A town code in Lower Merion, though ambiguous in language, does not make it illegal to openly carry a firearm into a public park.
However, the fact that the township even has a local regulation was enough to bring a group of gun rights supporters — many wearing weapons in holsters — out to Bala Cynwyd Park Sunday afternoon to protest.
“Lower Merion contends that their ordinance is OK because they have an exception,” Joshua Prince, an attorney for the Firearms Consulting Group, told the cheering crowd of 50 people.
“Unfortunately for them, the Commonwealth Court has already addressed that argument. In NRA vs. City of Philadelphia, the court said municipalities cannot regulate even consistently with the Uniform Firearms Act. The ordinance here is unlawful, and illegal,” Prince added.
The code in contention is 109-16, which says, “no person except authorized members of the police shall carry or discharge firearms of any kind in a park without a special permit, unless exempted.”
It’s the “unless exempted” phrase that’s become so hotly contested. Township commissioners have said the code is consistent with Pennsylvania law because it implies anyone who can legally carry a firearm in the state would be exempted. In Pennsylvania for a legally purchased weapon, you only need a permit to carry it concealed, not in the open.
Pro-gun advocates say it’s a convenient excuse, and says it still directly violates the state law, which says township gun rules cannot go beyond Commonwealth law.
A state law signed in the waning days of former Gov. Tom Corbett’s term makes it easy for groups such as Prince’s or the NRA to challenge local gun laws. Now such groups have legal “standing” to sue to overturn a local ordinance. And that law potentially puts towns on the hook to pay for legal bills from groups bringing such lawsuits. As a consequence, many towns have been repealing gun laws to avoid court cases and legal expense. Lower Merion Town Council voted in January not to repeal its code, and Prince said a lawsuit could come within a few weeks.
The “Families for Freedom Rally,” Sunday consisted of mostly men and a few women. They held signs that read, “Don’t tread on me.” After organizers addressed the crowd, a raffle was held, and at the end some protesters walked around the park with trash bags to collect garbage.
Steve Piotrowski, leader of the Citizens for Liberty organization, said Sunday was as much about a moral issue as a legal one.
“We believe, I personally believe, parents, families and individuals in general should have the universal right to be able to protect themselves, especially in parks,” said Piotrowski.
Howard Bullock drove to Lower Merion Sunday from Harrisburg, to support, “the lawful people who want to have a means to protect themselves in a park.”
“I shouldn’t have the possibility of being negatively impacted by the legal system for exercising my right,” said Bullock in the park, a handgun attached to his hip. “It shouldn’t be on the books, it shouldn’t be hanging over anybody’s head whether they want to use [the law] or not.”
Members of gun control organizations such as CeaseFirePA did not protest the event, but responded with a statement that said it, “stands firm with Pennsylvanians and local leaders working hard to protect communities, and will not give in to bullying tactics.”