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Massacres test whether Washington can move beyond paralysis

WASHINGTON — Days after 19 children and two teachers were gunned down in Texas, politicians in Washington are tinkering around the edges of America’s gun laws.

A bipartisan group of senators is scheduled to hold virtual meetings early next week and has some proposals on the table: the expansion of background checks, legal changes to prevent the mentally ill and teenagers from getting guns, and new rules for gun trafficking.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., the leader of the effort, said he had not seen so much willingness to talk since 20 children were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.

But the emerging details of the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday suggest that few of the proposals under discussion would have made much of a difference. The gunman did not have a criminal record that might have been caught by expanded background checks. There is no evidence that the gun had been part of a trafficking ring. And so far, there have not been reports of mental illness that might have triggered a so-called red flag law.

More far-reaching efforts — such as banning military-style weapons, raising the age for gun purchases and requiring licensing and registration for firearm ownership — have already been all but ruled out, the result of Republican opposition, Democratic resignation and court rulings.

This month, before the Texas shooting and another massacre at a grocery story in Buffalo, New York, a federal appeals court struck down a California law that banned the sale of some semi-automatic weapons to people younger than 21. Both shootings were committed by 18-year-olds.

The reaction in Washington to the horrific scenes is a familiar combination of pain and paralysis. There is a sense in Congress, at the White House and around the country that it should, somehow, be different this time.

In Uvalde, anguished parents grew angrier Friday as a top state law enforcement official acknowledged that police were wrong to have waited more than an hour to confront the gunman as he holed up inside a classroom, firing sporadically while students who were still alive lay still among the bodies of classmates. Hundreds of protesters raged outside the National Rifle Association’s convention in Houston — less than 300 miles from the massacre — where the group was celebrating its long-standing partnership with Republicans to block gun control measures.

“How Many More Kids?” read one sign. “You Are Responsible,” read another, painted to look as if it were splattered in blood.

And yet, even in the wake of the slaughter of so many children, Washington’s leading political players are reprising their usual roles.

“There is more Republican interest and involvement today than any time since Sandy Hook,” Murphy said. “So by definition, that’s different, right? But I also have failed every single time. Almost without exception, these talks, when they start, don’t go anywhere, right? And so I worry about claiming optimism, given that history.”

As the United States entered a holiday weekend on the heels of the two mass shootings, senators headed home for recess. President Joe Biden is set to go to Uvalde Sunday to once again console a community in the wake of unthinkable losses.

What remains is an enormous gap between the scale of the problem — more than 1,500 people have been killed in more than 270 mass shootings since 2009, according to Everytown for Gun Safety — and what America’s political leaders can agree are the right responses to the carnage.

“None of this meets the moment,” said Igor Volsky, executive director of Guns Down America, a gun control advocacy group. “None of this meets the enormity of the crisis that we’re in, both in terms of mass shootings and the everyday gun violence that’s been spiking. None of it. None of it is resetting the conversation.”

Polling suggests that many Americans are eager for a broader reset.

Nearly 90% of adults in the United States support the idea of doing more to keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people, according to a Pew Research Center survey last year. And about 80% of people say gun purchasers should be subject to background checks, even when they buy their guns in a private sale or at a gun show.

But surveys also reflect the deepening polarization in the country, where about 30% of adults say they own a gun.

At the federal level, 51% of Americans favor a nationwide ban on the sale of AR-15 rifles and similar semi-automatic weapons, while 32% are opposed, according to a poll this month by The Associated Press and NORC. Three-quarters of Democrats were supportive, compared with barely one-quarter of Republicans.

The divide is also wide between people who own guns and people who do not. (Republicans are roughly twice as likely to say they own a gun than Democrats.)

A sizable majority of people who do not own guns favor banning high-capacity ammunition magazines and creating a federal database to track all gun sales, according to Pew. Fewer than half of gun owners support the same restrictions. By contrast, large majorities of gun owners favor arming teachers in schools and allowing people to carry concealed weapons in more places — changes that are broadly opposed by people who do not own firearms.

The response to mass shootings in the United States is starkly different from the decisive action taken in other developed countries around the world. Britain banned semi-automatic weapons and handguns after shootings in 1987 and 1996. Australia held a mandatory gun buyback after a 1996 massacre, and the rate of mass shootings plummeted. Canada, Germany, New Zealand and Norway all tightened gun laws after horrific crimes.

For Republican lawmakers in the United States, even a national tragedy like the two recent mass shootings may not be enough to break through the fear of angering their supporters, who have been fired up over the last several years by former President Donald Trump, Fox News and social media.

Since 2017, when Trump became president, support for banning assault weapons among gun owners, for example, has dropped to 37% from 48%, according to Pew.

That rigidity by most Republicans for the past decade has contributed to a sense of gloomy inevitability among Democrats in Congress and at the White House. In remarks the day after the Texas shooting, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, said he accepted “the fact” that Republicans are unwilling to prevent more killings.

Describing his hope for finding a compromise, he said, “Maybe, maybe, maybe. Unlikely. Burnt in the past.”

Murphy said he spoke Friday to members of Biden’s White House staff, who told him the president was eager to do anything he could to support the nascent negotiations over new gun safety measures.

Volsky said he was deeply disappointed in what he called a lack of urgency by Biden after the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde.

“They have this learned behavior that after tragedies like this one, you say all the right things,” he said of Democrats. “And when all of that fails, you throw your arms up, and you blame the Republicans. It’s absolutely pathetic.”

Murphy is not exactly optimistic, but he is more hopeful.

He said that taking some small steps with Republicans could accelerate the decadeslong effort to pass new gun safety measures by demonstrating slow but important progress, much the way gay rights and civil rights activists won minor victories before they won big ones.

Murphy said Republicans need to see proof that they can vote for new gun restrictions and not be punished by voters. Outrage over the deaths in Buffalo and Uvalde could provide Republicans with a chance to test that theory, he said.

“The story here could be that Congress is discussing a set of measures that are much less than what is necessary to save the maximum number of lives,” Murphy conceded. “But I also have another story, which is, we’ve done nothing for 30 years, and if we were to do something that was significant and that demonstrably moved the needle on our gun laws, it would be historic.

“It would,” he said, “break this logjam.”

Chambers, minority firms call for business and wage tax cuts

A group of business chambers, business groups and diverse businesses in Philadelphia, are calling on Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council to make substantial wage and business cuts in fiscal year 2023. They are holding a rally at noon on Wednesday on the north side of City Hall.

The rally is billed “Give Philly a Raise!” said William Carter IV, Esq., Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia vice president for local advocacy and engagement, said the cuts would allow city businesses to grow, hire and give workers a reduction in their taxes.

In addition to the Philadelphia chamber, other groups in support of the rally include: the African American Chamber of Commerce, the Asian Chamber of Commerce, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Laborers’ District Council, Urban League of Philadelphia, OIC Philadelphia, Citizens Bank and Mosaic Development Partners.

“This is something that has been debated and talked about for decades, but the city of the Philadelphia has the nation’s highest wage tax,” Carter said. “For years, that has been talked about by businesses who wanted to move out the city and businesses who have moved out of the city, small, mid-sized and large. It deters employers from coming into our city. We want more jobs in the city.”

In Philadelphia, businesses are taxed on sales and income.

“We are the only major city that double taxes for its businesses,” Carter said. “We know that the time is now to make this happen, given that we are coming out of the pandemic.”

Earlier this month, Kenney said he was proposing a cut in the city’s wage tax. For example, the mayor would cut wage taxes for city residents to 3.7%, down from 3.84%. Non-residents would see a cut in their wage taxes to 3.4%, down from 3.481%.

According to the mayor’s office, the cuts would be the lowest wage taxes since 1976 and provide an estimated $260 million in relief.

Tonya Ladipo, is founder and CEO of the Ladipo Group in Philadelphia, a Black-owned firm dedicated to the emotional well-being of African Americans and their communities and a supporter of the rally.

“Everyone wants to live and work in a city that is safe and clean everywhere, not just in some ZIP codes. Residents and businesses want to pay their fair share of taxes, no more or less, and receive quality city services as a result. Now is the time for local government to create policies and tax structures that benefit businesses and residents alike. The $1.4 billion in federal relief from the American Rescue Plan is an opportunity to consider how best to support businesses and residents alike and give Philly workers a raise,” Ladipo said.

Biden sees chance of 'rational' Republican approach on guns

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said Monday that the “Second Amendment was never absolute” and that, after the Texas elementary school shooting, there may be some bipartisan support to tighten restrictions on the kind of high-powered weapons used by the gunman.

“I think things have gotten so bad that everybody’s getting more rational, at least that’s my hope,” Biden told reporters before honoring the nation’s fallen in Memorial Day remarks at Arlington National Cemetery.

His comments came a day after he traveled to the shattered Texas community of Uvalde, mourning privately for three-plus hours with anguished families grieving for the 19 children and two teachers who died in the shooting. Faced with chants of “do something” as he departed a church service, Biden pledged: “We will.”

After the Uvalde trip, Biden spent Sunday night at his home in Delaware and, as he arrived at the White House for Memorial Day events, was asked if he’s now more motivated to see new federal limits imposed on firearms.

“I’ve been pretty motivated all along,” he said. “I’m going to continue to push and we’ll see how this goes.”

In Congress, a bipartisan group of senators talked over the weekend to see if they could reach even a modest compromise on gun legislation after a decade of mostly failed efforts. That included encouraging state “red flag” laws to keep guns away from those with mental health problems.

“The Second Amendment was never absolute,” Biden said. “You couldn’t buy a cannon when the Second Amendment was passed. You couldn’t go out and buy a lot of weapons.”

Later, the president and first lady Jill Biden were joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, second gentleman Doug Emhoff, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at Arlington National Cemetery for a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Standing at attention under a cloudless sky in the late-May heat, Biden saluted as taps played, after laying the wreath of multi-colored flowers wrapped in red, white and blue ribbon in front of the tomb.

Delivering remarks honoring fallen servicemembers, he said “Memorial Day is always a day where pain and pride are mixed together.”

“Today we are free because they were brave,” the president said.

But Biden said the nation’s experiment in democracy remains under threat, both abroad, in the form of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and in division at home. He called upholding democracy “the mission of our time.”

“Our memorial to them must not be just a day when we pause and pray,” Biden said. “It must be a daily commitment to act, to come together, to be worthy of the price that was paid.”

In his earlier statements to reporters on guns, Biden said he’d not spoken to Republicans on the issue “but my guess is ... they’re going to have to take a hard look.”

There is nowhere near enough support from congressional Republicans for broader gun measures popular with the public — like a new ban on assault-type weapons or universal background checks on gun purchases. Still, Democratic advocates hope meaningful measures could still pass.

Biden said he had taken some executive actions on guns “but I can’t outlaw a weapon” and can’t “change the background checks.”

He said he didn’t know where congressional negotiations stand, but “there’s realization on the part of rational Republicans” that “we can’t keep repeating ourselves.”

Before returning to Washington, the president and first lady, whose veteran son Beau died of cancer caused by a brain tumor in 2015, attended church Monday morning and laid flowers at their son’s grave.

“Today’s the day our son died,” Biden said at Arlington, telling families that he knows remembrances like Monday’s can “reopen that black hole” of pain.

But he said because of their commitment to the ideals of America, “A part of them is still with us no matter how long ago we lost them.”

The Bidens also hosted a breakfast in the White House’s East Room with about 130 members of veteran organizations, military family groups and senior Defense Department and other administration officials.

The president, the first lady and representatives from five Gold Star families who lost relatives in combat also planted a Southern magnolia tree on the White House South Lawn. The tree came from a sapling of a nearby magnolia planted by President Andrew Jackson in 1835.

As the group used shovels to toss dirt on the newly planted tree, Biden grinned and said “shovel brigade.” He and the first lady later held hands with those gathered in a circle around the tree and prayed silently.

City Councilmember Johnson introduces property tax relief plan

Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, D- 2nd District announced his Save Our Homes plan during last week’s City Council meeting to help citizens with the rise in property assessment taxes.

Johnson’s seven-point plan has the support of 12 of his colleagues. Currently, only Council President Darrell Clarke, Councilmember Brian O’Neill, R-10th District, and At-large Councilmember Allan Domb have not signed on to the proposed bills.

“I am proud to announce the Save our Homes tax relief plan,” Johnson said. “It will stop this displacement by making property taxes fairer and more transparent. Moreover, this plan is revenue-neutral. It simply takes the expected revenue increase from the latest property assessments and gives the money back to where it belongs, which is to the people.”

Johnson’s plan will increase the homestead exemption from $45,000 to $90,000. If you own a home, you qualify, and currently, it saves homeowners $629. If approved, that number would double to $1,260.

Kate Dugan, an attorney with Community Legal Services, said that one of her clients Sabrina Reddy had just become a homeowner, and she had to call her to let her know that her property taxes were increasing.

“I had to call her and tell her taxes are going up 43% next year because, you know, not great news after the journey to becoming a homeowner,” Dugan said. “So an increase in the homestead exemption from $45,000 to $90,000 would help a lot of the impact of that increase away.”

The second part of the plan would extend the senior tax freeze program for qualified seniors 65 years or older.

“Low-income seniors will be able to freeze their assessments retroactively and to 2018 levels,” Johnson said.

Earlier this month, The Philadelphia Tribune reported that O’Neill introduced similar legislation.

To qualify, single applicants have to have an income of $33,500 or less, and married couples’ pay must be $41,500 or less.

Johnson also plans to change the Longtime Owner Occupant Program (LOOP). Under revisions, property value increases can’t exceed 150%. In addition, citizens must have lived in their homes for 10 years or more to be eligible.

Johnson’s plan will also allocate $12 million for the city’s rental assistance program for the 2023 budget, which would help with the perceived rent increases landlords would enact with increased property taxes.

There is also a $2.5 million budget item to campaign and make sure Philadelphians know the property tax reduction program exists.

“We need to let people know that their property taxes will increase,” Johnson said. “We need to let them know what they can do about it, from filling out assessment appeals, first levels of review, and other tax relief measures to help them address the property tax increases.”

Dugan said that Johnson and other elected officials must put money towards notifying the public because the Office of Property Assessment will not do that until later this year.

“That’s always important. Tax relief doesn’t help people who don’t know about it,” Dugan said. “These are programs that you have to sign up for. So you have to know to sign up for them. The Department of Revenue already does outreach, Community Legal Services, and a lot of other legal aid offices do outreach. Still, the more outreach we can do to ensure everybody knows what they qualify for, the more good.”

Save Our Homes plan will also allocate at least $2.5 million in the 2023 budget for free assistance for low-income homeowners and renters in property and eviction cases.

The plan is expected to cost over $90 million per year. It was referred to the appropriate committee and has to be voted on and approved by June 23.

“Tax policy can be dry. It can be technical. But people’s homes are at stake. Their dignity is at stake. It is our job to step up and step in,” Johnson said.

FILE - Connecticut Sun guard Yvonne Anderson, left, drives against New York Liberty forward Natasha Howard, right, in the second half during a WNBA basketball game, Tuesday, May 17, 2022, in New York. Yvonne Anderson understood that making a WNBA roster as an undrafted rookie was going to be tough and getting that chance a decade after she left college would be even tougher. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)