Fire Fight
Why the Philadelphia suburbs are uniquely affected by the battle over firearms
by Sharon A. Shaw


Lori Wicen had never picked up a gun until 10 years ago. When her children were still young, Wicen’s then-husband had suggested the family get a gun, but she was scared of firearms at the time.


“Training was not as available,” she says. “It never crossed my mind to learn; I just thought scary.”


All that changed in 2009, when Wicen (since remarried) attended a women’s wilderness event hosted by the National Rifle Association. There she had the opportunity to shoot various firearms, an experience that “ignited a passion,” she says. She has since become an NRA-certified instructor—earning her pistol, rifle and shotgun teacher certification—and chief range safety officer of Wicen’s Shooting Range in Furlong, which has belonged to her current husband’s family since 1928.


As the only public outdoor range within a 120-mile radius, Wicen’s draws from a diverse group of gun enthusiasts. The range offers a safe location to shoot pistols, rifles and shotguns and provides training for firearms owners through its learning center. She understands the apprehension people have regarding firearms, “but that is why we are here: to teach,” she says.

“[A gun] is a piece of equipment—a tool like a hammer and nail—you have to know how to operate it to serve a purpose. Once you can explain it is just parts of a piece of equipment, it takes away the fear.”


Wicen feels that the media coverage of firearms is also changing. Recent reality series such as “Top Shot” demonstrate responsible ownership and celebrate the sport of competitive shooting, a development she sees as a step in the right direction toward normalizing gun ownership.


Sport shooting and hunting are common recreational reasons cited for gun ownership, though many gun owners say they choose to exercise their Second Amendment right for another legitimate purpose: protection of person and property. The urban problems of crime and violence, for which perpetrators often use a potentially lethal weapon, have inevitably spilled over into the suburbs. Yet firearms play an integral—and often controversial—role in many aspects of modern society. Even though this country was founded on the rights our forefathers felt would best protect its citizens, perhaps the most significant downside of living in a free country is that one person’s right to a sense of security may very well conflict with that of his or her neighbor’s.


Dangerous Debate

In mid-December a Whitpain Township man fired three shots at two burglars who broke into his home. The suspects fled, apparently without injury, but the would-be attackers of a widowed young Oklahoma mother were less fortunate. On New Year’s Eve the widow called 911 to report that two men were attempting to break into her home. The 911 dispatcher confirmed that the widow’s doors were locked and assured her of her right to fire her weapon if threatened. When one of the attackers kicked in the door and came after her with a knife, she shot and killed him with a 12-gauge shotgun. Though most states allow for similar self-defense, some require that the victim first attempt to retreat. This summer the state Senate approved a bill that will expand Pennsylvania residents’ rights to use deadly force against attackers in places outside of their homes, including their vehicle and other public spaces where they have a right to be.


While Wicen has not personally had a situation where she needed to use a weapon for protection, she knows others who have. “The first goal,” she says, “is to avoid situations; don’t walk in [to danger] because you have a gun.” However, she does feel that one should be able to carry a concealed weapon to protect oneself.


A firsthand observer to the risk and benefits of firearms, Stephen White has served as chief of the Doylestown police for 23 of his 39 years in law enforcement. In that time he has witnessed many changes. He reflects back on the days when he began his service and says then it was easy to identify the troublemakers in town. Now he and his forces are arresting criminals in town from across the state.


“With identity crimes being perpetrated from halfway around the world and the mobility of criminals who come here to commit breaking and entering, theft … the challenge that we have is much greater,” he says. He is worried about the rise of drug use among young people in his community, the domestic stress that the economy has put on families and, inevitably, the role that firearms can play in all of these situations.


As he prepares to retire, White recalls that during his time there have been five homicides in Doylestown; four were committed with guns, three of which were domestically related. “It is alarming to think that we currently have 23 active protection-from-abuse orders,” he says. “That to me is something to be concerned about.”


He is also part of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). The group is actively involved in deliberations over public safety and homeland security policies, including H.R. 822—the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act of 2011—currently being debated. If passed, the IACP believes this bill would weaken existing state laws by allowing individuals to carry concealed firearms when visiting another state or the District of Columbia as long as the individual is entitled to carry concealed firearms pursuant to the laws of the individual’s home state.


Most officers who die in the line of duty are killed by their own weapon after it has been taken from them during a struggle, according to White. He tells homeowners to think about that when they ask if they should get a handgun for protection because it could end up in the wrong hands.

“Is there a high number of firearms used illegally? Yes. Should the country be able to keep its citizens safe? Yes. Are drugs and alcohol an added concern? Yes.” Still, he says, “The legitimate use of firearms is our Second Amendment right, and with the U.S. as a target for terrorism, people need to be concerned.”


Good Guys vs. Bad Guys

To Wicen, the right to bear arms means the right to own as many and whatever kinds of weapons a citizen wants. “I don’t see a reason to own machine guns,” she says, “but I don’t believe you should not be allowed to; you should be able to choose. The bad guys aren’t regulated [so] why should the good guys be?” It is therefore, she believes, the responsibility of gun owners to join the NRA or a similar organization that fights for society’s right to bear arms.


Those interested in restricting gun ownership usually cite two primary reasons: crime and accidental shootings. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, there were 613 fatal firearm accidents in the United States in 2007 (the most recent year for which data was available), constituting only half a percent of the 123,706 fatal accidents that year. Criminal gun use, however, continues to be a widespread problem. Based on a survey from the U.S. Department of Justice, an estimated 67 percent of murders and 8 percent of other violent crimes, including assaults, robberies and rapes, in 2008 involved a gun.


Many attempts have been made to restrict the ownership of firearms in high-crime cities. In September 1976, Washington, D.C., passed legislation generally prohibiting residents from possessing handguns and requiring that all firearms in private homes be kept unloaded and rendered temporarily inoperable. The law was in effect until June 2008. Surprisingly, statistics demonstrate that during this time the district’s murder rate averaged 73 percent higher than it was at the outset of the law, while the U.S. murder rate averaged 11 percent lower during the same span of time. It would seem that those willing to use a weapon to commit a violent crime were not deterred by the fact that owning one was, in itself, a crime.


Just how “the bad guys” obtain those guns is at the heart of most recent gun control legislation. Under federal law there are several categories of people for whom gun ownership, receipt, possession or transportation is illegal. These include fugitives; those convicted or under indictment for a felony; those convicted of a misdemeanor; those subject to certain restraining orders or convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor; unlawful users of any controlled substance; those who have been ruled as mentally defective or committed to any mental institution; anyone dishonorably discharged from the military; and illegal aliens or those who have renounced their U.S. citizenship.


Federally licensed firearms businesses must conduct a thorough background check and, in many cases, obey a “cooling off” period before the sale of any firearm. Private individuals are not required to a conduct a background check, however, it is illegal for them to sell or transfer any firearm or ammunition to someone while knowing or having reasonable cause to believe this person falls into any of the prohibited categories. Even so, according to the 1997 Survey of State Prison Inmates, among those possessing a gun, 80 percent claimed that the source of the weapon was a family member, friend, “street buy” or another illegal source. Only 12 percent reported to have obtained the firearm from a retail store or pawn shop and fewer than two percent purchased their gun at a flea market or gun show.


Near and Deer

There is another “home invader” on the minds of many suburbanites—deer and other potential pests—and the use of firearms to control their population through hunting can be equally controversial. Sheryl Trewella, information and education supervisor for the southeast region of the Pennsylvania Game Commission in Harrisburg, notes that deer are well suited to the suburbs, which offer plenty of food and no natural predators.


“Our plantings, lawn and shrubs easily allow them to live among us,” she says. “Because these areas are subject to less hunting, the populations continue to rise and we cannot do anything to lower them.


“The danger posed by high deer populations is primarily property damage and road kills,” she continues, adding that the PGC carefully monitors the deer population and determines how to best manage the state’s collective herd. “Their only predators [in the suburbs] are vehicles. Hunting reduces populations to an acceptable level.”


Trewella realizes this is not always a popular solution, but relocation is costly and rarely successful. Instead, she suggests, some townships and parks, including Valley Forge, employ Wildlife Services, a federal agency that utilizes sharp shooters. Though often protested, their methods appear to be effective and efficient. Other locations that are overrun with deer rely on individual hunters or local hunting groups. “There is hunting—even in Philadelphia,” Trewella says. “We encourage it wherever practical and possible.”


In an interesting twist, it is often hunting organizations that are responsible for the preservation of wildlife habitat through the creation of game parks and open-space designations. Projects, such as those undertaken by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation—to reestablish a native Pennsylvania elk herd—have protected thousands of acres of land from development.


Although the Second Amendment remains a part of our heritage, the country has changed considerably since the days of the Founding Fathers. It seems modern society has only added more complexity to the debate over the right to protect oneself with the aid of firearms: safety vs. protection, fun vs. fear and, in some ways, life vs. death.