NRA Sues 3 Pennsylvania Cities Over Local Gun-Control Measures

Dennis Roberts loads a magazine into the grip of a model 9VE pistol while test-firing prior to shipping at the Smith & Wesson factory in Springfield, Mass. on Dec. 19, 2006.  (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

A magazine is loaded into the grip of a model 9VE pistol at the Smith & Wesson factory in Springfield, Mass. on Dec. 19, 2006. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

January 16, 2015

In 2008, the city of Lancaster, in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Amish country, passed an ordinance requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms to the police within 72 hours. The city’s Democratic mayor, Rick Gray, said at the time that the ordinance was designed to attack the problem of “straw buyers,” or people who purchase guns legally in order to then sell them to convicted criminals who can’t buy weapons themselves.

“When a gun one of these guys bought and sold turns up after it’s been used in a crime, they like to say they lost the gun or it was stolen, but they just never got around to reporting it,” Gray told a local paper in 2013. “This ordinance takes away that excuse.”

This week, however, the National Rifle Association filed suit against Lancaster — as well as the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh — arguing that gun-control measures in each municipality violate a 1974 law prohibiting cities from setting gun policy that is more stringent than the state’s. The capital city of Harrisburg is facing a similar case brought by the Pennsylvania chapter of U.S. Law Shield, a Texas-based gun rights organization.

In the past, Pennsylvania state courts have often thrown out such cases because of a requirement that plaintiffs demonstrate that they suffered some sort of personal harm because of an existing local gun control ordinance.

But this week’s lawsuits were filed in the wake of a new state law, championed by the NRA and gun-rights groups, that allows any individual or membership organization to sue for damages without having to prove actual injury. The law was signed in November by Republican Governor, Tom Corbett, and went into effect this month.

In the two months since the law was signed, nearly two dozen Pennsylvania cities agreed to eliminate their local gun laws rather than face litigation. But Lancaster, Philadelphia and Lancaster did not, prompting the NRA legal challenge.

“The cities of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Lancaster have openly defied state law for decades. They continue to willfully violate the law and insist on politically grandstanding at taxpayers’ expense,” said Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative action, in a statement.

The group’s case against Philadelphia takes aim at a similar measure to the Lancaster measure against so-called straw purchases. Philadelphia’s law also prohibits guns inside city-owned facilities, and bars anyone found to pose a risk of “imminent harm” to themselves or others from possessing a weapon. In Pittsburgh, local ordinances prohibit gun owners from carrying firearms in a vehicle and ban firing a gun anywhere but at licensed target ranges.

Fearing the rollback of even more gun control measures, several Pennsylvania lawmakers are now suing the state, alleging that the legislation signed by Corbett in November provides gun-rights advocates “a hunting license to enter the courts, challenge municipal legislation and collect a bounty.” Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are likewise challenging the state law on constitutional grounds.

“This should be a wake-up call for citizens across Pennsylvania,” Mayor William Peduto of Pittsburgh told reporters on Wednesday. “We’re not taking away anyone’s right to own a gun — or 10 or 20 guns. What we’re saying is when a gun is lost or stolen, you’ve got to report it. Too many people are being killed in the streets of Pittsburgh and other cities with stolen guns.”

The challenge to the Pennsylvania law poses a critical test for how states and local municipalities regulate firearms in the future. Forty-six states have adopted laws similar to Pennsylvania that prohibit local jurisdictions from imposing stricter gun control measures than what already exists at the state level. If Pennsylvania’s new law survives its constitutional challenge, gun-control advocates fear it could become a template for similar legislation across the nation.

“They weren’t having the success they wanted in court, so they’ve now found a way to get in risk free,” said Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFirePA. “I hope it’s not a new tactic where they’re going to go try and scare towns and cities and bully local municipal authorities, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it succeeds here if they try it elsewhere.”

Jason M. Breslow

Jason M. Breslow, Former Digital Editor



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