The National Rifle Association filed suit this week against Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Lancaster, claiming these cities’ local gun ordinances defy state law. These lawsuits are made possible by new state legislation that took effect last week.
The NRA’s outside counsel Jonathan Goldstein said under state law, local governments have been barred from enacting gun control laws for decades—but they’ve been doing it anyway.
“We think that the state legislature has been clear that it and it alone reserves the right to regulate firearms,” said Goldstein. “These municipalities have delegated authority from the general assembly and they’re exceeding that authority.”
Old law, amended
State law says: “No county, municipality or township may in any manner regulate the lawful ownership, possession, transfer or transportation of firearms… “
But local ordinances exist across Pennsylvania—like city laws prohibiting carrying firearms in public places or requiring citizens to file a report if a gun is lost or stolen.
John Gedid is the founder of the Law and Government Institute at Widener University School of Law. He said the new legislation opens a way to challenge those ordinances.
“In all probability, the legislature changed the law as a way to get the law enforced because it had been ignored for thirty or forty years,” Gedid said.
Before, state law said you had to prove you’d been harmed by an ordinance to challenge it in court.
But the new amendment has taken away that requirement and gives groups like the NRA the ability to sue on behalf of their members in the state. It also puts municipalities on the hook financially—it allows challengers to seek damages.
It’s not just the NRA that has moved in.
US Law Shield, a Texas-based firearms legal defense program, filed suit against Harrisburg.
At a press conference, Justin McShane said the group is targeting Harrisburg in its lawsuit to make a point.
“It’s time for the capital city to learn that it has to follow the rules and the laws that are enacted by our capital,” said McShane.
But some say it’s up for debate whether all local gun ordinances defy that law.
Speaking on WESA Public Radio, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said the city consulted legal experts before enacting its “Lost or Stolen” gun ordinance.
“We’re not taking away anyone’s right to own a gun and we’re not taking away anyone’s right to own guns,” said Peduto. “What we’re saying is when it’s lost or stolen it needs to be reported so that gun doesn’t end up on the street killing people.”
Peduto said the city will fight the NRA lawsuit. And in fact, Pittsburgh teamed up with Philadelphia and Lancaster in a suit filed last November claiming the law that gives the NRA the right to sue was passed unconstitutionally. If they win that case, NRA’s legal standing will be struck down, which means its lawsuits would have to be dismissed.
So far, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Lancaster, and Harrisburg are being sued. But Goldstein, NRA’s legal counsel, warned that any municipality with local gun ordinances could be the next target.
“Rock and a hard place”
Shira Goodman, the executive director of the gun control advocacy group CeaseFirePA, said the legislators that passed the new law have put municipalities “between a rock and a hard place.”
“You have to choose between doing what you thought was right to protect your cities and what you now might be in fear for your public budget,” she said. “And that’s a terrible, terrible thing.”
Ferguson Township, with a population of around 18,000, is just one of many municipalities choosing to amend its law.
Township manager Mark Kunkle said he sees the local ordinance banning the possession of firearms in public land as “common sense,” but, he said, “There is no choice here. It’s a compliance issue with the state law.”
Municipalities across the state—and states across the country–will no doubt be watching as the lawsuits and controversy play out.
With reporting by WESA and WITF.