcing a plan to make the offense a felony.

"Very seldom does anyone go to jail in Pennsylvania for a gun crime," said Attorney General Mike Fisher. "Too many offenders are doing too little time."

Currently, it is a misdemeanor for a convicted felon to carry a gun. Often, that is punished by probation or some time in a county jail.

Under Fisher's plan, the crime would become a felony, punishable by one to two years in jail for the first offense and up to 10 years if a convict has a particularly bad criminal history.

Fisher also is asking the state sentencing commission to change its guidelines to increase jail time for those caught illegally packing a gun.

For example, if Fisher has his way, someone with one prior conviction would see the penalty for illegal gun possession jump from a range of one to 12 months to 18 to 30 months.

Fisher said the proposal, called Operation Hardtime, has the support of Gov. Ridge, some Republican state representatives, the National Rifle Association and the state District Attorneys Association. He plans to have the measure introduced in the state House this week.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. supports the proposal.

So does Skip Ebert, Cumberland County's district attorney. "These people," he said of ex-convicts carrying guns, "should do hard time."

Often, drug dealers with a criminal past who are caught with guns get sentenced for the narcotics violations but see no penalty for having the gun, Ebert said.

Fisher's proposal follows state Rep. Dan Frankel's unveiling last week of a bill that would make illegal resales of guns -- also called "straw purchases" -- a felony instead of a misdemeanor.

Fisher looked at Philadelphia's crime statistics from 1997 and found that only 20 percent of gun offenses resulted in convictions. And most of those led to terms of probation or alternative housing, Fisher said.

State law carries a mandatory term of five years in prison if someone illegally carries a gun and uses it in a violent crime. Fisher's proposal would impose harsher penalties for those merely caught with a gun they should not be carrying.

The NRA approves of the concept so much that it will help pay for an advertising campaign if the bill is passed and the sentencing guidelines made harsher. Fisher said he wants to put up billboards announcing that ex-cons with guns will do hard time.

"Prosecution is prevention," said Wayne LaPierre, NRA's chief executive officer. "Removing violent felons with guns from our streets will, indeed, make those streets safer for our children."

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