Pa. OKs measure allowing NRA to sue towns over gun laws

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 Hundreds take part in a forum about gun rights in Pennsylvania during the Firearms Safety and Rights Seminar at the Fayetteville Volunteer Fire Company Social Hall this month. (Ryan Blackwell/Public Opinion/AP)

Hundreds take part in a forum about gun rights in Pennsylvania during the Firearms Safety and Rights Seminar at the Fayetteville Volunteer Fire Company Social Hall this month. (Ryan Blackwell/Public Opinion/AP)

Pennsylvania legislators have passed a bill backed by the National Rifle Association that will make it easier for gun rights organizations to overturn local gun control ordinances.

The measure allows membership organizations such as the NRA to sue towns and cities over any local gun law without having to find actual plaintiffs who can demonstrate that they’ve been harmed by the law. The absence of such plaintiffs has prevented the NRA from successfully challenging local laws in the past.

Gov. Tom Corbett is expected to sign the legislation into law.

When the new bill goes into effect, a likely target for gun rights groups will be laws that require gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms. Philadelphia is one of about 20 Pennsylvania cities that have passed that kind of reporting law.

The bill’s supporters say that towns and cities shouldn’t be able to pass laws that contradict state law. Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, a Republican from western Pennsylvania, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “It’s about consistency of gun laws.”

But opponents have called the bill an unprecedented gift to a powerful lobby — one that could have a chilling effect on local governments’ ability to legislate.

“The fact is that the NRA had difficulty getting the plaintiffs to come into court and sue. So they circumvented the legal process,” said Sen. Larry Farnese, a Philadelphia Democrat. “We gave them the status of U.S. citizens, and we gave it to an organization, and only to them.”

Among the aspects of the bill that trouble its opponents is its narrow scope.

“The way it’s defined, Planned Parenthood, an environmental group, the ACLU, could sue a township about its gun laws,” but not about any laws involving reproductive rights, the environment, or civil rights, said Shira Goodman, head of CeasefirePA.

But any suit involving laws other than gun laws would still require organizations to find actual citizens who can say they’ve been harmed, she said.

“Quite frankly, if I’m another organization who is often suing municipalities or townships, and I always have to look for a plaintiff to get on there, a plaintiff who’s been injured — next session I’m going to go and try to get my own special [legislation], where I don’t have to prove anybody’s been injured,” Goodman said.

Farnese and Goodman both think the new bill may be unconstitutional, and Ceasefire PA is looking into challenging it in court.

The NRA says cities that want to stay out of legal trouble should start repealing local gun laws now.

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