Pa. bill lets gun groups challenge towns' regulations in court

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HARRISBURG -- When the National Rifle Association contested Pittsburgh's 2008 ordinance requiring residents to report lost or stolen firearms, state courts dismissed the challenge, saying the group lacked legal standing.

That would change under a bill that is headed to the House floor after clearing the chamber's Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. The proposal from Rep. Mark Keller, R-Perry, would authorize state residents who can legally own firearms and their membership organizations to bring lawsuits challenging municipal firearm regulations enacted in violation of state law.

Members approved the legislation 20-5, with all Republicans and half of Democrats in support.

Supporters described the measure as an attempt to ensure consistent regulation of firearms across Pennsylvania. Rep. Dom Costa, D-Stanton Heights, said drivers would not know how laws change as they cross municipal borders.

"We can't have local municipalities going out and making their own laws," he said. "If it isn't a firearm, next it will be a cell phone and next it will be an inspection sticker on your vehicle."

Rep. Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery, disagreed, saying the bill (House bill No. 2011) could make municipalities "the target of potentially frivolous lawsuits" by groups like the NRA.

State law holds that municipalities cannot regulate the lawful ownership of firearms, but 30 towns and municipalities have adopted local ordinances requiring owners to report to police if guns are lost or stolen, according to CeaseFirePA, an advocacy group that supports gun control.

Those include Pittsburgh, which in 2008 enacted an ordinance requiring residents to report lost or stolen firearms within 24 hours of discovering they are missing. The laws are aimed in part at so-called "straw purchasers," who buy guns legally but sell or give them to others barred from such purchases.

The NRA and four local gun owners sued Pittsburgh in 2009 on the grounds that the ordinance violates state law.

But they were found to lack standing. The majority of a Commonwealth Court panel concluded the parties did not face direct and immediate harm from the regulation, and the state Supreme Court rejected the NRA's request that it hear an appeal.

Mayor Bill Peduto issued a statement opposing the legislation.

"Instead of working on ways to make our communities safer, this would do exactly the opposite," he said. "I urge legislators to join with us in shared efforts that will protect our neighbors and police officers, and not make them more prone to gun violence."

House leaders plan to raise the bill on the floor when the chamber returns to session at the end of March.

"A large majority of Pennsylvanians believe and understand you cannot have separate gun laws throughout the state," said Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans. "There can only be one law."

Gov. Tom Corbett also favors the bill.

"The governor is supportive of the effort to ensure that gun owner rights are protected from municipal ordinances that are inconsistent with Pennsylvania law," said his press secretary, Jay Pagni.

In addition to allowing gun owners and their organizations to bring lawsuits, the bill would allow the courts to award attorney fees and court costs to a party successful in suing over a municipal firearm regulation. Such expenses could be awarded even if the municipality repeals the regulation after a lawsuit is filed.

"This is to punish towns and cities who pass 'lost or stolen,' " said Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFirePA.

Karen Langley: or 1-717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley.

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