NRA loses gun law battle

Judge says group has no standing to challenge lost gun rule

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The city of Pittsburgh may soon begin enforcing a law requiring owners to report lost or stolen guns within 24 hours after a Common Pleas judge tossed out a challenge by the National Rifle Association.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said he would meet soon with Police Chief Nate Harper to discuss using the ordinance, which sets a maximum fine of $500 for a first offense of not reporting a lost or stolen gun and maximum fine of $1,000 and up to 90 days in jail for additional offenses. Mr. Ravenstahl allowed the ordinance to become law in December without his signature because he thought it was unenforceable and pre-empted by state law.

"The ruling [yesterday] certainly is a good victory for Pittsburgh and we're excited about the ruling and ... the judge throwing out the case," Mr. Ravenstahl said. "We'll sit down with the chief and ... could start enforcing that shortly."

The law is aimed at straw purchasers who legally buy guns and then sell or give them to criminals. Often police can trace a gun used in a crime to the legal owner, but the owner tells them the gun had been lost or stolen.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. ruled yesterday that the NRA and four local gun owners did not have legal standing to challenge the law. He didn't rule on the validity of the law itself.

Someone who has been charged under the ordinance could challenge its legality, he said.

"I know the ruling [yesterday] wasn't necessarily based on the legality of the law but the NRA's ability to challenge it, so there still are questions around that," Mr. Ravenstahl said, "but nevertheless we're going to forge ahead and try to fight this thing just like Philadelphia did."

Commonwealth Court has upheld a similar ordinance in Philadelphia.

The city's case was presented by attorneys with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, who offered to join the case without cost to the city.

"We're pleased the court threw out the NRA's baseless lawsuit," said Daniel R. Vice, a Brady attorney. "The NRA should end its hypocrisy in claiming to support enforcing the laws on the books and then suing to strike down common sense gun laws. It's too easy for dangerous criminals to get deadly weapons."

Pittsburgh attorney Meghan Jones-Rolla, who represented the NRA, said she was "disappointed" with the decision and the NRA will appeal.

Mr. Ravenstahl, who has strongly supported statewide gun laws, said he will support continuing to defend the ordinance.

"Like we said when we brought the Brady folks in to fight this, we are going to fight this to the end and do whatever we can to really protect the residents of this city, and we think local gun ordinances make sense."

City Council President Doug Shields, who led council's push to approve the ordinance, criticized the NRA for fighting it.

"I wish the NRA would find a way to work constructively with the citizens of this country to protect people from injury and death," Mr. Shields said. "You can't just come to court because the legislative body does something you don't like."

Ms. Jones-Rolla said she believes the Pittsburgh case is different from the Philadelphia case because one of the plaintiffs here had actually had a gun stolen. The opinion in the Philadelphia case said the law couldn't be challenged by those who were only theoretical victims.

Judge Wettick said having a gun stolen isn't enough to give someone the right to challenge the law.

"In summary, any person who is being prosecuted under this reporting ordinance may raise the argument that plaintiffs seek to raise in this litigation, namely that Pittsburgh did not have authority to enact this ordinance," he said. "But a challenge by persons who have not been and may never be charged with violating the reporting ordinance will not be considered because a court may intervene only where there is actual harm."


Ed Blazina can be reached at eblazina@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1470. Timothy McNulty can be reached at tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.


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