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Newtown shooting victim's mom, NRA argue for and against background checks in Pa.

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Wednesday, July 17, 2013, 1:03 p.m.

HARRISBURG — The mother of a first-grader killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., told state lawmakers on Wednesday that expanding background checks on gun purchases won't eliminate gun crimes but would save lives.

A supporter of gun owners' rights maintained state background checks are ineffective, errors often happen, and the state doesn't need to conduct background checks because a federal system checks criminal records of potential gun purchasers.

Kim Stolfer of McDonald, chairman of Firearms Owners Against Crime, said background checks don't work. A bigger problem is judges turning people loose like they'd hit a winning number on a lottery ticket, he said.

Francine Lobus Wheeler, a Pennsylvania native who moved to Connecticut, urged members of the House Judiciary Committee to close the loophole that allows private sales of long guns, such as a rifle or shotgun, without background checks.

Still, doing so wouldn't have saved her son Ben, she said. The assault rifle used to kill him and 25 others in the school in December was purchased legally by the shooter's mother after a background check. The gunman, Adam Lanza, killed his mother before going to the school and killed himself after the rampage.

Since the murder, “I no longer have the fear to stand up and say what is right and what I believe,” said Wheeler, who grew up in Bucks County. “Ben gives me the courage to be here, to speak to legislators and to commit to change.”

Committee Chairman Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin County, billed the hearing as “educational” and not geared toward passing legislation. Marsico was noncommittal when asked whether the committee at some point would vote on a bill.

House Bill 1010 by Rep. Steven Santarsiero, D-Bucks, would require background checks for all firearms purchases.

Handgun sales, from licensed dealers or private sellers, require background checks. Shotgun or rifle purchases through licensed dealers require background checks.

The bill would ensure a background check for virtually every gun sale in Pennsylvania except transfers between close family members, said Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFirePA, a gun-control group.

“Background checks work,” Goodman said. Pennsylvania's system works well, she told the committee.

Although statistics show people use handguns to commit most gun crimes, a “significant portion” use long guns, she said. Since 2006, nine Pennsylvania police officers killed on duty were shot with long guns, she said.

Supporters of gun owners' rights disagreed.

Testimony submitted by the National Rifle Association cited statistics that rifles were used in 1.3 percent of murders and shotguns in fewer than 3 percent in 2011 in Pennsylvania. A much higher percentage of murders, 11.5 percent, were committed with non-firearm weapons, including “two-by-fours,” said the NRA's John Hohenwarter.

There is no evidence to show a significant percentage of murders are committed with rifles or shotguns acquired through lawful, private transactions, the NRA statement said.

Sixty percent of Pennsylvania murders involved handguns, Hohenwarter said.

Background checks for handgun purchases have not reduced the number of murders with handguns, the NRA contends. Likewise, extending the background check would be ineffective in reducing crime and place “burdensome restrictions” on law-abiding citizens, the organization argues.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or

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