Understanding Castle Doctrine

There have been a lot of questions about the political decisions made in our fight to pass Castle Doctrine this year. To get answers, I decided to go straight to the source for NRA members in Pennsylvania and interview John Hohenwarter, NRA’s Pennsylvania State Liaison.

This interview covers some of the complexities of passing bills in Harrisburg, and juggling the inter- and intra-party struggles between the two chambers of the legislature. He also lets us know where to turn our attention in for future efforts to promote and defend the Second Amendment in the next legislative cycle.

My questions are bolded, with John’s answers in italics.

First, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to my readers today. Can you tell us a bit about yourself, and your history with the gun rights issue here in Pennsylvania?

I was born and raised in Pennsylvania and currently reside in Lancaster County.  I’m a lifelong gun owner, hunter and shooting enthusiast.  I’m married and the father of three future hunters.  My professional experience is in the government relations field for the past 18 years, 12 years with NRA and six years for the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs.

The big question on everyone’s mind is Castle Doctrine. It’s been a long, hard fight to get it, but it’s finally on the way to the Governor. Can you describe the difficulties that were encountered getting this bill through to final passage?

Over the last several legislative sessions, there have been a number of hurdles with this legislation involving the House, Senate and Governor’s Office. This session, “Castle Doctrine” legislation was introduced in both chambers – HB40 (Perry-R) and SB842 (Alloway-R).  Both pieces of legislation were stymied in committee during most of the legislative session.

Over the last several weeks there has been much misinformation concerning NRA activity with this legislation.  Therefore, I think it is important to share with your readers a brief overview of what occurred with “Castle Doctrine” over the last several months and ILA’s roll in the process.

In May of this year, Chairman Caltagirone made good on his commitment to allow a House Judiciary Committee vote on House Bill 40.  The legislation was voted out of committee and referred to the House Appropriations Committee where it remained blocked for several months by Chairman Evans.

Because Chairman Evans refused to move the bill, Representative Perry filed a discharge petition to force a committee vote to move the bill.  However, before the discharge petition had the opportunity to be voted by the House, Chairman Evans agreed to a House Appropriations Committee vote that resulted in the legislation being passed and moved out of committee and placed on the House Calendar.

During this time frame, NRA was also working on an alternative plan in the Senate by advocating a “Castle Doctrine” amendment to HB1926.  This plan of attack was supported by Senator Alloway, who agreed to offer the amendment, and was seconded by some members of the Senate republican leadership team.  Not knowing the future of HB40 in the House, this course of action would allow another option to pass the measure before the end of the legislative session.

However, NRA had opposition from some leaders in the Senate who were uncooperative in this effort despite intense lobbying efforts and overall support by a majority of the members of the Senate.  In fact, NRA had a commitment from House democratic leadership on concurrence if the Senate would send the bill to the House.  The reason the House agreed to this process was because of the high probability that a House floor flight would occur on HB40 opening the door to a flurry of bad amendments. Unfortunately at the time, the Senate did not cooperate with this effort.

So with time running out, NRA continued to lobby the House to pass HB40.  Finally, the Democratic House Leadership agreed to forge ahead and scheduled a vote.  The bill was passed by the House on October 5th and sent to the Senate where it was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Now the stage was set for a battle in the Senate and it was time to turn up the heat.

With only three days left on the Senate schedule, there were now two options available. Our office decided that the first option would be to pursue a Committee vote on HB40 and send a clean bill to the Governor’s Office.  However, this option had to occur on Tuesday, October 12th of the following week because of Constitution provisions that require a bill to be considered on three different days before being voted on the floor.

NRA was assured by republican leadership that a vote would occur in committee on Tuesday to allow a sufficient time period for legislative consideration.  However, amendments were now being drafted and efforts were underway to amend HB40 in committee with anti-gun/anti-hunting provisions.  In addition, republican support to kill the amendments in committee continued to dwindle throughout the day, which created a rift among republican members.

Less than 10 minutes before the committee vote, Senator Alloway and I had a meeting off the Senate floor with republican leadership concerning the pending vote.  At that time, our concerns were confirmed that HB40 was in jeopardy and the committee did not have the support to kill several amendments filed to the bill.  It was at that time the decision was made by Senate leadership to pursue the second option, which was to amend HB1926 and battle the amendments on the floor where they could be defeated.

Fortunately, the amendment process for Castle Doctrine was successful and the anti-gun amendment (Florida Loophole) offered by Senator Leach was defeated and all other amendments were withdrawn.  House Bill 1926 was passed and sent to the House for concurrence.  And as we all now know, the House concurred this week on the measure sending it to the Governor for approval.

There has been considerable criticism over the decision to amend HB1926 with Castle Doctrine rather than pushing through HB40, can you explain what the reasoning was there?

This is as an example of the misinformation that I was referring to earlier. If House Bill 40 would have been voted by the Senate Judiciary Committee, “Florida Loophole” would have been amended into the bill by a vote of 8-6 and there is a good possibility that mandatory reporting of lost and stolen firearms, as well as a ban on pigeon shoots, would have be amended into the measure as well.  The following would have been the roll call vote on the Senator Leach’s “Florida Loophole” amendment in committee based upon the roll call that was taken on the Senate floor on the same amendment:

YES VOTES
Greenleaf, Stewart J. , Chair
White, Mary Jo, Vice Chair
Leach, Daylin , Minority Chair
Browne, Patrick M.
Earll, Jane M.
Costa, Jay
Fontana, Wayne D.
Stack, Michael J.
NO VOTES
Boscola, Lisa M.
Gordner, John R.
Orie, Jane Clare
Piccola, Jeffrey E
Rafferty, John C., Jr.
Scarnati, Joseph B., III, ex-officio

Therefore, a decision was made by Republican Leadership to avoid the committee process and vote down the same amendments filed to HB1926 on the floor.  This course of action could still get a bill to the Governor’s desk since the House had 5 days scheduled for session after the November election.  Keep in mind, without NRA orchestrating an “Option 2”, “Castle Doctrine” would have died that week in the Senate.

However, it is unfortunate that there was a breakdown in the republican controlled Senate Judiciary Committee which ultimately killed HB40.  As a result, the NRA-PVF lowered grades and removed endorsements from sitting Senators who were up for election this cycle.

Any word on whether Rendell signs or vetoes the bill?

At this time,  no one knows what Governor Rendell will do.  I do believe that a veto is being considered and I ask all NRA members, gun owners and anyone else who values self-defense contact the Governor’s Office.

The Senate certainly presented some obstacles for getting Castle Doctrine passed. Any fear that the political climate in the Senate could get worse for gun rights? What are some things activists can do to help?

After going through this latest exercise in the Senate, we need to solidify support for a pro-gun agenda in the Republican Caucus.  NRA members and gun owners should contact their Senator between now and next year to reaffirm their support for protecting the 2nd Amendment.

There has been criticism by some that NRA hasn’t worked well with other organizations here in PA. Is NRA willing to work with other groups?

Contrary to the criticism, NRA makes it a point to work with grassroots organizations not only in Pennsylvania but around the country.  We are fortunate to have some outstanding activists and organizations in the state that make the phone calls, write the letters, and otherwise engage with their elected officials.  These individuals make our job a lot easier.

I know at times it can be frustrating to some activists that not all the insider information is shared with the grassroots.  However, this is not always possible, and most activists recognize the nature of the business.  In fact, NRA’s legislative strategy is often so sensitive that wide knowledge could jeopardize the final outcome.

For example, when HB40 came up for a vote on the House floor, only a few people knew that republican leadership intended use House Rule 61 to cut off debate.   Our office was privy to this information; however, to send out an alert about this tactic would have jeopardized the legislation.

At the end of the day it’s about getting the job done and not about who gets the credit and I believe most activists and organizations are on the same page.

There are a lot of other issues facing Pennsylvania once we get Castle Doctrine passed. Can you discuss what might be future legislative priorities?

As you know, there are a number of issues on the horizon affecting gun owners and sportsmen in Pennsylvania.  For example, the usefulness of PICS, problems associated with lawful transportation of firearms, strengthening of the preemption statute and many others.  Our office will be looking at all these issues and others to prioritize our efforts for the next session.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to my readers today, and I hope we can get an opportunity to do this again sometime.

I want to thank you for the opportunity to discuss these important issues and look forward to a successful 2011-12 legislative session.