Western Pennsylvania governments rethinking their gun-control ordinances
December 22, 2014 12:00 AM
Pittsburgh is part of a lawsuit against Act 192, which started as a measure penalizing the theft of metals like copper and aluminum. The anti-gun-ordinance provisions were added in the last days of the 2013-2014 legislative session.
By Chris Potter / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Even as a courtroom battle brews over whether local governments can pass their own gun-control ordinances, Western Pennsylvania officials are striking the measures from their books.
“We’ve taken action to begin that process,” said Robert T. Callen, the Munhall borough manager. “It’s what all the municipalities are doing.”
Munhall is one of several municipalities in Western Pennsylvania that have passed “lost and stolen” ordinances -- local laws requiring gun owners to notify police when a firearm goes missing. Gun-control supporters tout the ordinances as common-sense measures to track guns used in crimes.
But critics note that Pennsylvania law defines gun regulation as solely a state responsibility. And in November, Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law Act 192, which allows Pennsylvania gun enthusiasts -- and groups that have them as members -- to sue communities that have such rules, even if the gun supporter lives somewhere else. If the lawsuit is successful, or if it’s settled, the municipality must pay the plaintiff’s legal costs.
“The NRA is so strong, and the politicians that voted in their favor are cowards,” said Homestead Mayor Betty Esper. “You can put that in the paper.”
Still, Homestead took steps to rescind its lost-and-stolen law earlier this month. West Mifflin has already struck its ordinance, while White Oak repealed an ordinance that prohibited carrying weapons on borough property.
Five other Western Pennsylvania municipalities have begun the process of removing their ordinances: Castle Shannon, Duquesne, Liberty, Munhall and Wilkinsburg. Officials in each municipality said the repeals would likely take effect next month, and were motivated by the fear of litigation prompted by Act 192.
Three municipalities -- Aliquippa, Braddock, and West Homestead -- have taken no action, though that’s not necessarily a sign of defiance.
“It may [have] been on the books but not on our radar,” said Braddock solicitor Falco Muscante.
The city of Pittsburgh has joined a lawsuit with Philadelphia and a handful of state legislators led by state Sen. Daylin Leach, a Montgomery County Democrat. The suit, which is pending in Commonwealth Court, names Gov. Tom Corbett and Republican leaders in the House and Senate.
It argues that Act 192 violates a state Constitution requirement that a bill pertain only to a single subject. In this case, Act 192 started as a measure penalizing the theft of metals like copper and aluminum: The anti-gun-ordinance provisions were added in the last days of the 2013-2014 legislative session.
Republicans fired back in a filing of their own earlier this month. The brief argues that legislators themselves voted on whether Act 192 was constitutional, and that “the court’s job is not to ’micro-manage’ the legislature.”
The filing also argues that the legislation “never wavered from its initial purpose,” in that all its provisions pertain to gun laws in one way or another. That’s because the original version of the bill defined metals theft as either a first-degree misdemeanor or felony -- and those who commit such offenses can be barred from owning a gun.
Mr. Leach and his fellow plaintiffs, the filing argues, are “using the court system to avenge their political defeat in the legislature.”
“When I want to avenge a legislative defeat, I use physical violence,” countered Mr. Leach in what can be construed -- even in Harrisburg -- as a joke.
State judges have wavered on how stringently to apply the “single-subject” requirement. The Republican filing cites a previous law, upheld by the courts, that originally addressed underage drinking but was expanded to address abortion, drug trafficking, prison lawsuits, and “the scattering of rubbish.”
Mr. Leach said more recent court decisions have taken the requirement more seriously. He called it “preposterous” to connect metals theft to the rights of local municipalities.
“If this is OK” under the constitution, he said, “it’s hard to imagine what wouldn’t be.”
Chris Potter: email@example.com or 412-263-2533.
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