HARRISBURG -- A bill fast-tracking through the General Assembly aims to send a tough message to local governments in Pennsylvania: Pass gun-control measures at your own financial peril.
The legislation would penalize municipalities -- including Philadelphia and 29 others -- that have enacted laws to curb illegal gun sales by requiring them to pay damages and penalties to plaintiffs who challenge those laws in the courts.
The bill is being applauded by the National Rifle Association and condemned by such local officials as Lancaster's mayor and Philadelphia's district attorney.
The proposal, which would expand the rights of the NRA and other interest groups to sue municipalities, easily passed the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee last week within days of its introduction and without public hearings. It could go to a full House vote as soon as March; its fate in the state Senate is unclear.
Under the bill, plaintiffs who challenge local gun-control ordinances could seek reimbursement for double their actual damages, attorney fees and costs, even if the municipality repeals the ordinance before a ruling is made in the case.
A court also may impose a $5,000 penalty and the plaintiff can seek triple damages, in addition to costs and attorney fees, if a judge finds the municipality violated the state preemption law.
Boroughs, townships and cities across the state began enacting local ordinances aimed at cracking down on illegal gun trafficking in 2008 after the General Assembly failed to take action on a statewide measure to crack down on so-called straw purchases of guns.
The ordinances in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have so far stood up to legal challenge. Six cases heard by state courts, including one that went to the state Supreme Court, found that plaintiffs -- including individuals and the NRA -- did not have standing in court to sue.
The bill addresses that issue head-on by granting such standing to any "aggrieved party" belonging to a gun rights group -- or as the bill puts it, to any "membership organization ... that is dedicated in whole or in part to protecting the legal, civil or constitutional rights of its membership."
Supporters of the measure say the local ordinances violate existing state preemption law, which bars localities from enacting their own firearms laws.
"I don't care what the court thinks, the court overstepped its bounds," said Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, the bill's lead sponsor. "Municipalities should not be allowed to represent the people by violating the law."
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said, however, that local governments should not be penalized for trying to find ways to control gun violence.
"Subjecting them to heavy monetary damages when resources are already scarce is unnecessary," Mr. Williams said.
John Hohenwarter, the NRA's Pennsylvania lobbyist, said the debate is not whether the laws have any effect on crime, but whether the ordinances in question are contrary to state law.
"I hope that municipalities recognize they will be held accountable," Mr. Hohenwarter said. "Maybe they end up removing the ordinances on their own."
Max Nacheman, director of the gun-control advocacy group CeasefirePA, contended that the bill supporters are wrong about laws already on the books.
"State law preempts local regulation of lawful use, ownership, possession, transfer, or transportation of firearms," Mr. Nacheman said. "When a gun is lost or stolen, the lawful owner no longer possesses it, and the person who does, does not possess it lawfully."
The local ordinances in question, which have been supported by state groups representing district attorneys and chiefs of police, address "straw purchasing" of guns by making it mandatory to report lost and stolen firearms.
A straw purchaser is someone with a clean record who buys guns for felons forbidden from owning them. When the guns are retrieved by police after a crime, the straw purchaser claims the weapon was lost or stolen so police are unable to file charges against the purchaser.