Should gun owners be required to report lost or stolen guns?
Many Pennsylvania cities and towns think so, and 30 — including Philadelphia — have passed laws that legally compel gun owners to do such.
But pending legislation in Harrisburg sends a direct challenge to the power of such local laws. It gives both citizens and gun rights groups the legal standing to sue to overturn those laws.
If the legislation passes, Philadelphia would have two options: either repeal its local gun-control ordinances, or be ready for potentially costly lawsuits.
The pending state legislation would give all gun-owning citizens in Philadelphia the standing to claim that the city has impinged on their rights. Even an outsider passing though the city could have the grounds to sue.
Daniel Vice is the senior attorney for the gun-control group, the Brady Campaign. He says this legislation would hinder Philadelphia’s already strained battle against gun violence.
“Pennsylvania’s weak gun laws already make it very easy for criminals to get guns,” Vice said. “Now we have the legislature [potentially] telling Philadelphia, telling other cities: ‘you can’t do anything to try to stop that flow of guns into your cities, onto your streets that are killing your citizens–because we’re going to listen to the gun lobby.'”
Supporters of the legislation claim the new law isn’t about kowtowing to lobbyists. They say it’s about penalizing local governments for overstepping their legal authority.
Here they cite Pennsylvania’s preemption law which gives Harrisburg the power to regulate firearms.
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler County) is the bill’s lead sponsor.
“There might be some local government officials that don’t believe that the state law is right or don’t like it, but it remains a fact that it is a state law,” Metcalfe said. “We at the state level do not allow our 2,000-plus municipalities to pass their own gun control laws.”
But this is where the issue gets tricky — and may come down to the interpretation of a single word.
“Pennsylvania does have a preemption law on the books, but that preemption law has very specific language,” said Max Nacheman, the Executive Director of CeaseFire PA. “No local municipality may pass a law regulating the lawful ownership, possession, use, transfer or transportation of firearms.”
Those, like Nacheman, who support lost and stolen gun reporting laws claim that the word “lawful” keeps the local ordinances within the bounds of the law. They say when a gun goes missing or is stolen, it is no longer lawfully owned; therefore, the preemption law no longer carries water.
Metcalfe and the bill’s other supporters find this logic suspect.
The current debate is but one move in a lengthy chess match between the two sides.
Cities and towns began enacting their own ordinances after the state assembly didn’t approve tougher laws against the illegal gun trade in 2008.
Since those local laws have been enacted, both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have been sued by pro-gun individuals and groups, including the NRA. Rulings in those cases sided with the municipalities—finding that the plaintiffs didn’t have legal standing to bring suit.
It was these conclusions which spurred the design of the current legislation.
According to data released last month by the ATF, licensed weapons dealers in Pennsylvania lose or are robbed of more guns than those in any other state. It’s for reasons such as these that opponents of the pending legislation say that local ordinances are necessary.
Without a law forcing somebody to report a missing gun, says Daniel Vice, “bad-apple dealers and gun traffickers” can illegally sell their guns without impunity.
And then if the gun is ever traced back to them, “they have the excuse to say, ‘oh, that gun must have been lost or stolen.'”
For its part, facing the challenge of dealing with the city’s recent uptick in gun-related violence, Mayor Nutter’s office voiced its displeasure with the proposed legislation.
“The city opposes any kind of measure,” said spokesman Mark McDonald, “that would inhibit our ability to seek legislative remedies in order to get perpetrators of gun violence and their illegal guns off the streets of Philadelphia.”
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives is expected to vote on the issue within the next month.